Riverside County sheriff lied about inmate deaths to avoid lawsuits, new suit alleges
The family of Richard Matus Jr., who is counted among the record-breaking number of deaths in Riverside County jails last year, has sued the sheriff's department, alleging it failed to provide him with adequate medical treatment, then illegally misreported information to state officials in a scheme to avoid lawsuits.
The suit filed Thursday in federal court seeks unspecified damages for several alleged civil rights violations and includes a claim that Sheriff Chad Bianco's harsh public statements after Matus' death amount to harassment.
The sheriff's department did not respond to a request for comment, and a county spokesperson said officials had not been served with the lawsuit and could not comment.
Among the suit's claims is that the sheriff's department schemed to falsify required reports to the state Department of Justice, misclassifying the incarcerated who died as having been sentenced when, in fact, none of them had been, in hope to prevent subsequent lawsuits.
"All men and women who died in the custody of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department were pretrial detainees — and what is clear is that the county, the sheriff’s department, Sheriff Bianco and his subordinates were deliberately indifferent towards their safety and protection," said Denisse Gastélum, the lawyer who filed the suit on behalf of Matus' mother, Lisa Matus, and his two children, ages 14 and 10.
Evidence gathered for the lawsuit shows that in some cases the sheriff's department is daily doing only two of the 24 hourly safety checks of each cell required by law, Gastélum said during a press conference Friday.
"The jails are being run like street corners, evidence is showing," she said. "In what's supposed to be a secured facility, we're hearing people say: 'Heroin is in cell one, fentanyl in cell seven.' Who is watching the shop?"
In effect, Gastélum said, the incarcerated are running these facilities instead of the sheriff's department, to deadly effect.
She revealed new details about two other deaths in jails:
Gastélum said security footage showed Kaushal Niroula, who was transgender, was strangled by her cellmate while other inmates ran in fear from the scene. She lay dead, Gastélum said, for an hour and fifteen minutes before guards at the jail acted on word from an inmate that Niroula needed help. Niroula's cellmate, previously convicted sex offender Rodney Ronald Sanchez, pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 75 years to life.
In another case, Gastélum said, a man who had exhibited suicidal behavior and was in a safety cell died after ingesting a pencil, a toothbrush and two plastic bags of soap, despite the fact he was supposed to be monitored.
"I've been doing this for 13 years," Gastélum said. "My expert witnesses and I have never seen anything like this. They have incompetent staff. And Bianco doesn't care."
‘Fight this to the end’
The Matus family is the first among seven who are preparing to file nearly identical suits against the sheriff's department in the coming months.
Richard and his brother Raymond Matus were charged as codefendants in a 2018 attempted murder and robbery case. They had been incarcerated in the county's jail system ever since, with Richard Matus serving as his own attorney after numerous delays to the case reaching a trial courtroom.
On Aug. 11, Lisa Matus received a call from Raymond Matus, who told her Richard had been found dead in his cell. Raymond Matus said he had been questioned by deputies in the jail about whether his brother had any medical conditions, to which he said no. Deputies told him his brother had died but did not notify relatives outside the facility.
Lisa Matus then faced a series of challenges confirming if the worst was true, ultimately requiring a county judge to order the sheriff's department to provide her with Richard's possessions and legal materials he kept in his cell pertinent to her surviving son's ongoing case. She was not permitted to see Richard Matus' remains until his burial two months after his death.
The sheriff's department has since released scant information, saying Matus was found around 11:30 p.m. unresponsive in his cell at the Cois M. Byrd Detention Center in Murrieta, and was pronounced dead around 12:15. The department's medical examiner has ruled the death an overdose, one of several that have fueled the record number of deaths in the jails last year.
Lisa Matus is not alone in the challenges she has faced to get basic information about her son's final days.
In December, the sheriff's department reported the death of the 18th inmate in its custody that year, the most the department has ever reported and the same number that triggered a state audit of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department the year before.
Matus' family is among several who banded together last year in the wake of the deaths of incarcerated relatives, demanding more oversight and outside investigations of the sheriff's department. With the support of criminal justice advocacy groups, they petitioned the board of supervisors and some state departments to intervene.
None of the supervisors have responded to the families or made any public effort to address the surge in jail deaths.
But the lawsuit comes a month after California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced his office was opening an investigation of the sheriff's department related, in part, to the jail deaths and possible civil rights violations connected to them. People within the sheriff's department said Bonta's investigators sought in-custody death investigation files from the department's administrators last week.
Bianco decried the investigation in a recorded video as politically motivated and a waste of resources, while saying his department will be transparent with attorney general's investigators.
Lisa Matus said Friday that she and other families were hurt by Bianco's statements, vowing it's hardened their resolve to support the state's investigation no matter its findings.
"Bianco says this is a waste of resources and it’s a waste of time," she said. "To us, my whole family, you’ve basically said that all of these people who have died are a waste of time. That's wrong and that's hurtful."
She shared the story during the press conference of having to tell Richard's daughter of his death when she arrived home from her first day of eighth grade.
"We've never received a condolence from the department," said Matus. "Bianco said he's going to fight this to the end. So are we."
Few details released
As The Desert Sun has reported, the 2022 inmate death toll was higher than in any year over the previous decade. The sheriff's department gave the public little information about the deaths, including in many cases not publicly identifying those who died.
In addition, the sheriff's department illegally failed to report several jail deaths within the 10-day timeline required by California law, and when it did, it reported falsely that the inmates who had died had been sentenced. They were, in fact, awaiting trial. The vast majority of inmates in the county's jails have not been sentenced for the crimes they are charged with.
The sheriff's department refused to respond to The Desert Sun's inquiries about why the reports were late and inaccurate.
Gastélum said the department falsified the reports to downplay civil rights violations by the sheriff's department.
The allegation is based on court rulings that law-enforcement agencies are constitutionally required to give even greater care to the security of people who are incarcerated but not yet convicted. Unlike inmates at a state prison, most of those incarcerated at county jails are awaiting trial.
Gastélum said it's harder to prove a case alleging jail administrators' neglect is to blame for an inmate death when the person had already been convicted and sentenced, which is why the sheriff's department reported false information.
Last fall, Bianco posted on Facebook in response to an article written by The Press-Enterprise that the families of the dead inmates should take responsibility and that "The only 'bad' person in this entire scenario is the attorney." He stated in another article that the deaths were "out of anyone's control."
Gastélum said the statements amount to harassment of the Matus family and their legal counsel, and shows that Bianco is incapable of investigating the deaths impartially and unwilling to admit his department has the ability to stop them.
Christian Contreras, who is on Matus' legal team, said he finds the Facebook comments disturbing in what they suggest about how Bianco approaches his job as elected sheriff.
"It's Bianco's job, his responsibility, to stop this record number of deaths," Contreras said. "Instead, he attacks everyone else. That's the classical trait of a narcissist. Instead of getting on Facebook, why don't you do your job?"
An unofficial count kept by The Desert Sun shows four additional inmates have died this year.
Christopher Damien covers public safety and the criminal justice system. He can be reached at email@example.com or follow him at @chris_a_damien.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Riverside County sheriff lied about inmate deaths, new lawsuit alleges