San Bernardino man’s death following police beating prompts unanswered questions
More than three months after a combative Alejandro Jose Felix Hernandez was subdued by police with batons and fists at a San Bernardino gas station, county coroner’s officials have reopened an investigation into his death because they were never informed of the encounter with police.
Hernandez’s death on Feb. 27 — after he had lapsed into a vegetative state — has raised a raft of troubling issues that law enforcement, the sheriff’s Coroner’s Division and the District Attorney’s Office are just now trying to unravel.
Oddly, for example, the San Bernardino Police Department did not issue a news release on the circumstances of the incident until Monday, after an inquiry by the Southern California News Group, even though the confrontation with police occurred on Dec. 22.
Additionally, the police chief does not recall being notified of the use-of-force incident by officers, as is routine, and some law enforcement officials were even unaware of Hernandez’s death until informed by a reporter.
Most troubling, perhaps, county medical examiners did not conduct an autopsy on Hernandez’s body because a doctor at one of four medical facilities that treated him said he died of natural causes, a suspected heart attack, and as a result his organs were harvested for donation.
Former San Bernardino City Councilman Benito Barrios, who is Hernandez’s uncle, said the family has retained an attorney.
“We’re still trying to piece together what happened,” Barrios said in a telephone interview. “We still don’t have medical records to see what happened to him.”
Confrontation with officers
Police were called to the Chevron gas station at 295 E. 40th St. just after midnight on Dec. 22 when Hernandez, 33, reportedly smashed his fists through a locked glass door and entered a minimart at the location, bleeding and yelling that somebody was trying to shoot him. He fought with an employee, according to the news release.
A brief struggle ensued between several police officers and Hernandez, who was combative and resisted arrest, until he ultimately was handcuffed and taken by ambulance to the hospital.
“Mr. Hernandez continued to be combative in the ambulance as well as in the hospital, as medical personnel provided treatment,” police Capt. Vicki Cervantes said in an email.
The owner of the gas station, who identified himself only as Kamal, said Monday that Hernandez “grabbed one of my employees and wouldn’t let him go. He was high or something. He was resisting arrest. There were four or five cops trying to get him to bring his hands behind his back.”
According to police reports submitted by the responding officers, Hernandez suffered extensive injuries over his entire body inflicted by “baton strikes, fists and hands,” said San Bernardino County Public Defender Chris Gardner.
Hernandez, he said, also suffered a broken leg from a baton strike and was stunned at least once with a Taser gun.
“It appears from the reports that in an attempt to subdue him, one of the officers was using knee strikes to his head with an intention of rendering him unconscious so they could take him into custody,” Gardner said.
Hernandez tested positive for “illegal narcotics” and was turned over to the care of medical professionals, police said.
Days later, police submitted their case to the District Attorney’s Office, which charged Hernandez on Dec. 26 with two felony counts of vandalism and resisting arrest. San Bernardino police Sgt. Dennis Houser and Officer Grant Miles were listed in the criminal complaint as the arresting officers.
Meanwhile, Barrios said, Hernandez was first taken to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center for treatment, then transferred to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fontana because he was insured through Kaiser. He subsequently was transferred to an extended care facility in Montclair, which the Coroner’s Division confirmed as Community Extended Care of Montclair.
When he experienced respiratory distress, Hernandez was taken to Montclair Hospital Medical Center and died shortly thereafter.
According to coroner’s officials, Hernandez’s primary care doctor at Kaiser, Norman Rogaza, informed their office on March 8 that Hernandez had died of natural causes, but did not mention a police use-of-force incident that led to his hospitalization.
Was a ball dropped?
Police Chief Jarrod Burguan, who has been out on medical leave since early January, said a ball could have been dropped between medical facilities.
“It sounds like he was transferred to at least two different facilities,” Burguan said. “There should have been some indication in his medical file that there was police use of force attached to this incident, and why a doctor would call the coroner and not pass this information on is beyond me, unless the information got lost in the medical file.”
Heather Raymond, a spokeswoman for Kaiser Fontana, declined to comment, citing federal privacy laws about patient medical information.
According to Capt. Kevin Lacy of the sheriff’s Coroner’s Division, Rogaza cited the following causes of death for Hernandez: cardiac arrhythmia, respiratory failure, nontraumatic brain injury and a heart attack. Rogaza also cited hypertension and being in a vegetative state as contributing to Hernandez’s death, but not related causes.
Lacy said the hospital released Hernandez’s body to a mortuary of his family’s choosing.
Barrios, who described himself as “like a father” to Hernandez, said the family commissioned a private autopsy, but the examiner could not reach a conclusive cause and manner of death because many of Hernandez’s organs and tissue, including his corneas, skin and heart, had already been harvested.
County coroner’s officials, meanwhile, said they will now investigate whether the injuries inflicted on Hernandez by police officers “have any bearing on the determination of cause and manner of death.”
Internal affairs probe
Meanwhile, a police internal affairs investigation is ongoing into the case.
“We investigate all use-of-force incidents involving our police officers,” acting Chief Eric McBride was quoted as saying in Monday’s news release. “It is important to me to maintain the public trust and the best way to do this is to verify that our officers’ actions are lawful and within department guidelines.”
District Attorney Jason Anderson, also surprised to hear the coroner’s division was not informed of the use-of-force incident involving Hernandez, said he reviewed video of the incident, and the police officers’ actions appeared consistent with what was in their reports, and did not appear to rise to the level of excessive force given Hernandez’s level of resistance.
Interestingly, Burguan said he does not recall ever being personally informed of the original incident.
“If we have a police use of force that results in the hospitalization of a subject, I would get notified,” he said in a telephone interview. “I don’t ever recall being told of a use of force we had in late December that resulted in the serious injury of a suspect.”
Yet despite the overarching circumstances surrounding the incident that led to Hernandez’s hospitalization and the appearance of several systemic failures until his death, Gardner said the case needs some serious scrutiny.
“There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered about what happened to him during the time of his arrest and subsequent treatment,” he said.