A documentary series airing Friday on Hulu takes a closer look at several controversial deaths involving Kern County law enforcement.
“Killing County,” which has ex-NFL player Colin Kaepernick as executive producer, features interviews with family of Jorge Ramirez, a police informant fatally shot by officers outside the Four Points Sheraton on California Avenue in 2013 after leading police to the location of a parolee.
A Hulu synopsis says, “In Bakersfield, deep in California’s heartland, things are not always what they seem. A deadly hotel shooting makes the Ramirez family question everything they know about their town. Desperate to find out what really happened to their loved one, they soon learn they are not alone in their tragedy and fight for the truth. It’s a story of twists and turns, corruption and cover up. Who do you turn to when the ones who are supposed to serve and protect you are the ones you can’t trust?”
The city later settled a lawsuit brought by the family.
Ramirez’s father, Jorge Ramirez Sr., told KTLA sister station KGET in 2018 the money didn’t matter and he wanted the officers criminally charged.
“I lost faith in the system completely,” he said. “I believe that justice has not been served.”
Among those interviewed for the three-part series are disgraced former Bakersfield police detective Damacio Diaz and former KGET reporter Olivia LaVoice, who provided in-depth coverage on the Ramirez incident as well as other cases the series will touch on.
Diaz, whose role on McFarland High School’s 1987 championship cross country team was documented in the film “McFarland, USA,” was sentenced in 2016 to five years in prison after pleading guilty to stealing methamphetamine and marijuana and giving them to a local businessman to distribute. Another BPD detective, Patrick Mara, also pleaded guilty to the scheme and received five years.
“I was wrong, and I admit that today,” Diaz said in a trailer for the series.
“I began to not only bend the rules, I began to cross the line,” he said.
Another incident spotted in the trailer is the May 7, 2013, confrontation outside Kern Medical between law enforcement and David Sal Silva. Deputies who responded to reports of an intoxicated man outside the hospital tried to wake Silva, who fought with deputies and a police dog. Silva was hit with batons and bitten multiple times.
After handcuffing Silva, deputies, with the assistance of California Highway Patrol officers, used a hobble restraint on his legs and placed a spit mask on his face. Silva vomited and the mask was removed.
Deputies rolled him to his side and repeatedly checked his pulse, unable to find one the third time. Silva was pronounced dead within an hour of the altercation.
A pathologist determined Silva, 33, died as a result of hypertensive heart disease, noting there was amphetamine, methamphetamine and the muscle relaxant Phenazepam in his system, as well as a blood alcohol level of 0.095%.
Silva’s family sued, alleging wrongful death and excessive force. They alleged deputies caused Silva to die by asphyxiation by pressing down on him throughout the incident.
A $3.4 million settlement was reached in 2016.
The California Department of Justice mounted investigations into both the Bakersfield Police Department and Kern County Sheriff’s Office in response to allegations of unlawful policing practices. Settlements with both agencies stipulated they make specified changes to promote public safety and increase transparency and accountability.
At the time of the BPD settlement, Police Chief Greg Terry said, “The agreement is detailed, and in many instances, exceeds state law, reflecting improvements that the Police Department has already made or was already in the process of making on its own.”
A BPD incident that provoked outrage occurred in connection with the Nov. 13, 2014, death of Ramiro James Villegas, whom police shot after a chase that ended when he crashed at Highway 178 and the Mount Vernon off-ramp.
Police said they shot Villegas after he reached toward his waistband while approaching them. A gun wasn’t found on him.
It wasn’t so much the shooting as what occurred afterward that led to national headlines and calls for accountability.
A police trainee reported then-Senior Officer Aaron Stringer tickled Villegas’ corpse and moved its head while the body was kept in a room at Kern Medical. Criminal charges weren’t filed due to insufficient evidence.
Police later confirmed Stringer was no longer with the department as of 2015.
The December 2016 killing of 73-year-old Francisco Serna in southwest Bakersfield also received heightened scrutiny.
Police were called to a report of a man armed with a gun who approached a woman at night after she was dropped off at her home. Officers arrived and the woman pointed Serna out.
Serna walked toward officers with his hands in his pockets, ignoring commands to stop. An officer backed up until blocked by a fence and warned Serna he would shoot if he didn’t stop. Serna continued moving toward him, hands in pockets.
The officer fired, hitting Serna five times. He died at the scene.
His pockets didn’t contain a weapon, just a faux wood crucifix. Serna’s family reported he suffered from dementia and had been out for a walk.
Then-Police Chief Lyle Martin, upon announcing months later the shooting had been found justified, noted police had twice been told by witnesses that Serna was armed with a revolver and acted on the information they possessed at the time.
The Serna family sued, and the city agreed to pay $400,000 as part of a settlement.
A case involving two deputies resulted in federal and state criminal convictions.
Former Deputies Logan August and Derrick Penney conspired to put hundreds of pounds of marijuana stolen from a Sheriff’s Office evidence room back on the street.
August stole the high-grade marijuana in March 2015 and falsified evidence destruction forms and sheriff’s reports. Penney signed the reports for approval in the Sheriff’s Office computer system, according to court filings.
On Aug. 7, 2017, following an FBI investigation into the stolen drugs, August and Penney pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana and were sentenced to probation.
A Kern County District Attorney’s office investigation, however, revealed the deputies stole an additional 350 pounds of marijuana than was originally believed. That and other allegations led to state charges against the two men.
August was sentenced to four years in prison, Penney to 90 days in jail.
Several crashes involving law enforcement have over the years resulted in litigation.
One of the more prominent instances involved Deputy John Swearengin, who in 2011 drove at more than 80 mph in a 45-mph zone in Oildale as he responded to a call of a stolen vehicle. He took his eyes off the road as he reached for his radio and hit Daniel Hiler, 24, and Chrystal Jolley, 30. Both died at the scene. They had been pushing a motorcycle across Norris Road.
Initially charged with two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter, Swearengin pleaded no contest to one count of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to 480 hours of community service and three years’ probation.
The crash resulted in a lawsuit against the county, with the Hiler and Jolley families settling for $8.8 million.
Another deadly crash involving a deputy occurred in Oildale on Sept. 24, 2014.
Deputy Nicholas Clerico ran a red light while traveling 85 mph on North Chester Avenue and collided with a vehicle driven by Nancy Joyce Garrett, killing her.
Clerico had his lights and siren activated at the time of the crash, but the CHP found the speed he was traveling minimized their effectiveness. He had been on his way to assist another deputy who had called for assistance in connection with a fight at the Long Branch Saloon.
The CHP found Clerico at fault. Clerico in 2017 pleaded no contest to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to 240 hours of community service. He was no longer with the sheriff’s office by the time he accepted the plea agreement.
Garrett’s family settled a lawsuit against the county for $2.5 million.
Last month, 31-year-old Mario Lares was killed and 34-year-old Ana Hernandez seriously injured when a BPD vehicle collided with their vehicle on South Vineland and Muller roads. That crash remains under investigation.
The families of Lares and Hernandez have retained attorneys.