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Claims Filed Over Latest Death in County Jail

A new claim has been filed against San Luis Obispo County over the death of a mentally ill inmate at County Jail, but this one has dragged the City of Morro Bay into it.

Margo Benson-Hammer of Hanford, the wife of the late-Russell Hammer, filed the claim April 20, deliver- ing it to the County Clerk’s Office. The claim was filed by Paula Canny, an attorney from Burlingame, Calif., who also represented the family of Andrew Holland, who died in custody in January 2017 after being strapped into a restraint chair where he was held for 46 straight hours, as he was in the throes of a mental breakdown.

Holland had been ordered by a judge to be transferred to the County Mental Health facility, but the health de- partment reportedly said it didn’t have room for him and his continued stay in County Jail ended in his death.

The Holland Family filed a claim that the County settled for $5 million using its medical malpractice insurance and accepting no official responsibility for the tragedy. The Hollands have since formed a political action committee to lobby for reforms in the County Jail and County Mental Health, and donating large sums to the political campaigns of Greg Clayton, who is challenging Sheriff Ian Parkinson; Judge Mike Cummins, who is challenging District Attorney Dan Dow; and Jimmy Paulding who is challenging Dist. 4 Supervisor Lynn Compton.

Clayton has made Holland’s death and reforming the jail as to how it handles mentally ill inmates the centerpiece of his campaign.

The Hollands have also donated thousands to Dist. 2 Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who is being challenged by Jeff Eckles and Patrick Sparks.

The claim by Mrs. Benson-Hammer, who also filed a claim against the City of Morro Bay and its police department, involves the arrest last Nov. 6 and eventual death in custody of her husband, following a domestic violence incident at an RV park in Morro Bay.

According to the MBPD media logs, police were called at 2 a.m. to a disturbance in the 1700 block of Embarcadero. Hammer, 62, was arrested for “suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and domestic violence” and booked into County Jail. Hammer had reportedly stabbed his wife with a butcher knife.

He was charged with suspicion of assault with great bodily injury and inflicting corporal injury on a spouse, according to Sheriff’s spokesman Tony Cipolla.

While in custody, Hammer was ordered to be evaluated by psychiatrists. This was after his lawyer had reportedly filed a declaration with the court on Nov. 13 that questioned Hammer’s mental competency to stand trial on the domestic violence charges.

Judge Dodie Harmon stopped the prosecution of the alleged crime and ordered Hammer to be evaluated by two “forensic psychologists.” He died the day before those reports could be presented in court, and never entered a plea in the assault case.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, on Nov. 27 at about 3 p.m. a correctional deputy inspecting cells reportedly spoke to Hammer in his cell and he “stated he was not feeling well. The deputy immediately called for medical staff. The medical staff, who were located right around the corner, arrived and spoke with the inmate who was alert and conscious,” according to a Sheriff’s news release at the time.

An ambulance was called and jail staff was moving Hammer in a wheelchair to the jail infirmary when he reportedly lost consciousness. Medical and jail staff immediately started CPR, Cipolla said, also using a defibrillator in an attempt to save him.

“Cal Fire and paramedics took over the life saving measures,” Cipolla said, “but unfortunately, they were unable to revive him.”

An autopsy concluded that Hammer died of a “chronic health condition.”

Results showed that Hammer, “died from a massive pulmonary embolism due to deep vein thrombosis in the left calf,” Cipolla said. “This was found to be a chronic condition and was asymptomatic. Other contributing factors include peripheral vascular disease and cellulitis in the left calf.”

According to the Mayo Clinic’s website (see: “A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood vessel in your lung becomes blocked by a blood clot [thrombus] that travels to your lung from another part of your body, usually your leg.”

The cause includes, “…anything that prevents your blood from circulating or clotting normally, such as injury to a vein, surgery, certain medications and limited movement.”

The condition causes “leg pain or swelling, but also can occur with no symptoms,” according to the Mayo Clinic website. “It can also happen if you don’t move for a long time, such as after surgery or an accident, or when you’re confined to bed.”

Hammer became the 12th inmate to die at the County Jail since 2012 and while the autopsy pins the cause of death on a “chronic condition,” Benson-Hammer’s claim says there is much more to the story.

It should be noted that a claim gives just one side of the story and the County’s defense likely won’t be released publicly until there is actually a trial, and if the matter is settled out of court, the County’s side of the story probably won’t be revealed at all.

The claim names SLO County, the Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Parkinson, the County Health Department, the County Department of Behavioral Health Services, Undersheriff Tim Olivas (a former police chief in Morro Bay), former Health Director Jeff Hamm (now retired), Dr. Penny Borenstein, the County Health Officer, Dr. Marie Ilano, Deputy Sheriff Carreiro (no last name given) and Does (unnamed persons) 1-125.

These parties “were in one way or another were and are actually and legally responsible… for the horrible and inhumane treatment and death of Russell Hammer,” reads the claim.

In essence, Benson-Hammer’s claim starts with the initial arrest, saying the MBPD officers, plus two Sheriff’s deputies who assisted in the initial call, should have known he was suffering a mental health crisis and that he should have been placed under a “5150,” the Penal Code section that allows someone to be detained as a risk to his own safety or others. A 5150 essentially allows confinement for 72 hours to give time for a mental health evaluation.

