Sheriff says overdose caused death of man after altercation with deputies in Riverside County

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco watches as surveillance footage of an altercation between deputies and Ernie Serrano, 33, of Jurupa Valley, plays at the Sheriff’s Department building Dec. 21. Serrano stopped breathing during the incident and later died at a hospital. (Erik Galicia | Viewpoints)
By Erik Galicia

Preliminary findings in the case of a Jurupa Valley man who died after an altercation with police indicated his cause of death was acute methamphetamine intoxication leading to fatal arrhythmia during the incident.

Ernie Serrano, 33, was pronounced dead in a hospital the night of Dec. 15 after a long struggle with a security guard and then deputies at the Stater Bros. Market at 5571 Mission Blvd. in the Rubidoux area.

Serrano’s autopsy found contusions on his chin and extremities consistent with baton and taser strikes, but no broken bones or evidence of asphyxiation, Sheriff Chad Bianco said during a press conference Dec. 21.

According to Bianco, deputies received calls at around 6:11 p.m. and later again at 8:29 p.m. Dec. 15 about Serrano going in and out of the market, cutting in line and wandering around the parking lot. Bianco said Serrano refused to leave and attempted to grab the guard’s holstered firearm during their struggle. The security guard then pepper sprayed and tased Serrano, with little effect.

A cell phone video of the incident widely circulated on social media shows responding deputies striking Serrano repeatedly with a baton before tackling him. Bianco argued that the video is misleading.

“The narrative being spread, particularly on social media, is factually inaccurate and does not provide a complete picture of the incident,” Bianco said.

At the Riverside Sheriff’s Department building, Bianco played audioless surveillance footage provided by Stater Bros., as well as footage from one of the deputy’s body cameras. The surveillance footage shows Serrano in a lengthy struggle with the guard before deputies arrived and struck him repeatedly with batons and restrained him over a checkout counter conveyor belt.

Bianco said deputies tased Serrano twice before subduing him.

The body camera footage shows Serrano struggling with officers, bleeding from his face and screaming “let me go” and “I can’t breathe” minutes before deputies are heard acknowledging he stopped breathing. Paramedics are then seen performing CPR on Serrano near one of the market’s entrances.

Bianco also reported Serrano was arrested Dec. 14, the night before the incident, after another altercation with deputies who said he appeared to be under the influence. The sheriff said two deputies sustained minor injuries during their struggle with Serrano that night.

Humberto Guizar, the attorney representing the Serrano family, said he will be showing the footage to a forensic pathologist but will not be seeking another autopsy.

“I don’t need to do an independent autopsy,” he said. “The footage is evidence that their conduct caused (Serrano’s) death.”

Guizar argued Bianco showed the footage in an attempt to dehumanize Serrano and create the impression that the deputies’ conduct can be absolved. He also said police training suggests officers avoid positioning that might keep a detainee who is under the influence from breathing properly.

According to the attorney, the position Serrano was held in on the checkout counter may have caused his lungs to constrict.

“They had him under control,” Guizar said about the way Serrano was pinned by officers on the conveyor belt. “Why not sit him up? Why not turn him on his side? They treated him like a dog. There’s a good chance a jury will not like what they see.”

Guizar also noted the footage shows no evidence that Serrano threw any punches or kicks during the altercation. Bianco said there may have been kicking during the struggle, but did not confirm any notable attempts at striking by Serrano.

Michelle Castillo, Serrano’s aunt, called the incident an example of modern day genocide against indigenous people, Latinos and Chicanos. Regardless of the autopsy’s findings, she said, Serrano was a human being and did not deserve to die in that manner.

Castillo does not buy the sheriff’s description of the struggle.

“We all know it’s lies,” she said. “We all know how they cover things up. It’s not the first time and it’s not the last time. This is just the time it happened to our family.”

Bianco said an internal investigation will decide if the deputies’ use of force was justified and that the incident will ultimately be reviewed by the Riverside County District Attorney.

Stater Bros. surveillance footage shows deputies holding Serrano down on a checkout counter conveyor belt with a spit shield around his head. Deputies acknowledged that Serrano stopped breathing while on the conveyor belt. (Stater Bros. security footage)