Cause of Inmate Death Unknown, Autopsy Rules Out ‘Foul Play’

Officials investigating the recent death of a Santa Clara County inmate found no evidence of foul play, though the preliminary autopsy did not determine a definitive cause of death.

Walter Roches, 33, became the third person to die in the county’s custody since August. A correctional officer found him passed out on the floor of his cell just after 10am Monday. A half hour later, after staff and paramedics tried to revive him, he was pronounced dead.

“At this point in the investigation, the autopsy of Mr. Roches did not disclose evidence of foul play or acute injury that would otherwise explain his tragic death,” county Executive Jeff Smith said in a statement Thursday. “The determination of the definitive cause and manner of death is expected to take weeks given the multitude of tests and studies ordered.”

Earlier this week, the Sheriff’s Office released a timeline of events leading up to Roches’ death.

They say Roches had been arrested twice this month. On Sept. 5, sheriff’s deputies booked him at the Main Jail on suspicion of assault. While in custody, according to the Sheriff’s Office, he assaulted a county employee.

On Sept. 19, Roches was released but re-arrested a day later by Milpitas police on charges of assault, battery and public drunkenness.

On Sept. 21, officials say Roches refused to cooperate during a routine cell check and beat the door with his fists. Guards moved him to another section of the jail. That night, officials say he refused orders to step out of his cell. Officers tried to coax him out verbally, to no avail.

Just after 10pm that night, they decided to physically remove him “for the safety of the inmate,” according to sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. James Jensen. Per jail protocol, that meant using a couple bursts of “Clear Out” pepper spray to fill his cell.

When that didn’t work, officers shot at Roches with three plastic projectiles a minute apart. According to Jensen, that didn’t work either.

Custody staff then walked into the cell to pull him out. The whole ordeal took about an hour. Staff assessed the inmate’s condition and, about four hours later, cleared him to return to the Main Jail.

Upon his return, staff interviewed Roches and placed him in “an appropriate area” in the jail.

Eight days later, Sept. 28, Roches was found dead. The Medical Examiner-Coroner’s determination that there was no foul play rules out suspicions of a beating. But the investigation into a specific cause of death remains underway.

The Sheriff’s Office and its attendant Department of Correction came under intense scrutiny after the fatal beating of 31-year-old Michael Tyree. By the end of the following week, authorities had arrested three correctional officers—Jereh Lubrin, Matthew Farris and Rafael Rodriquez—on suspicion of murder and assault under the color of authority.

Days after Tyree’s death, a 50-year-old Menlo Park woman locked up on drug charges, Noriko Seales, was found dead at the county’s second jail, Elmwood in Milpitas. An autopsy ruled that she died of natural causes: a stroke and hypertensive cardiovascular disease.

Since Tyree's death, the county has placed eight jailers on leave and opened investigations into about 100 grievances filed by inmates.

This story has been updated.

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

6 Comments

  1. Time for Joe Simitian to spring into action. The lack of evidence of the deceased having been assaulted and murdered should be viewed not as proof of the correctional officers’ innocence, but as evidence they killed him by some other method. After all, if new age, politically-correct voodoo can convince the good supervisor that the subconscious brains of this county’s deputies are cursed with implicit bias, what would keep him from suspecting our correctional officers of having cast a fatal spell or curse upon the latest lunatic to fall dead in our jail?

    The good news is that help is available. The Spellbinding Sisters (see link below) offer a curse and hex removal product that utilizes herbal sea salt baths (most effective during the waning phase of the moon) to remove both evil spells and bad karma. Let’s hope Mr. Simitian can get a program started in the jails to give the inmates the same level of protection from unseen evil that he proposes for the rest of us.

    http://www.spellbindingsisters.com/voodoo-cleansing.asp

    • > After all, if new age, politically-correct voodoo can convince the good supervisor that the subconscious brains of this county’s deputies are cursed with implicit bias, what would keep him from suspecting our correctional officers of having cast a fatal spell or curse upon the latest lunatic to fall dead in our jail?

      Ummmm. Well …. I dunno.

      You’ve asked a question I can’t answer.

  2. “At this point in the investigation, the autopsy of Mr. Roches did not disclose evidence of foul play or acute injury that would otherwise explain his tragic death,” county Executive Jeff Smith said in a statement Thursday.” Please explain to me, Mr. Smith, what is so “tragic” about the death of a guy who was arrested twice within a short period of time for assaulting innocent people. The world is better off without Mr. Roches. It’s too bad that so much taxpayer money will be wasted investigating his death; money that could be better spent elsewhere. And some lawyer will pop up soon representing his “bereaved” relatives who probably saw little of him over the years, but have suddenly become grief stricken as a result of his untimely death while in County custody. County Counsel will cave in like a bit of origami in a hurricane and pay them lots of hard earned taxpayer dollars. Ka-ching!! No wonder we’re broke.

  3. He has most likely been a strain on his family throughout the years…. He is now going to be their lottery ticket. He didnt die in vain

    • It’s a sad, tragic, set of events that caused the demise of this obviously highly educated individual who had so much talent, so much potential and so much to offer society. My unconfirmed sources have advised that the unfortunate individual died almost immediately after he received a letter from the state Unemployment Benefits office, informing him that his unemployment benefits had just been terminated and this letter was attached to a job application.

      At the risk of profaning the ending line from the movie King Kong: “Oh no,it wasn’t the deputies,it was shock killed the leech”.

  4. by federal law and the United States Constitution when a person is in custody.. they must be taken care of.. and that means properly.. why did he not want to come out of his cell.. was he afraid for his life? You would be too.. Was he “sick”.. if so he needed immediate medical attention.. was he having “alcohol withdrawal” or “drug withdrawal” then he needed proper medical attention.. the fact that guards wouldn’t leave him alone means something.. why were they so desperate to get him out of his cell? sounds fishy to me.. he most likely was very ill and needed medical attention.. which he did not get and passed away. Again our constitution protects the rights of inmates in custody.. and it appears that the Jail again violated the US constitution. Mr. Roches was a human being and by law he had rights. Bottom line..