Sheriff seeks change in jail procedures after incident

Published on Saturday, 18 February 2017 00:32 - Written by EMILY GUEVARA, eguevara@tylerpaper.com

Prev  1 of 13  Next

Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith said he would ask the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to allow the jail to keep certain inmates in handcuffs during state-mandated recreation, after a high-profile inmate charged with capital murder climbed atop an old basketball goal and refused to come down Friday afternoon.

Smith County Jail inmate Gustavo Zavala-Garcia, 24, who is charged with capital murder in the death of 10-year-old Kayla Gomez-Orozco, was removed from the roof of the Smith County Jail downtown after about 30 minutes.

At one point, Zavala-Garcia could be seen resisting and punching a jail lieutenant who attempted to bring him down.

Smith said the inmate was not at risk of escaping, but he put himself and officers in danger.

The Texas Rangers arrested Zavala-Garcia, and he was booked into the Smith County Jail on Nov. 6, after Kayla’s body was found in a well on property where he was living.

Smith said there had been no outbursts or incidents involving Zavala-Garcia prior to Friday afternoon, and he cited a recently changed procedure as a contributing factor in Friday’s incident.

Smith County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Darrell Coslin said Zavala-Garcia had been on his scheduled recreation time, which is required by state law.

As recently as two weeks ago, the county kept certain inmates - those it deemed “an immediate threat” - in handcuffs during recreation, Smith said. Zavala-Garcia was one of those inmates.

However, during its most recent visit, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards told the county it needed to let all inmates out of handcuffs during recreation. So, it did.

Smith said to his knowledge this was the first time Zavala-Garcia had recreation without handcuffs, and this is what happened.

“We’ll be in contact with the jail commission to again express our concern about having to take handcuffs off of him,” Smith said.

Zavala-Garcia, who is being held in segregated housing (a one-person cell), has his recreation time alone in the confined courtyard on the roof of the jail. The area is entirely enclosed by a double chain-link, tension-grade fence, Smith said.

Two detention officers escort him from his cell to the courtyard and back each time he has recreation. The state commission requires a minimum of three hours of recreation per week for inmates. Smith said inmates usually go for one hour three times per week.

At some point in his recreation time, Zavala-Garcia climbed up the fence and onto framework attached to the roof that formerly held a basketball goal.

“He was taken up there for recreation and tried to climb out, but it’s totally enclosed, so he’s just on top of a basketball goal,” Smith reported during the incident. “He is not in any danger unless he jumps. If he does jump, we have people with suicide netting, and we’ve even put some mattresses down. Right now, we just want to wait him out.”

Once alerted to the incident, jail staff, Tyler fire and rescue and a crisis intervention officer responded to the scene. The officer tried to negotiate with Zavala-Garcia.

A ladder was set up so Zavala-Garcia could come down if he desired, and an inflatable airbag was placed under the area in case he fell. However, Zavala-Garcia refused to cooperate and come down, Coslin said.

At that point two people, one of them a jail lieutenant who had a helmet on, climbed up the ladder to try to remove the inmate, but Zavala-Garcia fought back, punching his arms and swinging his legs, before falling to the inflatable airbag and out of sight.

Coslin said the inmate would be taken to the jail’s medical ward to be examined. Smith said that was just to ensure he had no physical injuries. None were visible nor did Zavala-Garcia say he had any, Smith said.

After his initial arrest, Zavala-Garcia was on suicide watch and he remained on it with someone checking in on him every 10 minutes, Smith said.

Smith said the only thing the county planned to change about Zavala-Garcia’s jail confinement is keeping him in handcuffs during future recreation periods, if the state commission allows it.

“We’re going to revisit the way he does recreation with the jail commission,” Smith said, adding that Zavala-Garcia would not face any additional charges as a result of this incident.

Zavala-Garcia faces arraignment Tuesday in the capital murder case, though he may not have to appear in court if his attorney files a waiver of arraignment.

During the arraignment, the judge informs the defendant of the charges against them and the defendant enters a formal plea of guilty or not guilty.

If he is present, this would be the first court appearance for Zavala-Garcia after a Smith County grand jury indicted him Jan. 23. Six pre-trial hearings are scheduled in the case starting in April and going through September. The docket call and trial is scheduled for Oct. 2.

TWITTER: @TMTEmily

Senior Editor Roy Maynard contributed to this report.

SAFETY

How do officials contain an inmate who has nothing to lose?

Retired Smith County Sheriff J.B. Smith held scores of high-risk inmates, some facing capital murder charges, during his 30-year tenure.

He said keeping inmates safe - from others and from themselves - is a sheriff’s hardest task.

“The responsibility of the sheriff when it comes to the jail is enormous,” said Smith, who retired in 2012. “It’s his No. 1 major concern. Inside that jail, you’ve got people with every problem you can imagine. It’s a 24-hour thing. There’s no rest from it.”

That’s especially true of inmates who are charged with capital crimes. They’re often despondent and desperate, he said.

“When you’re holding a capital suspect, they require a lot more supervision, for a number of reasons,” Smith said. “Often, it’s not just to protect them from other prisoners, but to protect them from themselves. We have a tendency as citizens to say ‘who cares?’ - but the sheriff has to care. That individual is their responsibility. We have to keep them safe and get them ready for trial.”

- Roy Maynard