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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ronald Herrera: Strange case of infamous criminal ends with his even stranger death

2-13-2004 California:

The strange case of Ronald Herrera, a former resident of Santa Paula who became infamous for not only his violent crime spree but for also being the first person returned to prison under the state’s sexual predator law, became even stranger with his death in Corcoran State Prison.

Herrera, 60, died in his cell. He bled to death in either an act of suicide or criminal negligence by the prison guards who did not respond to Herrera’s screams as they watched the Super Bowl game on television.

Herrera had been returned to prison under the three-strikes law after he was arrested about three years ago in Carpinteria for shoplifting lip balm, breath freshener and wine from a grocery store.

Herrera was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison; he already had 19 serious felonies under his belt

That Herrera was a dangerous criminal there is no doubt: his violent resume included a notorious 1971 home-invasion robbery and rape of a woman and her 15-year-old daughter in Ventura’s Pierpont area where Herrera and accomplices kept the vacationing family members hostage.

Later, Herrera shot a Virginia police officer in the face, a state where he committed six armed robberies after he escaped from jail in California.

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa called Herrera, then 57 and living in Oxnard, one of the worst criminals to pass through his courtroom.

“He’s what the three-strikes law is all about. He’s a career criminal,” Deputy District Attorney Darryl Perlin said at the time of Herrera’s conviction.

Herrera has 30 prior convictions - more than half for serious or violent felonies – with his first serious felony, an attempted robbery, in 1965.

In December 1971 he was convicted of four counts of robbery, three of which involved the use of a gun, two counts of forcible rape, and three counts of forcible oral copulation resulting from the Pierpont rapes.

Although Herrera had also received a sentence of 50 years in prison in Virginia, a 1986 mix-up led to his release. He returned to California and was arrested and committed to state prison to serve time on his 1971 convictions.

In 1996, Herrera became eligible for parole, but was classified as a Sexually Violent Predator. After a jury trial, he remained in custody for two more years and again received a two-year sentence thereafter. He was finally released from Atascadero State Hospital in November 2001. He moved to his mother’s home in Carpinteria and in less than 90 days he was in custody for the offenses for which the Santa Barbara County jury convicted him.

Herrera had deliberately or accidently removed his diabetes shunt and covered his Corcoran State Prison cell window with blood-saturated toilet paper while the guards watched the Super Bowl. He reportedly was screaming for hours before his death.

Herrera was found Monday morning slumped over on the floor, lifeless and within days Kings County and state investigators began a probe to determine if his death resulted from criminal negligence. ..more.. by Peggy Kelly, Santa Paula News


California Prisoner's Gruesome Death Probed


Officials want to know if Corcoran guards, who were watching the Super Bowl, were negligent.

FRESNO — All through the night, the howls kept coming from the cell of inmate Ronald Herrera.

More than one guard at Corcoran State Prison thought something was terribly amiss. Herrera wouldn't stop screaming late Sunday, and he had covered his cell window in a curtain of toilet paper soaked in blood.

One guard had seen Herrera, a dialysis patient suffering from hepatitis, pull out the medical shunt from his arm, corrections officials said. But when the guard later tried to check on the inmate, his sergeant told him not to bother, they said. "He's not dead," the sergeant was quoted by officials as saying. "Just keep an eye on him."

The next morning, the howls had given way to silence. As a new shift made its checks, a guard saw what he said looked to be "raspberry Kool-Aid" streaming out from the cell. Inside, he found Herrera slumped over on the floor, lifeless.

Much of the blood had drained from his body, corrections officials said. Blood filled the toilet bowl and washed over the concrete floor of the 8-by-10-foot cell.

On Wednesday, Kings County and state investigators began a probe to determine if Herrera's death resulted from criminal negligence by prison staff too busy watching the Super Bowl.

The probe comes on the heels of state Senate hearings and other revelations that have shone an unflattering light on the state's vast prison system, challenging the new administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. On Monday, he promised to make reforms and to "clean the place up."

A coroner's autopsy of Herrera had not been completed by early Wednesday, but corrections officials said there were signs that Herrera, a 60-year-old mentally ill burglar and rapist, had been trying to staunch the bleeding with a wad of toilet paper.

It was unclear if Herrera was trying to commit suicide and then changed his mind or if something more sinister happened, corrections officials said. His desperation, they said, played out for nearly 10 hours without any intervention from staff.

Of all the horrors that have taken place at Corcoran State Prison over the last decade, one official said, the death of Herrera was particularly ghastly -- and preventable.

Fearing retaliation for breaking the prison system's pervasive code of silence, the officials requested anonymity. "Corcoran has seen a lot," one said, "but for an inmate to literally bleed out his body, it was one of the goriest crime scenes."

A media spokesman for the prison said he could not comment on the case because of an ongoing investigation.

Steve Fama of the watchdog Prison Law Office said he doubted whether the Kings County district attorney's office would hold staff accountable. He noted that Dist. Atty. Ron Calhoun had been elected in 1998 partly on the strength of financial support from the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., the union representing state prison guards.

When it's this serious, you want an aggressive, independent investigation," Fama said. "I'm not sure if the district attorney in Kings County is capable of that given the significant role that the CCPOA played in his election."

Patrick Hart, Kings County's chief deputy prosecutor, acknowledged that his office had a "fairly good working relationship" with the guards union, but he said it would not hinder the independence of the probe.

"We're not satisfied with the written reports we've gotten so far from staff," he said. "One of the things we're looking at is whether staff knew he was in trouble and failed to take the proper steps."

Herrera's case is only the latest in a series of inmate deaths at Corcoran that have raised questions about the correctional system's care of mentally ill patients and its response to suicide attempts.

In December 1998, a Corcoran inmate who had been taken off suicide watch was seen hanging in a dark corner of his cell. But rather than pop open the cell door and determine if he was alive, guards remained outside for 18 minutes while 32-year-old Michael van Straaten dangled from a noose made of bedsheets and shoelaces. When officers finally did enter and cut him loose, he was dead but his body was still warm, according to prison reports.

Two years later, on Christmas Day, an inmate with three suicide attempts succeeded in killing himself in the prison's Security Housing Unit. A lawsuit filed by the family of 26-year-old Thomas Mansfield alleged that staff negligence had allowed the suicide and that guards tried to cover up the incident by doctoring the record of cell checks. Last year, the state settled the case out of court.

And just a week before Herrera's death, corrections officials said, three inmates in the Security Housing Unit entered into a suicide pact to protest what they called brutality by Corcoran guards. One inmate, "Tiny" Walton, went through with the pact and hanged himself.

"What I've found is the so-called suicide watch is a joke," said Bob Navarro, a Fresno attorney who represented Mansfield's family and has filed suit in a recent suicide at the women's prison in Chowchilla. "The cells are not being checked according to written procedure."

A detailed account of Herrera's medical condition and death was provided by two corrections officials. Herrera was taking mood-altering medication at the time, but had not been seen by a psychiatric case manager since December. They said that violates prison policy, which dictates a one-on-one clinical evaluation every 30 days. ..Source.. by Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

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