Death of man in Riverside County Sheriff’s custody caused by deputies’ hold, attorneys argue

Isis Elena Cabos, Ernie Serrano’s younger sister, speaks on her brother’s death while in Riverside County Sheriff’s custody the night of Dec. 15. Attorneys Humberto Guizar, left, and Christian Contreras, right, of the Justice X law firm, held a press conference Dec. 23 outside the Stater Bros. where Serrano was arrested and ultimately stopped breathing. They responded to the findings presented by Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco on Dec. 21. (Erik Galicia | Viewpoints)
By Erik Galicia

The attorneys representing the family of a Jurupa Valley man who died shortly after being arrested Dec. 15 are arguing his cause of death can be attributed to the way Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies held him down, in effect preventing him from breathing.

Ernie Serrano, 33, stopped breathing while in custody at the Stater Bros. at 5571 Mission Blvd. in the Rubidoux area after struggling with a security guard and then deputies for an extended period of time. The preliminary findings of his autopsy indicated he died of a methamphetamine overdose that led to heart arrhythmia.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said during a press conference Dec. 21 that deputies responded to calls about Serrano entering and exiting the market, attempting to make purchases without money and refusing to leave. Bianco presented Stater Bros. security footage and one of the deputy’s body camera footage.

In the footage, Serrano is seen struggling with the guard for several minutes before deputies arrive. When they arrived, deputies struggled with Serrano, struck him with batons and tased him twice before handcuffing him, placing a spit shield around his head and holding him down on a checkout counter conveyor belt. A bloody Serrano is heard saying he is unable to breathe minutes before deputies acknowledge he stopped breathing.

Although he commended Bianco for releasing the footage, attorney Humberto Guizar of the Justice X law firm said the idea that Serrano died solely as a result of drug use is ridiculous.

“You can’t say it’s just drugs when they’re holding him in that position where he can’t breathe,” he said during a press conference outside the Stater Bros. on Dec. 23. “They put a mask on his face when he says he can’t breathe, he has blood in his mouth and is choking on his own blood.”

Guizar argued that deputies are trained to recognize when someone cannot breathe and should have turned Serrano over once he was handcuffed. Serrano’s facedown positioning on the conveyor belt, along with factors such as elevated heart rate and the shock of the situation, led to positional asphyxia, he said.

“Any forensic pathologist will be able to say this is positional asphyxia,” Guizar said. “We see his cause of death in the video.”

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)

The attorney also emphasized that deputies knew Serrano had an elevated heart rate and was under the influence of stimulants due to an incident the night prior to his death. Deputies responded to a domestic disturbance call involving Serrano on Dec. 14, when they arrested him after a struggle and noted he seemed to be under the influence. Two deputies sustained minor injuries that night.

Guizar said Stater Bros. , the security company and Riverside County will be sued. The attorney and Serrano’s family disputed the sheriff’s claims that Serrano attempted to grab the guard’s firearm during their struggle.

“I want to see the 911 tapes,” Guizar said. “I want to hear what they said when they called and said, ‘We need assistance.’”

Christian Contreras, another Justice X attorney, called the claim that Serrano attempted to grab the guard’s gun a flat out lie, as there is no evidence for it. The attorneys and family members emphasized that the footage shows no indication that Serrano attempted to strike anyone.

Isis Elena Cabos, Serrano’s younger sister, responded to disparaging social media comments about her brother, some of which say he brought the situation on himself because of his drug use.

“I see a lot of comments about my brother that he was a nobody, that he was a drug addict,” Cabos said as she wept. “That shouldn’t take away his rights as a human. He was still loved. He didn’t deserve that.”

Maria Lowrie, Serrano’s mother, said she is fighting to ensure this does not happen again.

“You had the b—- to kill my son,” she said about the deputies. “Have the b—- to stand up for what you did. I don’t care if he was on coke or meth. That was my son.”

Guizar called for the Riverside County District Attorney, who will ultimately review the incident, to charge the deputies involved with involuntary manslaughter at the very least. The Sheriff’s Department is conducting an internal investigation of the incident to decide if the use of force was justified.

Sgt. Albert Martinez, Sheriff’s Department spokesman, said the deputies involved had not been placed on leave as of Dec. 23. Guizar said he expects to file the lawsuit as early as Dec. 24.

The Serrano family holds up photos and signs commemorating Ernie Serrano as attorneys Humberto Guizar, left, and Christian Contreras, right, argue Serrano died as a result of positional asphyxiation at the hands of Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies. (Erik Galicia | Viewpoints)

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