Deputies of the Tulare County Sheriff Department beat a Strathmore man unconscious, denied him medical care, held him overnight, then forced him to walk home, according to a lawsuit filed against those deputies and the Department last month in federal court.
The beating, the suit alleges, resulted from an argument with a police dispatcher.
On the night of April 26, Strathmore resident Ramiro Huerta, 41, called the Porterville Police Department to report a suspicious circumstance outside the rural home he shares with his 74-year-old mother and 81-year-old father. He was told Porterville officers did not have jurisdiction in the area, leading Huerta to argue with the dispatcher and ask to speak with the supervising sergeant during a series of calls.
“He kind of failed the attitude test,” said Visalia attorney Matthew Owdom, who represents Huerta in the suit. “He said he wanted to speak to a sergeant. I don’t know if that ever happened.”
Huerta also never spoke to anyone at the Sheriff’s Department, Owdom says, yet an hour later, after Huerta and his parents had gone to bed, they were awakened by a pounding at their front door. They found a group of confrontational county deputies waiting on their doorstep, apparently angered by Huerta’s exchange with the Porterville PD.
“This was the outfit (TCSO) that brought him in and imprisoned him until the next day. They’re the same organization that created these injuries,” Owdom said. “One big question is what role the Porterville Police Department played in this. Obviously they played a role in sending the information to the Tulare Sheriff.”
TCSO Statement: ‘Two Sides’
Sheriff Mike Boudreaux issued the following written statement about the incident, and the lawsuit against the TCSO and its deputies:
“There are two sides to every story. You have heard one side. Our side, which involves a personnel matter, will be heard during litigation.
“Our office is aware of the allegation which is pending litigation. This complaint and every complaint received by the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office is meticulously reviewed. At this time, there is no evidence to support the allegation.
“Due to the pending litigation, we are unable to elaborate on our position or the circumstances of the incident.”
The Porterville Police Department, whose officer were not at the Huerta home at the time of the incident, also issued a statement to Owdom denying any role in the beating. They have been notified to preserve all evidence regarding their contact with Huerta.
“We anticipate getting a substantial amount of information in the discovery process,” said Owdom. “We will be very aggressive in finding out. There will probably be a significant number of reports.”
Gay Slurs and Taunts
While the TCSO is unable to elaborate on what happened that night, the lawsuit filed on October 25 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California can and does go into the ugly details of Huerta and other witnesses’ version of events.
When Huerta and his mother answered their front door the night of April 26, they told the deputies who they found there they no longer required aid and asked them to leave. When Huerta refused to open a locked security screen and allow the deputies inside, they began to taunt him.
“‘Why are you hiding behind your mother?’” Owdom said the deputies asked his client. They also used homophobic slurs against him, a form of abuse that continued throughout Huerta’s 24-hour ordeal.
Eventually, the deputies appeared to leave, and Huerta finally left the family home to close the gate protecting the property, which the deputies had left open. That, says Owdom, is when he was attacked and severely injured.
“They believed they were leaving. They see tail lights leaving, they think everyone is gone,” Owdom said. “He goes to close the gate, and as he’s going out he gets tackled from behind.”
More officers joined the attack as Huerta was trying to get back into his home.
“They just beat the shit out of him,” Owdom said.
Extensive Injuries, Permanent Damage
With the security gate now unlocked, the deputies dragged Huerta back inside his home, where they continued to beat him as his mother stood by, unable to intercede, the lawsuit says.
“Mom’s standing there watching, just kind of in shock,” Owdom said.
The officers used batons and similar weapons, and repeatedly kicked Huerta in the head as he lay in his living room. They then dragged him into his front yard and pepper sprayed him, before taking him to a squad car. Once in custody, Huerta was punched in the face until he lost consciousness.
Huerta suffered three facial fractures during the beating, and has permanent loss of vision as a result.
“The pictures show the significant fracture in his nose,” Owdom said. “There are two other injuries related to the eye orbital. The guy’s got permanently impaired vision.”
Huerta’s injuries were apparently so severe the deputies took him for a check of his vital signs at Sierra View Hospital. They refused to allow staff to treat the unconscious Huerta once they learned his condition was stable, the lawsuit alleges.
“‘Did we kill the guy?’ is probably what they’re wondering,” Owdom said.
No Charges Against Huerta
While still at the hospital, Huerta regained consciousness. He was then left alone with a female deputy after his examination, and the homophobic taunts continued, as he was questioned about his sexual preferences.
“(The) female deputy comes up to him and asks if he’s a bottom or a top. That’s exactly what she said,” said Owdom. “She also asked if he liked Portuguese men. Apparently, there were some Portuguese deputies (involved in beating Huerta).”
Huerta was then jailed overnight in Porterville. He was released the next morning, but not allowed to call for a ride. Deputies, the suit says, told Huerta to walk the seven to 10 miles home. His parents then returned Huerta to the hospital for treatment of his injuries.
No charges have been filed against Huerta as a result of the events of April 26. Owdom says he does not expect any will be filed now.
“If charges were filed now, I’d want to investigate how that could possible happen,” he said. “I’d be very keen on finding out why charges were brought six or seven months down the line after the suit was filed in federal court.”
Owdom believes his client attracted the attention of TCSO deputies by arguing with the Porterville PD dispatcher. He then angered them by refusing to allow the deputies inside his home, which is when they began to attempt to draw Huerta out by attacking his homosexuality. If charges are brought against the individuals who attacked Huerta, they could include hate crime prosecutions.
“It’s not hard to tell he’s gay when you talk to him,” Owdom said of his client. “That’s what happened to Ramiro. It’s real. It happened.”
Owdom would like to see those responsible for injuring Huerta brought to justice.
“Someone did something to the guy, and no one has been charged. He’s (Huerta) certainly never been charged,” he said. “That’s the whole point of this lawsuit.”
While the circumstances surrounding Huerta’s treatment by deputies who responded to his call for aid are still in question, there is no uncertainty about who inflicted Huerta’s injuries–the deputies later returned to the Huerta household to retrieve keys and sunglasses they lost while in fighting with Huerta in his living room–and Owdom is uncertain what defense the deputies involved may offer when the case reaches court.
“They thought they could get away with it. Who knows what they’re going to say?”