Death and Laxness | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona

Death and Laxness

Jose Rodriquez died just before noon, curled up on a mattress on a concrete floor, his head resting in his own vomit. For days before his death on March 26, Rodriquez, 39, could barely stand or sip from a cup of water. He was emaciated, feverish, dehydrated, twitching--classic signs of...
Share this:
Jose Rodriquez died just before noon, curled up on a mattress on a concrete floor, his head resting in his own vomit.

For days before his death on March 26, Rodriquez, 39, could barely stand or sip from a cup of water. He was emaciated, feverish, dehydrated, twitching--classic signs of heroin withdrawal.

Even with proper medical treatment, heroin detoxification is a brutal experience. Although few people die as a result, it's possible--if the patient is alone or ignored.

Rodriquez was not alone; he was surrounded by hundreds of people, including trained medical personnel. But he was ignored and--despite convincing symptoms--accused of faking his ailment.

Jose Rodriquez died at Madison Street Jail, in the custody of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

It's been nine months since New Times first reported that the U.S. Department of Justice was investigating conditions at Maricopa County's jails--Durango Jail, Towers Jail, Estrella Jail, Tent City and Madison Street Jail.

In a letter to county officials dated August 8, 1995, Deval Patrick, assistant U.S. attorney for civil rights, announced that the investigation would be conducted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), a federal civil statute which allows for investigations of patterns of abuse and other inappropriate treatment in jails, prisons, mental health facilities and other government institutions. According to the letter, the investigation would focus on:

* Physical abuse of inmates by staff.
* Inadequate supervision of staff.
* Staff and administrative failure to address allegations of physical abuse.
* Failure to discipline staff found to have abused detainees and inmates.
* False reporting regarding use of force and allegations of abuse.
* Denial of access to counsel.
* Inadequate medical care.

Lee Douglass, a public information officer for the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, says the investigation is continuing. She says, "We are working together with officials from the jails to try to find solutions to the problems there."

Although the Department of Justice could ultimately decide to bring legal action against Maricopa County, Douglass says CRIPA "is not a law that's designed to end in litigation. The spirit of the law is negotiation."

Sources tell New Times that medical and correctional security experts have been hired by the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office to review conditions at the jails as part of the investigation. County and federal officials refuse to confirm this, or to release any reports produced by such experts.

Arpaio welcomed the federal investigation last August, telling New Times, "If I can let all the press from around the world come into the jail and talk to the inmates and everything, I'm sure not one to hide anything."

But now Arpaio won't discuss the investigation at all. And he refuses to comment on Rodriquez's death.

Arpaio did mention the investigation in his book, America's Toughest Sheriff, published earlier this year. Arpaio relates his appearance on Phil Donahue's talk show, during which, he says, Donahue mischaracterized the federal investigation:

"Phil started by mentioning the Department of Justice investigation into the Maricopa County jails, though he didn't mention that Justice routinely investigated scores of jails every year, that some prisoners made jailhouse careers out of accusing their jailers in nuisance cases. . . ."

Actually, out of thousands of institutions nationwide subject to CRIPA, only about 30 are presently under investigation, Douglass says.

Since Arpaio took office in January 1993, 15 county inmates have died in custody, according to Sergeant John Kleinheinz, one of the sheriff's spokesmen. Of those 15, 11 died in Ward 41, the detention ward at Maricopa Medical Center--of "natural causes" ranging from cancer to AIDS to pneumonia. The remaining four died in jail.

Just last Saturday, Scott Norberg, 35, died while in custody at Madison Street Jail after he was restrained by detention officers. The cause of death is under investigation, Kleinheinz says.

Kleinheinz refused New Times' request to see the county's record of calls for medical assistance from sick and/or injured inmates. There have been almost 300 such reports just since January 1, 1996, Kleinheinz says--too many for his department to produce for review. Besides, he adds, some of those requests are bogus.

"There's some [inmates] that really need to be taken care of," Kleinheinz says, "and then there's some that are just trying to get out of their cell, go to the infirmary, you know, do those kinds of things."

The trick, of course, is figuring out which is which. In Jose Rodriquez's case, someone figured wrong.

At the time of his death, Jose Rodriquez had been convicted of nothing. He was still innocent, under the law.

On March 20, Glendale Police Officer Jan Whitson stopped Rodriquez for driving with expired tags. Whitson says he saw Rodriquez hide something under the seat of the vehicle he was driving as the officer approached. When Whitson investigated, he found a syringe. He also discovered that Rodriquez was wanted for sale of stolen property.

Rodriquez was arrested on three counts of stolen property and one count of possession of drug paraphernalia. He was accused of selling copper plates stolen from a mine in Yavapai County to a Glendale recycling company. The plates are valued at $3,000. Rodriquez admitted that he sold two sheets of copper at the behest of two acquaintances, who gave him $20 worth of heroin in exchange.

