‘The fam­ily still wants jus­tice’

In­mate ar­rested 15 months after Fresno jail slay­ing

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JA­SON POHL AND RYAN GABRIEL­SON [email protected] Ryan.Gabriel­[email protected]

Pros­e­cu­tors in Fresno County have charged a man with mur­der­ing a 19-year-old jail in­mate more than a year ago, newly filed court records show, but de­tec­tives say they’re still try­ing to de­ter­mine if there are ad­di­tional sus­pects.

Lorenzo Her­rera was choked to death in the Fresno County Main Jail on March 24, 2018.

Mc­Clatchy and ProPublica de­tailed Her­rera’s case, and the mys­tery sur­round­ing it, in an April ar­ti­cle, the first in a se­ries ex­am­in­ing con­di­tions inside Cal­i­for­nia jails after his­toric prison re­forms, called re­align­ment, which di­verted thou­sands of con­victs to county cus­tody. His death was among 11 in the county’s jails last year — the dead­li­est year in re­cent his­tory — and it went unsolved and with­out sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic up­dates for months.

Pros­e­cu­tors in the spring charged Alex Pacheco with first-de­gree mur­der. On June 26, Pacheco was trans­ferred back to Fresno County’s jail from the state prison where he was serv­ing a sen­tence for rob­bery, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments

filed last week in an on­go­ing fed­eral law­suit.

Pacheco, 29, is the only per­son charged in Her­rera’s mur­der. He pleaded not guilty at his ar­raign­ment last month. The records don’t de­tail whether Pacheco was the vic­tim’s cell­mate or what the mo­tive was.

“This fam­ily still wants jus­tice for their son and wants to make sure some­thing like this never hap­pens again,” Alexis Amezcua, an at­tor­ney rep­re­sent­ing Her­rera’s fam­ily in a law­suit against the county, said in an in­ter­view Tues­day.

At the time of Her­rera’s death, Pacheco was in the Fresno County Jail await­ing trial on the 2015 rob­bery and as­sault case. Pacheco broke into the back­yard of a preg­nant woman’s home in Fresno, forced her inside, choked her and then stole thou­sands of dol­lars be­fore flee­ing. He was con­victed and sen­tenced in July 2018 to 14 years in prison, court records show.

Pacheco is due in court on Her­rera’s mur­der Aug. 21.

The in­crease in vi­o­lence and death in Fresno County lock­ups started soon after the state was or­dered in 2011 by the U.S. Supreme Court to re­duce its prison pop­u­la­tion. That’s when Cal­i­for­nia of­fi­cials ap­proved re­align­ment, send­ing peo­ple con­victed of felonies that are non­vi­o­lent, non­sex­ual and non­se­ri­ous to serve prison sen­tences in county jails rather than state prisons.

While de­creas­ing the over­load in state prisons, the re­sults in county jails across Cal­i­for­nia have been deadly. Many sher­iffs’ of­fices, which run nearly all jails in the state, have strug­gled to han­dle the in­flux men­tally ill and high-risk in­mates in­car­cer­ated for longer sen­tences than the jails have ever dealt with be­fore. Sev­eral county jail sys­tems, in­clud­ing Fresno’s, were al­ready un­der court or­ders for vi­o­lat­ing the con­sti­tu­tional rights of peo­ple in their cells. In­mates are dy­ing in markedly higher num­bers.

No other jail in Cal­i­for­nia has seen a sharper in­crease in in­mate deaths than the Fresno County Jail, whose three build­ings house more than 3,000 in­mates. In the seven years be­fore re­align­ment, 23 in­mates died in jail cus­tody, data from the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Jus­tice shows. That fig­ure more than dou­bled to 47 deaths dur­ing the seven years after the state shifted more re­spon­si­bil­ity to the county jails.

Only one Fresno County in­mate killed an­other in the seven years be­fore re­align­ment. Since then, four have died at the hands of other in­mates.

In ad­di­tion to the 11 Fresno County in­mates, in­clud­ing Her­rera, who died last year from drug and al­co­hol with­drawal, sui­cide, med­i­cal com­pli­ca­tions and mur­der, 13 oth­ers were beaten and hos­pi­tal­ized for mul­ti­ple days, court records show.

At­tor­neys filed a wrong­ful death law­suit on be­half of Her­rera’s par­ents in fed­eral court in 2018, ar­gu­ing that the teen was wrongly placed in the pod with vi­o­lent de­fen­dants, and that de­spite a 2015 court or­der, the jail’s in­ad­e­quate staffing lev­els left ar­eas un­mon­i­tored and un­safe for both in­mates and cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers.

The sher­iff’s of­fice has turned over 13,000 pages of doc­u­ments, nearly 1,000 pho­to­graphs and “sev­eral hours” of video footage and au­dio record­ings, ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ments sub­mit­ted last week. Pacheco’s ar­rest was noted for the first time in a pro­ce­dural fil­ing in that law­suit.

A jury trial is scheduled for 2021. The county has de­nied all wrong­do­ing in its court fil­ings.

“They miss their son,” Amezcua said. “No­body wants to have to go through this sort of lit­i­ga­tion. But they’re pre­pared to do it.”

Her­rera was booked into Fresno County’s jail in Jan­uary 2018 on bur­glary and as­sault charges after he and two other young men al­legedly smashed into a home south­east of Fresno and then evaded law en­force­ment. Po­lice said Her­rera pointed a gun at an of­fi­cer be­fore sur­ren­der­ing.

Her­rera had no pre­vi­ous crim­i­nal his­tory, ac­cord­ing to court records.

The jail clas­si­fied Her­rera as a gang mem­ber and as­signed him to one of the pods for max­i­mum se­cu­rity in­mates. An in­take photo showed Her­rera hold­ing a dry-erase board iden­ti­fy­ing him­self as a “North­erner” from Reed­ley, a sub­sect of the Norteños street gang.

His fa­ther, Car­los Her­rera, saw the im­age as a sur­vival tac­tic and said self-iden­ti­fy­ing as a gang mem­ber is part of liv­ing in the Cen­tral Val­ley and be­ing His­panic. “My son wasn’t no gang mem­ber,” Her­rera said in an in­ter­view this year.

Her­rera sur­vived the vi­o­lent chaos of the Fresno County Jail for 66 days, in­clud­ing liv­ing through a brawl that left an­other in­mate un­con­scious. Then, on an af­ter­noon in March, jail of­fi­cers found him dead in a cell.

Though the killer was some­one in cus­tody, of­fi­cials were silent about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion for much of the past year. De­tails emerged only in a trickle of court doc­u­ments and spo­radic in­ter­views.

De­tec­tives with the Fresno County Sher­iff’s Of­fice said they had in­ter­viewed ev­ery in­mate who was de­tained with Her­rera. And ac­cord­ing to a March court fil­ing, they had been await­ing DNA test re­sults from ev­i­dence.

The Fresno County Sher­iff’s Of­fice did not an­nounce Pacheco’s ar­rest in the jail­house slay­ing, as would be typ­i­cal in high-pro­file or unsolved homi­cides. Tony Botti, a depart­ment spokesman, on Tues­day said do­ing so “could jeop­ar­dize other leads we are look­ing into.”

“We con­tinue to in­ves­ti­gate this case,” he said.

Fresno Bee file

On Thurs­day, Sept. 20, 2018, Anna Her­rera holds a photo of her son, Lorenzo, while her hus­band, Car­los Her­rera, tells re­porters out­side Fresno fed­eral court that they sup­port a wrong­ful death law­suit against Fresno County in the killing of their son inside the down­town jail.

Lorenzo Her­rera

Alex Pacheco

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