Tasered, stunned and sprayed

What does it take to subdue a mentally ill man?

New court documents reveal disturbing details of what happened to Reynaldo “Reny” Cabral, the young Orland man who became paralyzed from the neck down when he rammed his head against a wall during a schizophrenic episode in the Glenn County Jail.

The CN&R has previously reported (”Breakdown in mental-health care,” Dec. 13, 2007) how, in the morning of Jan. 6, 2007, sheriff’s officers arrested Cabral after he assaulted his girlfriend, Torrie Gonzales, at his family’s Orland home. At the time, Cabral’s brother Arturo and others told them he was ill and needed medications.

According to an amended complaint, the jail nurse, Donna Tomisch, and Jail Staff Cpl. Rosemary Carmen initially refused to receive Cabral until he’d had a psychiatric evaluation. However, a sheriff’s deputy, Brandy McDonald, told Carmen that there would be no evaluation “because inmate Cabral had tried to kill someone and that he needed to be in jail,” not sent to a mental-health facility.

Over a period of several hours, while Cabral was kept in a holding cell, various people—his brother; his mother, Rosa Cabral; his girlfriend, who didn’t want him jailed; Tony Nasr, MD, a family friend; and officials at Butte County Behavioral Health, where he’d been placed on an involuntary hold just three days before—contacted the jail to say Cabral was mentally ill.

Efforts to get him seen by health professionals were fruitless. A single call was made to Glenn County Mental Health, which punted responsibility to Dr. Robert Zadra, whose company, Sierra Family Services, was under contract to provide mental-health care at the jail. But Zadra was on vacation, and his office referred the matter back to GCMH, which in turn said it had no contract with the jail.

There was a contract, but it was with Glenn Medical Center, the local hospital. In any event, there is a “handshake agreement” between the jail and Mental Health, said Scott Gruendl, the Chico City Councilman whose day job is director of Glenn County Health Services. “If the jail requires our assistance, we’re going to provide it,” he said.

Not this time, apparently.

By early the next morning, court documents continue, Cabral began hearing voices and showing signs of mental illness. He took off his clothes, vomited, and began throwing feces, urine and vomit around his cell.

Jail staff wanted to move him into the padded “safety cell.” Lacking the help of a health-care professional, and without contacting anyone in Cabral’s family, they called in a total of four officers from the Willows Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office. Three Highway Patrol officers showed up later.

Cabral wasn’t being violent, but Deputy Paulette Blakeley testified that he was “scooping water from the toilet in his cell and rubbing it on his body, and that the water, possibly containing his own waste, was spread elsewhere in the cell.” At this point, Willows PD Officer Jason Dahl ordered Cabral to come out of the cell. When Cabral refused, saying “I’m fine,” Dahl pointed his Taser weapon at Cabral “and said he would shoot him with it if he did not do as Officer Dahl demanded.”

“Shoot me,” Cabral replied. The officers stormed the cell.

By the time it was over, Dahl had alternately demanded that Cabral come out of his cell and, when he refused, Tasered him a total of eight times, for five seconds each time, over a period of 4-1/2 minutes. “Each time, the [officers] watched … Cabral react with great pain and slide down the wall, seeking protection of the toilet,” the documents read. The Tasering stopped only when the weapon’s battery ran out of charge.

“The officers then left the cell but observed that … Cabral had reacted to the shocks by chewing on the telephone in the cell and observed that he was bleeding from the mouth.”

And so it went. The officers again stormed the cell, this time using an electric stun-gun-type shield that they applied directly to Cabral’s wet, bare skin. Cabral slid to the floor in agony. When that didn’t convince him to leave, Dahl subsequently Tasered him three more times.

Again the officers pulled back, this time to wait for the CHP to show up. Then, all seven officers went into the cell, determined to remove Cabral physically. Cabral was having none of it, continuing rather “to throw water on himself stating that he wanted to play with the water and that it was fun.” Officer Dahl then emptied a 4-ounce can of pepper spray on Cabral, covering his face, head, shoulder and back. Cabral used toilet water to try to wash it off but only got it in his eyes.

When he asked to speak with his mother, the officers said he could if he came out. He did so and was quickly handcuffed. He wasn’t allowed to make the call.

By 3:30 that morning, Cabral had finally been placed in the “safety cell.” It had “little or no light, no furnishings other than a drain in the floor, and no monitoring other than a small sliding window. … The walls had a thin coating of hard rubber.” Cabral was naked.

The rest of the story already has been told—how Cabral, hearing voices from God and still stinging from the spray, charged into the wall head-first, breaking his neck; how he lay on the floor unmoving from about 4:45 that morning until nearly 2 in the afternoon, more than nine hours; and how he told jail staff he was paralyzed and several times asked for help but was ignored.

Cabral’s civil suit names numerous defendants, from the officers at the jail to the heads of various county departments, including Gruendl. The CN&R left messages for several of the attorneys representing them, but only John Whiteside, of the Sacramento firm Angelo Kilday & Kilduff, representing the city of Willows and Officer Dahl, called back.

The firm has filed a motion to dismiss, he said, on the basis that nothing the complaint alleges to have occurred is a violation of federal or state law.

“In layman’s terms: ‘OK, so what?'” Whiteside said.

Willows PD Chief Bill Spears said he couldn’t comment on the case. Asked what proper procedures were for use of the Taser, he replied, “You have to look at each scenario on its own merits, considering body weight, whether there’s a drug influence, and so on. … One has to look at the totality of the evidence.”

He said the charges in Cabral’s suit are just that—charges. “It has to be proved in court,” he said.

Chico attorney Richard Molin, who is representing Cabral, could not be reached for comment. Whiteside said a hearing on the motion to dismiss was scheduled for Feb. 6 in U.S. District Court in Sacramento.