He also admitted to police that he had previously served prison time for burglary and possession of narcotics.

He was booked at Madison Street Jail at 12:45 a.m. on March 21. According to the incident report prepared in connection with his death, Rodriquez asked for medical attention that day. The report states that Rodriquez had no visible medical problems when he was booked, and it was not until the morning of March 25 that the infirmary received a call regarding his condition.

From the report, prepared by Detective Raymond Ondrejech:
"The medical records indicate that the infirmary received a call on 3-25-96 at approximately 0630 hours advising that RODRIQUEZ had been vomiting during the previous night and he was placed on sick call. He was seen at 1109 hours indicating he was withdrawing from drugs, had been vomiting, couldn't hold water, was dizzy and weak and had passed out. This entry was made by BETTY DARE, RN.

"He was observed at approximately 2100 hours on 3-25-96 during 'pill call' to be falling forward and then to the floor. His medication was taken to him and the nurse observed him to sit up to take his medication and he was alert."

Rodriquez was transferred to another pod. That's where he met Richard Vela, a fellow inmate who is accused of first-degree murder. Ironically, it was not the nurses in the infirmary, but Vela who took pity on Rodriquez.

"He not only was my own race, he deserved a chance just like everybody else," Vela says. "That's the way I look at it--everybody deserves a chance."

Tattoos snake around Vela's arms; strands of gray pop up in his straight, jet-black hair. He's only 28, but Vela has already served five years in prison for aggravated assault and burglary.

Raised in South Phoenix, Vela was living with his girlfriend in Glendale, working as a house framer, until this latest charge. Vela is accused in the March 7 death of Michael Gonzales, who was shot once in the neck.

He says, "People, they can think what they want. Just because I'm in here for [murder] don't mean I did it. Anybody who does know me, in here or out on the street, knows I have a big heart and I help people when I can."

"[The guards] brought him into the pod," Vela says. "They just dragged him in here--one officer had one arm, the other officer had the other arm, and his feet were dragging on the ground. They just dragged him into the pod and put him in his room."

To Vela, Rodriquez looked like a skeleton with skin. He could hear him moaning, even though Vela was upstairs and Rodriquez was downstairs.

Vela's account of Rodriquez's last days is basically the same as Detective Ondrejech's.

The authorities' one apparent concession to Rodriquez's condition is that he was on some sort of medication for withdrawal. (The incident report does not specify what kind of drug.)

Vela says, "I heard [the guards] call medication, you know, and you have to get up with your cup of water and go to the slider door to get your medicine, right? Well, they kept calling for Room Six. 'Come get your medicine, come get your medicine.' And the man, you know, all you could hear was him moaning and groaning."

Vela continues, "I jumped off my bed and I went down there and I started yelling at them. 'Officer,' I said, 'Hey, the dude's sick, man, why don't you take him his medicine?'

No reply.
"So I went downstairs and I went into [Rodriquez's] room and he was lying on the floor. So I got him and I picked him up and I said, 'Come on,' and he's like, 'No, no,' and I said, 'Come on, you've gotta help yourself,' so I got him like that, put his arm around me and walked him out there."

Vela stayed by Rodriquez's side, cajoling him into sipping water and replacing the soiled towel Rodriquez was using as a pillow with a folded blanket.

At 9:45 on the morning of March 26, during "pill call," Rodriquez vomited in Officer Shane Shurtz's face. According to his own account in the incident report, Shurtz did not rush Rodriquez to the infirmary, but instead rushed there himself to be cleaned up.

He wrote, "In the Madison St. Jail Medical Clinic I told Nurse Stephanie Gallardo RN of my exposure and how it had happened. As Nurse Gallardo was getting me cleaning supplies she had told me that Inmate Rodriquez was seen by medical 'yesterday' and he's been faking. Nurse Gallardo said that Rodriquez was able to get up and walk, that he was playing a game."

Gallardo told Shurtz he should be checked for infections he might contract from Rodriquez's vomit.

"She then said that since Rodriquez was still vomiting that maybe medical could see him sometime today."

As it turned out, "sometime" was too late. Vela spent that morning with Rodriquez, again offering him water and urging him to sleep.

At lunchtime, Vela saw Officer Michael Jacobson, Shurtz's partner. Rodriquez had missed breakfast, Vela says, so "I told the officer, I said, 'What about Room Six, Mr. Rodriquez? Is he gonna get his lunch?' He goes, 'Yeah, he's gonna get it, I'll take it to him.' And I said, 'Well, are you gonna sit there and make sure he eats it?' And he said, 'Aah, he's faking most of that.'"

Jacobson would later write in his account that it was Rodriquez's fellow inmates, not Jacobson, who believed Rodriquez was faking.