According to the claim, Benson-Hammer told the officers that her husband was not violent, suffered from Parkinson’s disease, was suffering a mental health crisis and that “she did not want deputies or the officers to arrest” Hammer.

Nevertheless, officers did arrest Hammer and book him into County jail. The claim said the deputies “wrongfully facilitated” MBPD’s arrest of Hammer.

MBPD officers, according to the claim, took Hammer to Sierra Vista Medical Center, “for medical clearance because Russell Hammer was hearing voices telling him to stab his wife.”

Hammer complained of “chronic foot numbness,” according to the Claim.

The claim says the couple were married in 1992, raised two adult sons and “the family was a happy and loving family.”

In 2015, Hammer “experienced a series of health challenges that proved to be ongoing, including a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.”

And at the time of his death, he was “suffering from many medical issues that plagued his life. The symptoms of the illness included impaired ability to think, paranoia, psychosis, and auditory hallucinations.”

The claim is that with these symptoms, the officers should have taken him to a mental health facility not County Jail. The claim says Hammer was placed into a “safety cell” just as Holland was. He did not receive his prescribed medications, and no one at the jail contacted “the local pharmacy” to learn about his medication regimen.

According to the claim, by the next day, Hammer had deteriorated to the point that he “was eating his own feces ‘per command auditory hallucinations.’”

The claim says that one of the people named in the suit had marked a box on some form as his being “gravely disabled. But no respondent did anything.”

After another day (Nov. 8) in isolation, Hammer continued to deteriorate, continued to hear voices, psychosis, delusions and “was suicidal.”

On the evening of Nov. 8 Hammer was moved to the County Psychiatric Health Facility for treatment and was taken to French Hospital for “medical clearance.” He went back to County Mental Health where the staff, “noted Hammer was unsteady on his feet, required fall precautions, had a weakened grip, right side weakness, a psychotic disorder. Parkinson’s, hypothyroidism, hyperlipidemia and he required a rolling walker.”

According to the claim, Hammer was returned 2-days later to County Jail, but “his fall risk and requirement for a walker are not mentioned in the discharge plan.” They did provide an order for his medication.

The claim says that Hammer’s 85-year-old mother, Jane Hammer, and his sister came to visit him in lock up but jailers “denied the prearranged visit” and allegedly told her he was at County Mental Health. So the claim says the pair drove to the CMH department, which is on Johnson Avenue in SLO, but they allegedly said he was in County Jail.

This apparent loss of his whereabouts was “inadequate, negligent and awful,” according to the claim.

His mother never did get to visit Hammer and his sister allegedly gave them a list of his medications, “respondents could not accept the documentation,” according to the claim. His sister also allegedly mailed information about her brother to the jail but that letter was “returned to sender.” Jane Hammer died a few months later, and didn’t get to visit her son in jail.

On Nov. 20, after 20 days in County custody with “no meaningful treatment with no meaningful examination, with erratic administration of medications, with no ambulation, exercise, or movement, a blood clot in his leg covered by cellulitis dislodged.”

Cellulitis is a chronic inflammation of the cells and often occurs in legs.

As a final indignity, when deputies brought in a wheelchair to take him to the infirmary, “The wheelchair would not fit through the doorway,” according to the claim. “Russell Hammer was removed from the stuck-in-the-doorway wheelchair and died of pulmonary embolism secondary to deep vein thrombosis of the leg.”

The claim says the cumulative actions of those named in the claim, “jointly and severally neglected, ignored, tortured, misclassified, mishoused (sic), improperly diagnosed, improperly medicated, took clothing, withheld food and water and clothing at various times and interfered with familial relations from Russell Hammer and overall mistreated Russell Hammer.”

The claim charges violations of both State and Federal laws and Hammer’s Constitutional Rights against cruel and unusual punishment. No dollar amount is listed but the claim seeks compensation for wrongful death, funeral expenses, loss of familial relationships, loss of economic support, emotional distress — nervousness, grief anxiety, worry, mortification, shock, indignity, apprehension, terror, shame, guilt and “overall misery.”

It also claims continuing publicity through the Internet is causing emotional stress and invasion of privacy of the family, “her [Benson-Hammer’s] children experience and will continue to experience during their lifetimes of reliving Russell Hammer’s death each time there is a jail death anywhere.”

As to the County’s response, County Council Rita Neil said in a statement, “After reviewing the claim and based on the information we have about this incident, the County will be rejecting this claim. In the event that litigation is filed after the claim is rejected, we will vigorously defend the County, our employees and officials.”

Morro Bay City Clerk Dana Swanson said they were also served with a claim and have turned it over to the City’s risk management firm and also provided them with all the police reports from Hammer’s arrest. She said they expect a recommendation sometime this week and the recommendation will most likely be to reject the claim.

She said at this point in the process, City Manager Scott Collins would make the decision on whether to reject the claim not the City Council.

Should a lawsuit follow the rejection of the claim, the City has liability insurance that would likely handle the matter. In general, insurance carriers don’t like to settle claims that involve a police department, as that could just encourage others to file claims when their interactions with police go terribly wrong.

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