Crime & Justice

Inmate death is latest black mark for OC Sheriff's Department

Orange County Central Men's Jail on January 22, 2016. The facility was built in 1968.
Orange County Central Men's Jail on January 22, 2016. The facility was built in 1968.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

Orange County authorities continue to investigate the death of an OC jail inmate earlier this month. The death of 27-year-old Danny Pham has resulted in the suspension of five jail employees and is the latest scandal to hit OC law enforcement. 

Pham was scheduled to be released from jail July 10 after serving a three-month sentence for auto theft. Instead, he died in his cell on July 3. 

Pham’s death is the latest in a string of black marks for the embattled OC Sheriff’s Department, following a brazen jailbreak by three inmates last year and ongoing questions over the misuse of jailhouse informants. 

Five jail employees have been put on paid administrative leave in connection with Pham’s death while the sheriff’s department conducts an internal investigation. 

The Orange County District Attorney’s Office is also investigating Pham’s death, as it does with all in-custody deaths. 

Both law enforcement agencies have released only scant details about the incident, citing the ongoing investigations. 

But Michael Guisti, a lawyer hired by Pham’s family, suspects Pham was killed by his reported cellmate, a man in custody on suspicion of murdering two homeless people. Pham, in contrast, was finishing up a three-month sentence for vehicle theft, which Guisti characterized as “joyriding."

Neither the DA’s office nor the Sheriff’s Department would confirm the name of Pham’s cellmate or whether or not he was suspected of killing Pham. But Guisti said the cellmate was Marvin Magallanes. Both men were being housed at the county Intake and Release Center. 

Guisti has filed a complaint, a precursor to a lawsuit, with the county over Pham’s death. 

Lt. Lane Lagaret, a spokesman for the sheriff’s department, said jail staff select housing for inmates based on a variety of factors and that it’s not unusual for inmates with disparate sentences to be placed together. 

“There are murderers in the jail. That’s just the way it is,” he said. 

James Sida, a consultant who has assessed jail management for Orange and LA counties, says housing a potential serial killer with a nonviolent offender would raise questions. He also said the fact that five jail employees were put on leave indicates a potential violation of jail policy or even the law.

“The rule of thumb in jails is that an individual should walk out of the jail in at least as good a shape as when they came in,” he said.

He stressed that any jail death exposes the local jurisdiction, in this case the county, to harsh scrutiny and expensive litigation. 

The Orange County’s Sheriff’s Department and DA’s office are already under the spotlight. Last year, three inmates escaped from the OC Men’s Central Jail in Santa Ana, cutting through several layers of metal, steel and rebar, crawling through plumbing tunnels and then rappelling off the roof to a getaway vehicle. KPCC's media partner NBC4 obtained a video of the escape shot by the inmates themselves.

Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has acknowledged that staffing shortages and management flaws contributed to the escape. 

Hutchens also recently admitted that some deputies misused jailhouse informants to secure convictions against inmates. State and federal officials are investigating the so-called jailhouse snitch scandal. 

In a recent report, the ACLU slammed the sheriff’s department for alleged mistreatment of jail inmates, including failure to prevent inmate-on-inmate violence. 

In 2014, an inmate at OC’s Theo Lacy jail was charged with murder for killing his cellmate, Thiep Truong Nguyen. In 2006, inmates at Theo Lacy beat fellow inmate John Chamberlain to death, leading to murder charges for six inmates. 

Chamberlain’s death also prompted an investigation into OC jail operations by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. That investigation is still open.