Rodriquez wasn't faking, as Jacobson would soon learn.
Jacobson wrote, "I took a cup of juice and a sack lunch to his cell to feed him and account for him. When I walked into his cell he was in the same spot as he was when I saw him at the 1100 hours security walk. I said 'Rodriquez here is your lunch. Make sure you eat it.' I put the lunch on the table. Rodriquez didn't move nor did he speak. I bent over and touched his left shoulder and said 'Rodriquez are you O.K.?' I rolled him over and his eyes were open but I could tell something was wrong."

Jacobson tried to revive Rodriquez, but it was too late.
Vela recalls, "I went in there when [Jacobson] was turning him over, and he was pretty stiff already. It happened pretty quick."

The pod was locked down and the body was bagged. Vela says the officers and nurses chatted and laughed as they removed the body and examined the scene.

Laila Coe, a detoxification nurse for six years at Terros, a local drug-treatment facility, says, "Heroin withdrawal can be really, really intense. I mean, these people actually feel like they're dying, and they look like they've been rolled over by a Mack truck."

But heroin withdrawal doesn't typically kill, if the patient receives proper attention, Coe says.

Coe says she can only guess what killed Rodriquez. Perhaps, she says, he choked on his vomit. If he couldn't keep down water, and was dehydrated, he should have been receiving fluids intravenously, she adds; if he had a fever, he should have been monitored.

"That's kind of standard operating procedure," Coe says.
Vela sees a different standard operating procedure in jail.
He says, "You see it all the time. People are hurting, people need medical attention in here. They just--they treat 'em like, 'We'll get to you when we get to you. If you die between now and the time we get to you, it's not our fault.'"

An autopsy was performed on Rodriquez. Official cause of death: acute and chronic bronchitis. Vela thinks that's bull. He never heard Rodriquez cough, not once.

He says, "I was right there, and I ain't afraid to tell 'em. That guy has family out there somewheres that want to know what happened, why, and they don't know."

Detective Ondrejech called Rodriquez's sister, Lala, to tell her of Jose's demise. Lala, who lives in Idaho and does not speak English, had difficulty understanding, so he spoke to Lala's daughter, Erika.

Through an interpreter, Lala tells New Times that she hadn't seen her brother in 20 years. She spoke to him on the phone occasionally, and knew he had a drug problem. She never knew him to have any breathing difficulties, which is why she was perplexed to hear that he died of chronic bronchitis.

Lala passes on the name and phone number of Jose Rodriquez's daughter, Maryanne, 17, who lives with her mother, Liz Avalos, near El Paso, Texas.

Maryanne is not home, but Avalos is. She, too, had not seen Rodriquez--whom she calls Little Joe--in many years, until he showed up at her parents' house in El Paso last fall.

Avalos and Rodriquez met 18 years ago in California; both worked at a Foster Farms plant, cutting chicken parts. They were happy together. Rodriquez loved antique cars--he had an old Chevy truck, completely restored--and he played the organ.

The relationship soured when Avalos got pregnant.
She says, "I had the impression he felt like he was pressured. Things didn't work out after that. During the pregnancy, he started drinking heavily and we would fight a lot, argue a lot."

When Maryanne was 3 days old, Avalos moved to Texas to be with her parents. Before she left, she says, Rodriquez held the baby and cried. Later, he came to Texas and lived with her for a few months. Again, he began drinking.

"He would come home with hickies and pictures of other girls. . . . Stuff like that. I wasn't gonna put up with that."

So Rodriquez moved to Arizona. He called a few times--always on Maryanne's birthday--and then fell out of touch until last October, when he showed up at Avalos' childhood home in Texas.

"My father opens the door and says, 'Joe? Is that you?'" she says. Rodriquez explained that he had been in prison. He had ridden around the neighborhood in a taxi for 45 minutes, trying to locate Avalos' home--a two-story house, on a corner.

Rodriquez spent the weekend with Avalos, her husband and Maryanne. Father and daughter "bonded like they knew each other for many years."

Avalos says, "It was wonderful. I loved seeing him again." But she recalls that Rodriquez looked terrible.

"I even told him, 'Are you on drugs?' He bowed down his head, he said yes, but he wanted to seek help for it, that he had met his daughter, that he wanted to improve, he wanted a change."

He promised to return, and called a few times, but then Avalos didn't hear anything about Little Joe again until word came that he had died.

The autopsy report lists Jose Rodriquez as a transient. His possessions--blue comb, black belt, cigarette lighter, yellow crucifix--fit into a small paper bag.

Rodriquez was no saint. And yet, Richard Vela is haunted by his death.
"This guy right here, he didn't need to die the way he did. If they would have took him to the infirmary and kept an eye on him . . . and watched him instead of just throwing him in the cell like that," he says.

"The conditions in here are way worse than the ones in prison. People in here are begging to go to prison, they want to go to prison--that's how bad it is here.

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Phoenix New Times has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.