Six months ago, 19-year-old Lorenzo Herrera was strangled inside his cell in the Fresno County Jail, a killing that remains unsolved today.
The Reedley man had no criminal record when he was arrested in January this year on burglary and gun charges. Yet he was housed with the county’s most hardened, violent criminals, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Thursday by his parents, Carlos and Anna Herrera.
He was found dead in his cell on March 24 around lunchtime.
In their wrongful death lawsuit, the Herreras contend in U.S. District Court in Fresno that the Sheriff’s Office is to blame for their son’s death because the jail is understaffed with correctional officers, making it a dangerous place, not just for inmates but for guards, too.
Even worse, the Sheriff’s Office is violating a 2015 court order that mandates Sheriff Margaret Mims hire 127 correctional officer within three years to curb violence in the jail, said San Francisco attorney Diana B. Kruze, one of three lawyers representing the Herreras.
To date, “we believe the Sheriff’s Office has hired only 60 correctional officers,” Kruze said.
“Lorenzo’s death could have been prevented if the Sheriff’s Office had complied with the court decree,” Kruze said. “Instead, the office has violated it.”
Sheriff spokesman Tony Botti said he could not comment since Herrera’s killing is an ongoing investigation. Fresno County spokesman Jordan Scott also said he could not comment on the litigation.
The Herreras, along with Kruze, held a news conference outside the federal courthouse to talk about their son, but also to ask the public for help. They want an inmate or correctional officer to call Kruze or the Sheriff Office anonymously to help solve the murder.
“Someone knows who killed Lorenzo,” Kruze said. “We need them to be strong and do the right thing. Come forward and bring justice to his family.”
According to Kruze, Herrera was killed in the main jail, in an area out of sight of correctional officers and security cameras. She said only one correctional officer was assigned to watch 50 inmates. This allowed one or more persons to enter Herrera’s cell and strangle him without anyone in authority seeing it, she said.
“To date, no one has been arrested in Lorenzo’s murder,” Kruze said.
The Herreras are being represented by pro bono by Kruze and attorneys Arturo Gonzalez and Shaelyn Dawson of Morrison & Foerster, a San Francisco law firm with a history of representing indigent families in the Valley.
In 2011, Gonzalez won a $1.3 million settlement from the city of Fresno in a high-profile excessive-force case that focused on the killing of Steven Vargas. He was unarmed but high on drugs when a police sergeant shot him inside his SUV on Oct. 27, 2009.
As part of the settlement, Police Chief Dyer promised to change his department’s approach to officer-involved shootings.
In filing the suit on behalf of the Herreras, Kruze said the Morrison & Foerster firm wants the Sheriff’s Office to make changes in the jail for the safety of the inmates, as well as correctional officers. But, so far, the county has been reluctant to talk about Hererra’s slaying or changes to security, Kruze said.
“We have reached out to them so we can work together to fix the problems inside the jail,“ Kruze said. Instead, “the county has put up roadblocks, forcing us to sue them to find answers,” she said.
Lorenzo Herrera, who was born in Fresno, is a graduate of Reedley High School. At the news conference, the Herreras described their son as a popular member of the Reedley High varsity football team and a young man who loved the outdoors and amusement parks, and had many friends. He was working as a custodian at Kings Canyon Unified School District before his arrest in January.
Sheriff’s officials said Herrera and two others — Morgan Bray, 19, and Baldemar Ambriz, 20 — were arrested on Jan. 17 in connection with a hot-prowl burglary near Kingsburg.
Charged with residential burglary, Bray and Ambriz each posted $70,0000 bail and are no longer in jail. Their trial is pending. Hererra was charged with burglary and gun charges, making his bail about $275,000, Kruze said.
Because his bail was high, his parents could not afford to bail him out, Kruze said.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for wrongful death. The lawsuit is unusual, Kruze said, because, if successful, it also would protect not only inmates from further violence, it would also protect guards.
Just three weeks ago, four sheriff’s deputies were attacked by an inmate in the Fresno County Jail by an inmate armed with a razor blade. Two of the deputies suffered serious injuries to their faces in the Sept. 4 attack. Two other deputies were injured while trying to subdue the inmate.
The understaffing also has led to deaths inside the jail, Kruze said. At least nine inmates have died inside the jail since 2016, she said.
To prevent further violence, Kruze said the lawsuit includes an injunction that would order the Sheriff’s Office to abide by the 2015 court decree and install more security cameras inside the jail. In addition, the lawyers are seeking more training for correctional officers and better supervision, she said.
“Fresno County and the Sheriff’s Office have know for years that the jail is an overly dangerous place that is understaffed and ill-suited to hold the inmate population it has contains,” the lawsuit says.
Kruze said it’s time to make changes before another family, either an inmate’s or an officer’s, has to suffer like the Herrera family.
“What happened to my son was wrong, and we think about him every day,” Carlos Herrera said. “Our goal is prevent this from happening to another family.”
More importantly, Anna Hererra said her family wants to hold the Sheriff’s Office accountable. “They haven’t told us anything,” she said. “We are in shock. We live in limbo.”