NewsTeam 10 Investigates


Video of Nov. 2019 in-custody death at Las Colinas Jail released as parents sue

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Posted at 7:57 PM, Apr 18, 2024

San Diego County jails are under renewed scrutiny for in-custody deaths after a federal judge ordered new videos showing a woman's agonizing death to be released.

Elisa Serna died while being held at the Las Colinas Jail before her trial on shoplifting charges in Nov. 2019. Her case led to criminal charges against medical staff at the jail, but no one was convicted.

Serna's parents are suing for wrongful death, and the tapes are exhibit A.

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She was just 24 years old, pregnant and an alcoholic, arrested and jailed, accused of shoplifting her next drink.

Her parents went to court to force the San Diego County Sheriff's Department to release the surveillance videos from inside the jail. They say their daughter was given the death penalty before trial by jailhouse deputies and medical staff who ignored her signs of distress, letting her die as staff watched.

"They killed my baby," says Michael Serna, Elisa's father.

"It breaks my heart... I'm always going to be emotionally scarred. My daughter's never coming back," says Palermo Serna, Elisa's mother.

The videos, already shown in the criminal trial of a jail doctor and nurse—one of whom was acquitted and the other released after a hung jury—were ordered to be shown to the public after media motions in court and the blessings of Elisa's parents.

"It's sad that we have to put the video out there and have our heart break all over again, but if this is what we have to do so no more families will suffer, that's why we fight," says Michael Serna.

The tapes show Elisa's final hours, falling repeatedly, bumping her head on walls, hitting the ground, vomiting repeatedly and unable to stand. Finally, she passed out, never to regain consciousness five days after arrest.

Team 10 went over the tapes with attorney Eugene Iredale, who represents the Sernas in a civil wrongful death suit against the deputies, medical staff and county.

"To walk out on a person who has in front of you fallen, suffered a seizure and then gone unconscious, and then you just walk out to leave the person to die alone in a cell... That conduct was outrageous," says Iredale. "Had they called 911, 911 would have been there within five minutes... Only they weren't called until an hour before she died."

An audit of the jails in San Diego County jails showed that 185 in-custody deaths happened between 2006 and 2022, under the old sheriff. Current Sheriff Kelly Martinez said in a statement on Thursday, "The video and other evidence in this case is disturbing, and the actions of the staff that day do not reflect the values of the sheriff's department."

Martinez promised changes in health care and medical vigilance at the jail.

"This needs to stop," says Palermo Serna. "These people who died in custody, they were loved. They have families."

The sheriff said in a memo to staff that substantial changes improving conditions in the jail have begun, and she is committed to seeing them through, including training and a protocol for treating inmates suffering from withdrawal symptoms.

While welcomed by the Serna family, they did express some skepticism, since Martinez served as undersheriff under the old administration.