Assisted Suicide

A county psychiatrist's indifferent treatment of a disturbed inmate leads to a courthouse hanging

An indifferent effort to treat Steve Cervantes by a jail psychiatrist, the ineffectual presence of sheriff's deputies and an inmate haunted by his own dark thoughts became the ingredients of a tragedy that could have been averted.

"Dr. Franzetti knew very well that Steve Cervantes was a danger to himself, but he did nothing at all to prevent Steve from hurting himself," says Phoenix attorney David Don, who with Joel Robbins is representing Shannon Sintic in the federal lawsuit against Maricopa County.

The pending suit also accuses Sheriff Joe Arpaio of nurturing the atmosphere that led to the deaths of Cervantes and others inside his jails.

Cervantes with his parents and son, circa 1999.
courtesy of Shannon Sintic
Cervantes with his parents and son, circa 1999.
Dr. Joseph Franzetti in deposition, May 11, 2004.
Dr. Joseph Franzetti in deposition, May 11, 2004.

"The spate of lawsuits and claims about inadequate medical care gave Arpaio actual notice of unconstitutional conditions," Don wrote in court papers filed last month. "Despite this, Arpaio did nothing to improve the medical care in the jails. In fact, he ratified it."

Lawyers for the county have accused the plaintiffs of using "impassioned buzzwords" to try to bolster an otherwise weak case.

Dr. Franzetti did not respond to New Times' request for an interview. His side of the story comes from a remarkable deposition he gave to Don in May 2004.

The journey that led Steve Cervantes to that tiny courthouse cell was perilous, but not without love.

"Steve had some great sides to him, and I was crazy in love with him," Shannon Sintic says. "He loved our kids, really did, and that never stopped. Even though we had fights, usually about his taking drugs, I didn't leave him. We considered ourselves husband and wife."

Born in Chicago, Cervantes often found himself in legal trouble during his adult life. Police arrested him on theft charges shortly after his 18th birthday, the first in a series of sporadic run-ins with the law that culminated in his May 2002 bust on a charge of aggravated assault.

Cervantes also was prolific in another area; he fathered seven children by four different women, including his final two with Sintic.

Sintic met Cervantes in 1994 while working across the street from him in a Chicago suburb. She was 13 years younger than Cervantes but already was pregnant with her second child when they met.

The two later connected, and Sintic moved in with Cervantes, young children in tow, in the spring of 1996. She says he told her up front about his addiction to cocaine.

"It was a long battle with him and drugs," Sintic says. "He never could stay away from them, no matter what."

Though he was a master auto mechanic, Cervantes often had trouble keeping a job. Sintic says he suffered from depression for years, and spoke more than once of committing suicide.

According to court records, a judge sentenced him to a stint in the Cook County, Illinois, jail in the late 1990s for driving with a suspended license. During that incarceration, he tried to hang himself, a documented attempt that he revealed to Dr. Franzetti during his jail intake interview in May 2002.

Illinois authorities placed Cervantes in a facility for the mentally ill, before they allowed him to go home.

Looking for a fresh start, Cervantes moved in November 1998 to Phoenix, where his parents were retiring. Sintic joined him here in early 1999 with her three children, including Nicholas, her first child with Cervantes.

But trouble followed Cervantes to the desert.

Phoenix police arrested him months after he relocated on a charge of buying what he thought was crack cocaine from an undercover officer.

Because it was Cervantes' first felony conviction, a judge allowed him to enter a jail-diversion program. But he failed to show up for his substance-abuse treatment sessions or pay his court-ordered fine.

Prosecutors reinstated the drug case against him, but Cervantes won yet another chance to stay out of jail. He started his own auto repair business in west Phoenix in 2001, and apparently attracted a fair share of customers.

But Cervantes couldn't keep his life together. In March 2002, a judge sent him to jail for violating the terms of his probation.

Sintic says she visited Cervantes during his short stay behind bars, and was stunned at the depth of his depression.

"He told me that when he was there by himself he would start thinking all kinds of things," she recalls, "and he couldn't control how his mind was, and that he would feel like swinging from the nearest pole."

Sintic took Cervantes' words seriously, knowing of his suicidal tendencies, and of his family's history of suicide (a grandfather had killed himself).

But, she says, neither she nor Cervantes had health insurance, and he didn't seek mental-health help after authorities released him.

The last months of Cervantes' life were notable for two events: the birth in late April 2002 of Angelina Cervantes, his and Shannon Sintic's second child together, and his arrest for assault.

Angelina's birth provided a joyous moment, Sintic says, but the elation proved only temporary.

Cervantes' arrest that May 4 came after a clash with a neighbor. The neighbor claimed Cervantes bashed him in the head with a wrench, causing an injury that required stitches. Cervantes said he'd thrown the tool at the other man in self-defense.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets