Suspicious death at San Francisco County Jail: They call it suicide – would you?

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by Jeremy Miller

“I’m not doing so well. I’m hearing the voices more.” … “Whatever you do, if the voices tell you to hurt yourself, don’t listen.” “I know … I love you, my friend. … Thank you for everything. … They’re going to send me to San Quentin soon. … I’ll write you from there.” … “Do you need anything? If you need anything, tell my mom.” “I’m OK.” … “Do you need anything?” “No … When I get out, can we get me into a program (mental health residential treatment program)? In like a year and a half I can … my mom can post bail.” “Of course we can, as soon as you’re out.” “Great! Hey, I love you man. … You be safe and your wife … your family too.” “You be safe. I’ll come visit you at Quentin.” “OK yeah … and I’ll write you when I get there.” “Do you have my address still?” “Yeah, I’ve got it. … Goodbye, my friend.”

These are excerpts from my telephone conversation with Antolin Marenco on Oct. 2, 2014, around 5 p.m. Less than 24 hours later, on Friday, Oct. 3, Antolin Marenco was dead, found “blue” and hanging in his cell in San Francisco County Jail, an apparent suicide.

Antolin Marenco at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach
Antolin Marenco at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach

I say apparent because evidence surrounding Mr. Marenco’s death is still coming in and, as someone who was in regular contact with Antolin since the beginning of his recent incarceration, I can say with certainty that if he took his own life, he was driven to this extreme act by over a year of sustained torture, brutality and neglect at the hands of the SFPD and the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.

Add to that the willful neglect of JPS (Jail Psychiatric Services) and a politically appointed incompetent judge, as well as a completely broken mental health care system that, in direct violation of the Constitution of the United States as well as longstanding California state law, is utterly subservient to the bureaucracies of the local law enforcement apparatus. The following is Antolin’s story.

The auto theft

On Feb. 13, 2013, in the early hours of the morning, there was a fight involving multiple people at the ARCO gas station at 1175 Fell St. in San Francisco. Police became involved and multiple people were arrested, including one Shedrick Wilson, owner of a red 1986 Ford Mustang. The Mustang was impounded at Auto Return, a designated city tow-yard.

Later that same morning Mr. Wilson was released from jail and attempted to retrieve his vehicle from Auto Return’s secure facility at Pier 70. He was informed that the vehicle had been stolen. Apparently it had been driven right off the lot!

Two employees of Auto Return claimed to have observed a Black man similar in appearance to the owner as the driver. Another employee claimed to have observed a white man, who he fingered as the driver at the lot! Mr. Marenco, who enters the story soon, is a shorter, multi-racial man (phenotypically a light skinned Latino) who could not possibly have fit either description.

Also, based on the nature of the theft and the facility, this was most likely an inside job, though despite the fact that comments concerning this were made by both Auto Return staff and SFPD immediately subsequent to the theft, to my knowledge there has been no investigation directed in this way. The theft was egg on the face for the SFPD, as this was supposedly a secure facility, and the case was placed on the desk of Sgt. Dean Marcic for immediate attention.

Six days later, on Feb. 19, 2013, Sgt. Marcic was tipped by a “citizen informant” that the stolen Mustang might be around the 1600 block of McKinnon Street in the Bayview District of San Francisco, possibly with false plates. Plain Clothes SFPD Officers were notified, but they did not find the vehicle at the suggested location.

On the same day, Antolin Marenco had seen the Mustang with a for sale sign on it. Having an interest in automobiles he contacted the “owner,” a dubiously named “Stevie Mac,” and purchased the vehicle for $1,500 that he had resulting from a recent legal settlement. This was not the first vehicle he had recently purchased. He had also purchased a 1998 Audi Quattro about a week earlier to fix and re-sell, which was his intention for the Mustang as well.

In exchange, he was tendered the vehicle with keys and a pink slip. He proceeded to take the car to a local auto repair shop, Colofeli Auto Repair on Newhall Street, that he trusted to check its condition. Upon being informed that the vehicle needed parts, he proceeded to O’Reilly’s Auto Parts on Bayshore Boulevard to purchase the necessary parts.

This is where the plainclothes unit found the vehicle. Multiple officers set up a perimeter for surveillance – more than usual probably due to the egg-on-face factor – and awaited the driver. Mr. Marenco left the Smart and Final adjacent to O’Reilly’s Auto Parts with a bag of potato chips – think Trayvon Martin with his bag of Skittles – and returned to his new car to go back to the auto repair shop.

The police moved in. Two officers approached the driver’s and passenger side of the vehicle with their service weapons (guns) drawn. Only one officer was uniformed and the only visible badge was on his shoulder. According to Antolin and witnesses, they did not identify themselves as police officers.

Reportedly they yelled, “Get the fuck out of the car!” Believing that he was being carjacked, Antolin punched the Mustang into reverse inadvertently swiping an undercover vehicle that had been parked behind him to prevent exit. He proceeded to drive forward towards Bayshore Boulevard and in his haste accidentally grazed an oncoming vehicle before being blocked by a police van (driving the wrong direction in traffic), which had been previously staged as part of the perimeter.

Officer David Johnson with Officer Timothy Faye proceeded to remove Antolin from the Mustang and beat him mercilessly in the head and neck region. They were joined by Officers Duncan Gillies and Ali Misaghi, both of whom attacked Antolin’s head and neck as well. The beating was so severe that it resulted in a broken right shoulder, abrasions to Antolin’s face, and it exasperated a pre-existing genetic condition (os odontoideum) essentially breaking his neck.

It is a bittersweet miracle that he survived this completely unwarranted assault. Following this, Antolin was removed to San Francisco General Hospital and then to San Francisco County Jail, booked on charges relating to the stolen vehicle as well as – absurdly – assault on peace officers. The total initial charges amounted to a whopping six felonies and two misdemeanors.

The ‘rap sheet’ and the mental health factor

Antolin was innocent of the crimes he stood accused of in this matter – regardless of what the court record shows – but had a history of brushes with the law. He had been previously arrested and incarcerated multiple times for various offenses including auto theft. This was used by the corporate media, especially the ABC Channel 7 I-Team, in their entrenched role as loyal lap dog for the SFPD to paint Antolin as a violent recidivist and essentially convict him in the court of public opinion before he had ever set foot in a courtroom.

What was not disclosed was that Antolin had a long history of mental disability that both he and his family had spent years attempting to address both outside and inside of jail and prison walls. The character assassination campaign, though predictable, was disingenuous in that neither Antolin, his family, his attorneys, nor anyone close to him would ever attempt to portray him as an innocent.

It merely utterly obfuscated three clear and present truths. The first is that Antolin did not knowingly commit a single crime in the matter that eventually resulted in his untimely death. The second is that regardless of Antolin’s history, the SFPD treated him with a level of unwarranted brutality that reaches the threshold of torture. Finally, the third and perhaps most fundamental point, as will be more clearly evinced shortly, was this: Antolin did not fail society. Society failed him.

Antolin’s experience in SF County Jail

From the beginning and throughout Mr. Marenco’s incarceration at San Francisco County Jail, he was tortured. We know this because not only did he share his experiences with his family and other confidants, he filed scores of grievances and even took preliminary motions towards litigation.

Among his complaints (not exhaustive) were that he was beaten by deputies, allowed to be assaulted by an inmate despite the fact that, based on his classification at the time, none were supposed to have access, threatened with gang-rape, refused toilet facilities and food, drugged, had his walker removed, was subjected to trips and falls, had his pain medication removed, was driven recklessly in a San Francisco Sheriff’s Department vehicle without a seatbelt despite the fact than any wrong knock against his head or neck could result in paralysis and/or death, refused access to medical attention and told by another inmate that deputies had requested that the inmate “take him out.”

If Antolin Marenco did kill himself, it raises very serious questions. What is the culpability of deputies who tortured him?

He was in fear for his life the entire time he was incarcerated, not just from the medical conditions, but also from the intentions and actions and inaction of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi was notified in person and by electronic communication of these civil rights violations as early as April of this year, in response to which he opened an investigation. But no results were disclosed and, to the writer’s knowledge, no disciplinary action was taken against offending parties.

Jail medical

Antolin’s injuries at the hands of the SFPD required immediate surgery – which never occurred – as well as consistent communication with a neurologist. He was transported to several appointments early in his incarceration, one of which was the site of sheriff’s deputies’ physical violence.

During an orthopedic appointment at SF General Hospital in May of 2013, after Antolin had been instructed by medical staff to attempt walking as physical therapy, he got up from his wheelchair – he was not actually able to walk without assistance at the time – and following this experiment was grabbed by Deputy Robert DiSalvatore on his (Antolin’s) recently broken right shoulder, had his head smashed against the hospital wall, and was given a leg sweep which took him to the ground, at which point the full body weight of the deputy was placed on Antolin.

Backup was called, and two other deputies joined in the beating. Any one of these assaultive measures could have killed Antolin, but no criminal charges have been filed against any of the deputies. This happened at the hospital!

Subsequently Antolin was ludicrously charged with an escape attempt and Deputy DiSalvatore feigned an injury for colorful effect. Following this incident, Antolin was only taken to one or two more medical appointments and was kept constantly in the dark about the status of his necessary surgery. During his last six or seven months of life, despite repeated requests from Antolin, his family, his attorney and others, Antolin was denied his legal entitlement of medical care.

And the physical part is merely the tip of the iceberg. Next we turn back to the mental health of Mr. Marenco.

As noted earlier, Mr. Marenco had a long history of mental health issues. Developmental disabilities were identified as early as 4 years old, and 25 years later, after many personal and legal struggles, Antolin was finally diagnosed as having bi-polar disorder with schizoaffective disorder in 2003.

He had previously experienced depression and suicidal behavior as well as substance abuse. In fact, his mental health was well known by the California court system, as it was material to a lawsuit against the San Francisco School District, Board of Education and then Superintendent of Schools Ramon Cortines over negligent treatment of Antolin’s disabilities. This suit was originally filed in 1990 and lost by Mr. Marenco’s family on appeal in 1992.[1]

Antolin was not in denial of these conditions. In fact, he begged for help to anyone who would listen. From the beginning of my interactions with Antolin, one of our major topics of conversation was getting him into a residential treatment program.

The snag was that while incarcerated none of the programs I was able to contact would touch him. The only two options offered were that if released he could attempt entry through a crisis drop-in center or that he could be referred by the Behavioral Health Court, a special court created in 2002 to provide incarcerated people with serious mental health issues an opportunity to be more appropriately placed where their care could be ensured, as opposed to being cycled through the jail and prison vortex.

Naturally we investigated both options. The disinclination of the DA to drop the patently ridiculous charges against Antolin and the exorbitant bail of $350,000 made the release/drop-in option impossible. Behavioral Health Court requires an AXIS I mental health diagnosis (serious mental health conditions which Antolin was previously documented as suffering), but they base their determination on Jail Psychiatric Services diagnoses, and the in-house shrinks belligerently and repeatedly refused to appropriately diagnose him.

Jail Psychiatric Services

Since 1973 the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department has been offering services to incarcerated mental health consumers by subcontracting to a non-profit called Jail Psychiatric Services [JPS]. Here is their mission statement:

“It is the mission of Jail Psychiatric Services to provide quality, compassionate, culturally competent behavioral health services, using professional and community standards of care, to individuals incarcerated in the San Francisco County Jail system, and to assist these mentally ill individuals and those with co-occurring disorders in establishing linkages with community-based mental health programs to help them avoid re-offending and future incarceration.”

In addition to this “mission,” pursuant to California state law and JPS’ own corresponding policy, they assess prisoners for developmental disabilities and automatically contact the prisoner’s local regional center (state mental hospital) within 24 hours.

In Antolin’s case, when first assessed by JPS, he was wantonly and absurdly declared to not have developmental disabilities. This is patently false as is evinced by previous diagnoses, legal record and Antolin’s own affect, all of which were available to JPS at the time of their determination.

Secondly, despite severe symptoms and probably close to a hundred (literally!) appeals from Antolin during meetings with JPS’ (uncertified) therapists as well as their psychiatrist, Antolin was repeatedly diagnosed only with “personality disorder,” a round-about way of saying he’s faking, as opposed to his proper diagnosis. This appears to have been intentional, as appropriate diagnosis would have afforded Antolin rights as a disabled person that could have impacted the length and terms of his incarceration, as well as his access to resources like the Behavioral Health Court and residential care.

What is the culpability of an uncertified mental health staff that misdiagnosed him?

As his incarceration and torture continued in SF Sheriff’s custody, Antolin’s mental health situation rapidly deteriorated. I was in constant contact with Antolin during this time and can attest to this personally. He began to dissociate more and was constantly plagued by fears and anxieties as well as hearing voices.

By the time of his arraignment in June of this year, Antolin was of the belief, based on his mental state as well as the brutality of the SFPD and Sheriff’s deputies, that he was being drugged through the water in San Francisco County Jail as well as that the lives of his family were in danger. He wasn’t eating and at his worst briefly was drinking from the toilet to avoid the drugging!

Due to his intoxicated state – whether real or imagined makes no difference – Antolin, against the advice of his attorney and his family, pled guilty to several charges, including the ludicrous charges of assault, in a desperate attempt to end his torment.

