The Riverside County sheriff’s deputies in whose custody a Jurupa Valley man died as they restrained him during a confrontation in 2020 will not face criminal charges, even though the Coroner’s Office ruled that Ernie Teddy Serrano died at the hands of another person and that the deputies’ actions contributed to his death by methamphetamine overdose.
The District Attorney’s Office cleared deputies Jeffrey Horner, Travis Cosper, Paul Ferrari and Robert Montanez, and Cpl. Scott Spykstra.
According to the DA’s Office, Chief Forensic Pathologist Mark Fajardo said Serrano, 33, died from “acute methamphetamine toxicity.” He had 0.986 milligrams of methamphetamine per liter in his blood, and Fajardo told investigators that a potentially lethal level was 0.2. Fajardo also said “other significant conditions contributing to death were physical confrontation with the law enforcement and law enforcement restraint maneuvers,” according to a report the DA’s Office sent to Sheriff Chad Bianco.
The report left several questions unanswered, however, such as why, when Serrano had been a drug addict for years, the methamphetamine in his system suddenly killed him on Dec. 15, 2020. It’s also unclear why Fajardo listed the primary cause of death as an overdose — which sometimes can be an accident — when Fajardo also said the mode of death was a homicide. Fajardo did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Additionally, the autopsy report remains hidden from public view. The Sheriff’s Department this week continued to withhold the document and had not responded to requests for an explanation as of Wednesday, Feb. 16.
Serrano had scuffled with deputies, including Cosper and Spykstra, the day before his death. He was living with his aunt, who called for assistance in removing him from her home because he was “high,” the DA’s report said. Serrano pulled the camera off Cosper’s uniform and continued to fight despite a Taser strike before he was arrested.
The next day, Serrano was acting erratically in the Stater Bros. market in the Rudiboux neighborhood of Jurupa Valley, attempting to re-purchase items he had previously bought, wandering through the market and disrupting checkout lines before fighting with a security guard who had ordered him to leave, the DA’s report said. Deputies arrived and shocked Serrano with a Taser and struck him with a baton when he resisted arrest, the report said, and then handcuffed him and placed him on a checkout counter.
When Serrano began spitting blood and saliva, deputies placed a spit mask on him. Minutes later, Serrano is heard in a video from a deputy’s uniform-worn camera saying, “I can’t breathe, man. Let me go.” Shortly afterward, he stopped breathing and could not be revived.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Kelli Catlett said in an interview that her office weighed whether the deputies’ attempts to arrest Serrano were lawful.
“When you look at the actions of law enforcement and look at the actions of Mr. Serrano, they used only the amount of force that was necessary to detain and restrain Mr. Serrano, who was behaving violently and erratically,” she said.
Bianco said in an interview that he sees no reason to change how deputies restrain people who are under the influence of drugs.
“There is no way to know who is going to die from a lethal dose of methamphetamine. If he would have run a flight of stairs he probably would have died the same way. If he had continued to fight with people in the store he probably would have died the same way,” Bianco said.
Humberto Guizar, the attorney who filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department on behalf of Serrano’s family, said he was disappointed but not surprised that no charges were brought.
“When was the last time they filed any charges against a deputy in that county for causing a civilian harm?” Guizar said. “They used force that resulted in his death.”
Guizar said he believed that deputies were too quick to use force against Serrano and should have done more to de-escalate the situation with words.
“He never throws a punch or kicks or bites. The use of force was unreasonable,” Guizar said.