The family of a convicted felon who died after being taken into custody following a confrontation with Riverside County sheriff’s deputies at a Jurupa Valley supermarket announced lawsuits Wednesday against the county and the store.
“They already had him in handcuffs. His diaphragm could not allow his lungs to breathe,” attorney Humberto Guizar said during a briefing outside Stater Bros. at 5571 Mission Blvd., where 33-year-old Ernie Teddy Serrano was taken into custody and collapsed unconscious on Dec. 15.
He was pronounced dead a short time later at Riverside Community Hospital.
“They made his body a deadly weapon that they used,” Guizar alleged. “They put his body in a position where he couldn’t get a breath. They used his own body to kill him.”
Serrano’s mother, Maria Lowrie, told reporters she is filled with a deep sense of bitterness and loss.
“It’s wrong what was done to my son,” she said. “You don’t know how it hurts to see him like that.”
The pending civil actions came two days after Sheriff Chad Bianco held an hourlong news conference, detailing the circumstances behind the confrontation with Serrano, who had just been released from the Robert Presley Detention Center.
“It is a sad and tragic event for all of us. My condolences go out to the family,” Bianco said.
He said an initial autopsy indicated Serrano had methamphetamine, marijuana and other drugs in his system.
“The death was determined to be acute methamphetamine intoxication with fatal arrhythmia,” the sheriff said.
Several parallel investigations are underway, with the District Attorney’s Office taking the lead on the use-of-force decisions on the part of the half-dozen responding deputies.
Bianco said encounters with Serrano began on the evening of Dec. 14, when the suspect’s family called 911 complaining that he was “not acting rationally, and was `out of control.”’
Deputies went to the residence and found Serrano — whose prior convictions included assault on a peace officer — “belligerent, aggressive and displaying obvious signs of being under the influence,” the sheriff said.
“Deputies used a Taser to force Mr. Serrano to comply,” Bianco said. “He was treated at a local hospital and taken to the Robert Presley Detention Center.”
Because the county correctional system is operating under court-mandated capacity limitations due to the coronavirus public health emergency, Serrano was released on his own recognizance the following morning.
That evening, he went to the Stater Bros., and for the next “two to three hours” floated in and out of the store, exhibiting bizarre behavior, “cutting in front of people in the shopping aisles” and on several occasions trying to buy goods by offering his driver’s license as a payment device, according to the sheriff.
Bianco showed two videos — one from a deputy-worn body camera, the other from store security surveillance tape — that documented the final 30 minutes of what transpired in the business.
The tape showed the suspect going from one checkout lane to another, stepping in front of customers or attempting to conduct a transaction while others were handling their own. Multiple store employees, including managers, engaged Serrano, gesturing for him to leave or move aside. No one appeared aggressive as the suspect aimlessly wandered back and forth, holding a bag of groceries.
An armed security guard confronted Serrano in a checkout lane and tried to escort him out of the store, at which point a tussle ensued.
Over five to 10 minutes, the guard and Serrano fought, with the latter battling the guard’s attempts to pull him toward the front of the store. The guard deployed both a Taser and pepper spray to subdue Serrano, whom Bianco alleged “tried to remove the guard’s handgun.”
The non-lethal products had no effect on the suspect, and when deputies rushed into the business, the struggle was still in full swing, according to the videos.
“Our deputies intervened and tried to detain Mr. Serrano, but he did not comply,” Bianco said. “A Taser was used, and he fell to the ground, but then he got back on his feet.”
Images showed a deputy using his baton on the suspect’s right arm and leg to make him desist, but Serrano seemed impervious to the strikes. Another deputy then tackled the suspect, and with the help of three others, corralled him, pushing him onto a checkout counter, using two sets of handcuffs to restrain him.
“My name is Ernie Serrano!” the suspect shouted, giving his date of birth. “Let me go! Let me go!”
Serrano was bleeding from a gash over his left eye, and the blood was flowing into his mouth, prompting him to spit numerous times. As a health precaution, a “spit shield” was placed over his head, according to Bianco.
“Take the mask off!” Serrano said, coughing and seemingly short of breath. “I can’t breathe.”
A deputy who was involved in the prior day’s arrest noted that when he and his partner took Serrano to a hospital for a pre-booking medical examination, “his heart rate was like 190.”
As deputies were holding Serrano on the checkout counter, he abruptly went silent and limp, at which point a corporal yelled, “He’s stopped breathing.”
Serrano was laid on the floor, where CPR was started by deputies, then taken over by Cal Fire paramedics.
“He was still a human being and still loved,” his sister, Isis Campos, told reporters. “They shouldn’t take away his rights as a human.”
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