More San Jose jail guards arrested on brutality charges

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Tracey Kaplan,
Mercury News

Two Santa Clara County jail guards were arrested Monday on suspicion of beating a shackled inmate, the first new criminal charges to result from a sweeping probe into excessive force allegations sparked by the fatal beating last summer of a mentally ill prisoner.

Guards Phillip Abecendario and Tuan Le surrendered Monday afternoon and were booked on one count each of felony assault under the color of authority. If they are convicted, they would each face up to three years in county jail. They were expected to be released on $25,000 bail each.

The two men are accused of assaulting chronic offender Ruben Garcia in July, about a month before three other guards allegedly beat to death mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree and attacked another prisoner. The three correctional deputies in the Tyree case — Jereh Lubrin, Rafael Rodriguez and Matthew Farris — have all pleaded not guilty to murder and assault charges, which carry a maximum sentence of 25 years to life.

Multiple sources familiar with the broader excessive-force probe said more arrests are possible in the coming months.

Abecendario, 27, and Le, 31, could not be reached for comment Monday, and the law firm representing them declined to comment.

Sgt. Amy Le, president-elect of the guards union and no relation to Tuan Le, asked the community not to leap to any conclusions about the officers.

“We don’t condone any criminal behavior, but I really believe in the criminal justice system and ask everyone not to prejudge,” she said.

But prosecutors say about two dozen inmates witnessed at least some portion of the incident involving Garcia. Despite that, prosecutors say, the two guards did not file any reports documenting or explaining their use of force, as required.

“We can’t have jail guards administering their own form of punishment to inmates who are waiting for their trials or serving their sentences,” prosecutor John Chase said Monday.

Sheriff Laurie Smith put the two men on paid leave in February while the criminal investigation was underway.

“Mr. Garcia’s allegation that custody deputies assaulted him was taken very seriously by this office and was vigorously investigated to determine the facts,” Smith said in a written statement. “These alleged actions run contrary to any training they’ve received, any supervision they’ve been under, and are not indicative of the exemplary work performed by the overwhelming majority of correctional deputies.”

When Garcia heard the news Monday afternoon, he said he was shocked because it is so rare for officers to be charged for abusing their authority. Garcia had been in jail last summer on a drug possession charge and for violating a restraining order from the mother of his young daughter. He was released after he served time for the drug possession charge and agreed to domestic violence counseling classes.

Since he was released in November, he’s been working in landscaping, laying irrigation lines and building fences. Though he has spent most of his life in jail, he said he is staying straight now.

“Just like when I committed a crime, they wanted justice,” said Garcia, of San Jose, adding that he is living in his car. “Now I want justice.”

Since the three guards were charged in Tyree’s death, two other jail guards have been arrested. One was accused of illegally using a criminal database for personal use, and the other of workers’ compensation fraud. Both cases are pending. In addition, the former president of the correctional officers union, Lance Scimeca, was placed on administrative leave in connection with a separate probe into the alleged exchange by some guards of hundreds of racist text messages.

Earlier this month in a remarkable political shift, the county’s more than 700 jail guards ousted all their incumbent union officers and elected a woman for the first time to replace Scimeca as head of the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers Association.

The beating of Garcia, 50, was featured in this newspaper in December as part of an investigation into conditions at San Jose’s troubled main jail. The former gang member has been in and out of jail for 30 years, most recently on a drug possession charge, and was recently released. He has filed a claim against the county, alleging that officials have long demonstrated deliberate indifference to a pattern of misconduct by guards.

In interviews with this newspaper and in his claim, Garcia described a harrowing ordeal the night of July 23 in retaliation for “mouthing off” to guards about not getting any dinner. He said he was punched and kicked in the face and ribs repeatedly while his ankles were shackled, slammed against walls and dragged in a painful armlock with his pants and underwear pulled down.

The next day, Garcia said, Le came to his cell and apologized. “Look what you did to my face, man!” Garcia said. “It is what it is,” Garcia said Le told him. “Welcome to my dorm.”

Garcia’s case came to light after a homicide detective investigating Tyree’s beating asked him what happened to his face, which was swaddled in white gauze.

Garcia alleges he was taken to the nurse’s station in the jail after talking to a sergeant and then to Valley Medical Center. A doctor there, he says, told him he had a hairline jaw fracture, but he claims it was not treated. About a month later, he said, he developed an abscess, prompting the re-breaking of his jaw and the installation of titanium plates. He also suffered nerve damage, which results in occasional drool escaping from his mouth because of the numbness.

Tyree’s death sparked public outrage and prompted Santa Clara County officials to significantly beef up spending on training for guards, services for mentally ill inmates and supervision. Several recommendations by a blue-ribbon citizens commission appointed to evaluate the jails are still pending, including the appointment of an independent inspector-general to keep an eye on the lockups.