The judge

When Antolin pled, his attorney, Marla Zamora, for obvious reasons did not want to stipulate to his plea. Judge Kathleen Kelly ordered her to stipulate, under risk of contempt of court. Within days of Antolin’s plea, in a state of greater sobriety, Antolin begged to withdraw his plea.

The motion to withdraw, well supported by existent case law, was expressly rejected twice by the judge but with justifications that made it clear that she probably hadn’t even read it. It should be noted here that Judge Kelly is Gov. Jerry Brown’s niece!

What is the culpability of a judge who wanted a case to quickly be over and ruled against prevailing case law?

The end of Antolin’s life

On Sept. 24, after multiple delays due to Antolin and his advocates’ dogged attempt to achieve at least medical justice, i.e., a doctor’s appointment, which never happened, Antolin Marenco was sentenced to four years in state prison. Nine days later, and several hours after a reportedly violent verbal altercation with an as yet unidentified sheriff’s deputy, Antolin was found dead in his cell in San Francisco County Jail. The reported cause of death was suicide by hanging, but new evidence currently being corroborated calls into question the circumstances surrounding Mr. Marenco’s death.

Jeremy Miller is interviewed on World Homeless Day 2011 during the Homes Not Jails occupations.
Jeremy Miller is interviewed on World Homeless Day 2011 during the Homes Not Jails occupations.

If Antolin Marenco did kill himself, it raises very serious questions. What is the culpability of deputies who tortured him? What is the culpability of an uncertified mental health staff that misdiagnosed him? What is the culpability of a judge who wanted a case to quickly be over and ruled against prevailing case law?

What is the culpability of a Sheriff’s Department who had Antolin in Administrative Segregation for “observation purposes” at the time of death and yet somehow missed for an extended period of time that Antolin had attempted suicide? If it comes out that this was not a suicide, then a whole new set of questions must be raised.

Either way, justice has been completely missed. Antolin Marenco, despite his struggles, was one of the most compassionate, loving humans I have ever met, and one way or another he was murdered by a local justice system that is fraught with corruption and coercion and is completely unequipped to deal with special needs populations.

Antolin’s experience is a cautionary tale. Tragically in all but the details, this kind of thing happens more than anyone would like to admit. We just don’t hear about it! In memory of Antolin and the countless other victims of the completely broken local justice and mental healthcare systems, we must stand up and demand accountability from law enforcement and compassionate qualified care from any and all service providers.

No one can bring back Antolin. But we can stop this horror from happening again.

In memory of Antolin and the countless other victims of the completely broken local justice and mental healthcare systems, we must stand up and demand accountability from law enforcement and compassionate qualified care from any and all service providers.

[1] Janet Planells, Antolin Marenco by and Through His Guardian ad Litem, Plaintiffs-appellants, v. San Francisco Unified School District, Board of Education of the San Francisco Unified School District, and Ramon Cortines, Superintendent of Schools, Individually and in His official Capacity, Defendants-appellees, 978 F.2d 715 (1992)

Jeremy Miller is program director for the Idriss Stelley Foundation (ISF), which for 11 years has engaged in politics and protest to stop police violence and counseled families whose loved ones have been disabled or killed by law enforcement. He can be reached at 415-595-2894 or djasik87.9@gmail.com.

9 COMMENTS

    • I am a frequent visitor to SF county jail. I have stopped all criminal activities for over 2 years now. I can PERSONALLY attest that Jail Medical Services told me specifically that if I wasn't screaming naked in a paper suit and safety cell for three days then I would NOT be receiving my psych meds even though they were prescribed to me legally on the outside and I had a very juiced in case manager advocating for me as well!!! Yes, SF jail is one of the worst that I have been to. I would rather be in prison in Mexico than in Jail in SF and I'm a white boy and I have been to both so that should tell you something.

  1. Interesting to note the San Francisco Board of Overseers is one of the most Liberal to be found anywhere in the United States. Belies the notion that the Democrat Party is the Party of choice for the poor and disenfranchised, doesn't it?! In addition, I might add that Liberal Democrat Governor Jerry Brown of California has no small influence over these happenings, being he served as Mayor of Oakland and now serves, again, as Governor of California. But then, he is one of the richest men and largest landholders in the State as well.

  2. please, folks … fix your fb share button . i read and share news sometimes all day, and a working button gets the message out quicker . of course i'll c&p, but plenty of people won't

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