By Erik Galicia
The attorneys representing the family of Ernie Serrano, a man who died in Riverside County Sheriff’s custody Dec. 15, are calling for increased transparency from the district attorney in his investigation of the controversial incident.
Justice X law firm attorneys and family members spoke outside the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office on Jan. 15, the doors of which were locked that morning, arguing the department has left them in the dark on the details of the investigation.
“We are demanding that the DA come out and meet with us,” said attorney Humberto Guizar. “They have not reached out to (Serrano’s) mother. They haven’t even called her to tell her, ‘Hey, we feel your pain.’”
Serrano, 33, was accused of behaving erratically inside a Stater Bros. market in the Rubidoux area, where he engaged in a struggle with the security guard and then deputies.
According to Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, deputies were told Serrano attempted to grab the guard’s holstered firearm. The family’s attorneys have noted that the video footage released of the incident shows no indication that Serrano ever attempted to grab the guard’s weapon or strike anyone.
Serrano was tased multiple times and struck with batons before being subdued on a checkout counter conveyor belt, face down, handcuffed and with a spit shield around his head. In the footage, he is heard saying he cannot breathe. A few minutes later, deputies are heard acknowledging Serrano stopped breathing. They then removed the spit shield and paramedics performed CPR, but Serrano did not survive the night.
Preliminary autopsy findings indicated Serrano died of methamphetamine intoxication that led to arrhythmia. The family’s attorneys have argued the footage is evidence that Serrano was asphyxiated by the positioning deputies subdued him in. They are calling for murder charges to be brought against the deputies involved and have filed a lawsuit against the county.
The Stater Bros., located at 5571 Mission Blvd, is also being sued and has become a site for multiple community rallies demanding justice for police violence against minorities.
“What’s happened here is systemic,” attorney Stephen King said. “It’s the Blacks and the browns that are mistreated by law enforcement. Then, the district attorneys, they turn the other cheek. We want answers.”
Guizar said he has reached out to Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin several times, but has not received an answer.
John Hall, the department’s public information officer, said Hestrin has responded to Guizar in writing and sent a letter out to him earlier this week. He added that an investigation into whether or not the deputies involved deserve criminal culpability has been launched.
“We ask for the public’s patience, as our office is committed to an impartial pursuit of the truth, wherever that may lead,” Hall said via email. “Our office has established no opinion about the prospect of a prosecution and our decision will be made only after a thorough and concise review of all the evidence. At this time, we have no timeframe as to when any determination will be made by our office.”
The Sheriff’s Department is conducting an internal investigation into whether or not the actions of the deputies involved abided by the department’s policies. Sgt. Albert Martinez, Sheriff’s Department spokesman, said there is no timeframe for when the internal investigation will conclude. Guizar said he has not been able to obtain the names of the deputies, none of whom were placed on leave.
Serrano’s uncle Serafin Serrano, and his cousin Natalia Serrano, have been active in rallying for justice in the streets of Riverside. In recent weeks, they have battled criticism of Serrano as being a drug addict who brought the situation on himself. They read Serrano’s poetry, urging recognition of his humanity.
“I don’t care what anyone says about my cousin,” Natalia Serrano said. “He was one of the most amazing people I ever met. He was more than just a suspect or a criminal. He was a human being who struggled.”
Serafin Serrano, who raised his nephew for some time as an adolescent, held up a snapshot of a deputy’s body camera footage that shows a bloody Serrano being held down on the checkout counter. He asked community members to think about what they would want done if they were in a similar place.
As Guizar waits for Hestrin’s letter to arrive in the mail, he is demanding the district attorney meet with the family and its legal team.
“Sit across the aisle from us so we can look at your demeanor and you could answer our questions,” he said. “We’ll see how transparent you are. Don’t hide from us.”