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SD Sheriff's Dept. withholds multiple jail fentanyl OD death records

San Diego Sheriff's Department jail
Posted at 4:55 PM, May 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-05 22:49:22-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - As ABC 10News has been reporting, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department is battling a staggering number of inmate deaths. For months, ABC 10News has pressed the department for details about the surge in suspected fentanyl drug overdoses behind bars. Questions have been raised as to how the deadly drug continues to make its way inside jails.

Seven months ago, ABC 10News began filing public records requests for details about inmates’ overdose cases. They date back to the early days of the pandemic. There were seven inmates at George Bailey Detention Center who overdosed but survived.

Others were less fortunate, like 41-year-old Omar Hasenin, 41-year-old Jerry Aleman, and 35-year-old Robert Whitlock who all died at George Bailey Detention Center.

There was also 31-year-old Adam Roger and 24-year-old Ronaldino Estrada who both died at the Vista Detention Facility.

At the San Diego Central Jail, there was 35-year-old Blake Wilson and 22-year-old Saxon Rodriguez.

“His death was 100 percent preventable,” said Rogriguez’s sister, Sabrina Weddle. The shirt that she wore to ABC 10News’ studio reads, "San Diego Sheriff's let my brother Saxon Rodriguez die on 7/20/21 [at] the San Diego County jail. I want justice."

Rodriguez had been arrested while homeless and died of a suspected fentanyl overdose four days after he was booked into jail.

ABC 10News asked Weddle, “Do you think that your brother would have been safer on the streets than in jail?” “He'd probably be alive,” she replied.

ABC 10News asked the Sheriff's Department for the investigation findings for Rodriguez’s case and the other overdose cases. The department replied that it was denying ABC10News’ requests because certain investigatory records are exempt from disclosure under California law. The denial also came, in part, because of patient privacy laws.

ABC 10News contacted the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office to see if the autopsy reports could provide more details.

Autopsy reports revealed that for each inmate who died, naloxone was given. That's the rapid opioid-reversal medication. Fentanyl was confirmed to be in all of their systems. However, it remained unclear as to how the drugs got inside the jails.

“A lot of this is a story about addiction, honestly,” said Undersheriff Kelly Martinez. In March, ABC 10News interviewed her when she was the Acting Sheriff.

“There's a lot of ways [drugs are] coming in. People body-pack them and secrete them in all different parts of their bodies…we've had people who put small amounts and tape it inside their belly buttons…we find them sewn into clothing,” she described.

She listed off the measures that are taken to keep drugs out. “Everyone who comes in through intake goes through a body scanning process,” she stated. The department also reported that there are detailed private x-rays, pat-downs, K-9s, surprise checks, mail screenings, safety videos and every deputy carries naloxone.

When asked about screening for employees, she replied, “Right now we don't have a screening process for employees other than watching what everyone's doing, and they go through the same entry points and things like that.”

ABC 10News explained, “[We’re] taking you at your word because you're saying that inmates are smuggling drugs in but [we] can't get any proof of that in any sort of document from the jails or the Sheriff's Department. Why is that?”

“I don't know the specific cases you're looking at, but we can look at them after,” she replied.

ABC 10News was told to re-submit its requests, which the Sheriff’s Department's legal team reviewed. For a second time, ABC 10News was denied access to the requested records.

“I believe the San Diego Sheriff's [deputies] are at fault,” added Weddle.

Weddle said that inmates are being booked with drug problems, making them especially vulnerable and so they deserve extra care. “I understand mistakes happen, but people are losing their lives,” she stated.

“It's a very difficult problem. I don't have all the solutions. We're working hard to prevent it,” added Undersheriff Martinez.

In February, a state audit revealed that the department had failed to adequately prevent inmate deaths. The Sheriff's Department has vowed to make changes like enhancing mental health screenings during intake, adding more staff, improving medical response times, and using technology to check on inmates to make sure they're still alive.

“We do everything in our power to find the drugs,” she added.

“I want the fight to end in them saying that they made a mistake as well. That they allowed my brother to die,” stated Weddle.

Earlier this week, the Sheriff’s Department sent an email to ABC 10News that stated,

“Thank you for letting [the department] know about the content of your story. Undersheriff Kelly Martinez is committed to being transparent with the media and the community she serves. Through her leadership, our department has dramatically increased the amount of information made publicly available and she will continue to expand that information. Undersheriff Martinez continues to have candid conversations with all our media partners and shares as much information as she can.

With your specific record's request, unfortunately, it does not appear as though the records will be released due to HIPAA and several sections within the California Government Code 6254. Undersheriff Martinez wanted to make sure our department released as much information as possible, which is why she had your request looked at for a second time. She personally apologizes to you and in the future, she will be more careful check with our legal team first.”