© 2024 91.9 KVCR

KVCR is a service of the San Bernardino Community College District.

San Bernardino Community College District does not discriminate on the basis of age, color, creed, religion, disability, marital status, veteran status, national origin, race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

701 S Mt Vernon Avenue, San Bernardino CA 92410
Where you learn something new every day.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Riverside County jail deaths prompt calls to separate coroner's office from sheriff's department

Lisa Matus speaks at a press conference in Riverside.
Madison Aument
Lisa Matus speaks at a press conference in Riverside.

HOST: In the vast majority of California counties, the sheriff oversees the coroner’s office. But a group of families in Riverside County whose loved ones have died in jails there say that's a conflict of interest and they’re pushing to change the system. KVCR’s Madison Aument reports.

MADISON AUMENT, BYLINE: Lisa Matus was at home when she got a call from her son Raymond. It was the summer of 2022 and he was an inmate at Cois Byrd Detention Center in Riverside County.

LISA MATUS: He started crying. I have high blood pressure. And he said, just go take your blood pressure pill? And then I was, like, what's going on? And then he said, “Bump’s not here no more.”

AUMENT: Bump was a childhood nickname for her other son, Richard. He was also in jail for robbery and attempted murder. Raymond told her Richard had been found dead in his cell. Matus was desperate to get information about what happened. She says she called the sheriff’s department over and over.

MATUS: And then they'd say, call the next, call the next. And we called the next day.

AUMENT: She says it wasn’t until her attorney started calling that they were able to find out where her son’s body was. Matus says it took weeks to get the autopsy. And the result— that he died of a fentanyl overdose— struck her as odd. As far as she knew, Richard didn’t use drugs. And she said she’d talked to him shortly before he died, and he seemed fine. Matus felt suspicious and frustrated. She logged onto social media and quickly found others going through the same thing.

MATUS: More inmates were dying and the families started connecting and we started like hearing each other's stories.

AUMENT: In total, 18 people died in Riverside County jails in 2022. That’s the highest number in nearly two decades. Nearly half those deaths were drug overdoses. Others included suicide and homicide. It led California Attorney General Rob Bonta to announce an investigation into the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the coroner’s office. Sheriff Chad Bianco still bristles at the investigation, which is ongoing.

CHAD BIANCO: His little press conference on the steps of the Capitol was 100 percent, 100 percent political.

AUMENT: He says Bonta just wants to punish him for speaking out against state policies. Meanwhile, families of inmates who died, including the Matuses, have also sued Bianco’s department. They’re concerned that autopsies overseen by the sheriff’s department pose a conflict of interest. Many forensic experts, like Dr. Roger Mitchell, a pathologist at Howard University, say a combined sheriff and coroner can be problematic.

DR. ROGER MITCHELL: There may be an opportunity where, where these deaths are not as transparent. And that's the reason why they should be separated.

AUMENT: California is one of only three states that allows for this kind of system. 48 of the state’s 58 counties use it. In Riverside County, families and civil rights groups have pressured the board of supervisors for change. Luis Nolasco is with the ACLU of Southern California.

LUIS NOLASCO: It's a conflict of interest, like the same department that is conducting the reviews of death and performing these autopsies cannot be the same department that was also partially responsible for the person passing away.

AUMENT: Sheriff Bianco has been quoted saying it's not his department’s fault that people die in his jails. And when it comes to deadly drugs getting into the hands of inmates he says…

BIANCO: When are we going to start requiring people to take responsibility for their own actions? Every inmate knows that fentanyl kills and fentanyl is illegal in the jail.

AUMENT: Last month, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted to outsource autopsies for jail deaths to nearby counties. But Nolasco says that’s not enough. He worries law enforcement officials look out for each other, regardless of which department they work for.

NOLASCO: There may be some influencing that happens from Riverside with these neighboring sheriff's departments in terms of influencing the result of these autopsies.

AUMENT: Bianco says that’s a tired argument.

BIANCO: That is so, that is so wrong. There is no law enforcement officer that looks out for themselves.

AUMENT: Regardless, Bianco says separating the two offices would be fine by him.

BIANCO: Would I be open to less responsibility? Would I be open to less scrutiny? Would I be open to less? Headache? Would I be open to less calls in the middle of the night? Absolutely. Absolutely.

AUMENT: Nolasco says he absolutely plans to try to take coroner’s duties away from the sheriff’s department. For KVCR News, I’m Madison Aument in Riverside.