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.