Claim in jail cell death says deputies placed ‘lamb with a lion’

Deputies placed a “lamb with a lion” last year when they moved a non-violent car thief into an Orange County jail cell with an admitted double-murderer, and then lied about conducting regular safety checks after they found the thief dead, according to a wrongful death claim.

The claim, which chronicles a death widely reported in 2017, makes several new allegations:

— Orange County jailers claimed to have performed safety checks on inmates that were not conducted.

— The victim was homeless prior to sharing a cell with a man who admitted killing homeless people.

— A jail security video shows the killing.

— The alleged assailant had been “sexually aggressive” with a previous cell mate and, prior to being put into the cell with the victim, attacked a deputy jailer.

What is already known is this: Danny Pham, a 27-year-old Westminster man, was near the end of a six-month sentence when he was found strangled July 3 in a cell he shared he’d shared for days with Marvin Magallanes, an Anaheim man who’d already confessed to stabbing and killing two homeless men.

Officials from the Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office said Pham’s death is still under investigation and would not say if Magallanes is a suspect. Both agencies declined further comment.

However, the claim filed against the county last month by attorney Michael Guisti on behalf of Pham’s family alleges that Magallanes strangled Pham at 7:20 a.m. in their shared cell. Security cameras captured the killing, said the claim.

A jail employee delivering food to inmates found Pham’s body at 11:10, nearly three hours after he’d been strangled, the claim says. At the time, Magallanes was outside the cell.

Soon after, “the video recording of Danny Pham’s murder was reviewed by a Sheriff’s Lieutenant and other staff,” according to the claim. “The Lieutenant immediately determined that Pham was murdered… However, the official entry regarding the cause of death states ‘in custody death cause unknown.’”

Magallanes, with a history of recent violence and profound mental illness — who allegedly hated homeless people — never should have been placed with Pham, according to Guisti.

“Danny’s death was not only preventable, it was foreseeable and certain,” Guisti said Tuesday.

“After (Pham was found dead), deputies who had personal knowledge of Danny being placed into Magallanes’ cell stated that it was like placing ‘a lamb with a lion,’” Guisti added.

Pham had no history of violence. At 5-foot-10 inches and 120 pounds, Pham was about 50 pounds lighter than Magallanes, who is 5-foot-8 and about 175 pounds. Guisti said just before Pham’s death, the formerly homeless man was hoarding toiletries, expecting to use them when he got out of jail and returned to the streets, a sign of homelessness might have set Magallanes off, Guisti indicated.

The claim also notes that both men were in protective custody.

In Orange County, jail officials classify inmates into various housing locations depending on their previous confinement history, current charges, criminal sophistication, and a host of other indicators, according to the sheriff’s website.

Some inmates in protective custody are housed there for protection from the general population. Other inmates are in the same area because they are perceived to be a threat to other inmates and deputies.

Guisti said deputies failed to place Magallanes in total separation — in which he would have had no cell mate — even though they knew of his violent history and mental issues.

“Danny Pham’s murder was a monstrous and horrific act that was a direct result of the actions of the deputies,” Guisti said.

A month before Pham’s death, Magallanes was accused of assault and battery on a jail deputy. He also had been “sexually aggressive” with a prior cell mate, whose complaint prompted Magallanes’ transfer into Pham’s cell, the claim said.

The claim also broaches an area of operations — jailers checking on inmates on a regular basis — that was questioned in early 2016, when three inmates escaped Orange County Central Jail. At the time, jailers were criticized for not following protocol and checking on inmates at regular intervals.

After Pham’s death, deputies and a civilian record keeper falsified logs to conceal their failure to protect Pham and to properly classify Magallanes, Guisti said.

“Civilians knew that the checks and counts were never actually performed, but the civilians recorded the fictitious statistics,” the claim said.

A claim is considered a precursor to a lawsuit. Guisti said he plans to file a lawsuit against the county this month if his claim for damages is rejected.

In July, following Pham’s death, four deputies and a civilian jailer were placed on paid leave. At the time, investigators from both the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the sheriff’s department were looking into, among other things, suspicions that deputies did not check Pham’s cell in a timely manner.

The claim against the county also alleges records were falsified following a second death in the jail weeks after Pham’s death. Robert Freeman, 38, died July 21 in the jail of “drug intoxication,” according to an investigation by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

Prosecutors noted in that report that there were “deviations from OCSD protocol” and “inconsistencies in the safety check log and statements of staff members.” But the report said those record-keeping problems did not contribute to Freeman’s death.

Guisti said Tuesday the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Pham case as part of its broader investigation into Orange County jails.

Federal officials have kept open an investigation that started following the 2006 beating death of John Derek Chamberlain.

The county paid $600,000 in a wrongful death settlement to Chamberlain’s family, who alleged that Chamberlain, 41, of Mission Viejo, was killed after inmates had been led to believe he was a child molester. The lawsuit also claimed that a deputy didn’t respond to the beating because he was watching “COPS” on television.

In 2014, after six years of investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice wrote a letter to the sheriff’s department criticizing deputies’ use of force, crowded conditions, supervision practices, medical care, and mental health care within Orange County jails.

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