Thomas Taylor wasn’t well the night he climbed Bexar County jail’s front steps last summer.
The 30-year-old electrician battled drug addiction for much of his adult life, drawn to the dulling effects of narcotic pain pills and Xanax. For years, Taylor tried to get clean, taking Suboxone — a synthetic opioid, like methadone — and enrolling in short rehab stints.
Nothing helped for long. Taylor told family, friends, and his probation officers he needed long-term treatment to kick the habit. Following his arrest in Bexar County last April, when cops caught him driving high after scoring some pills from a local dealer, Taylor thought he’d found a solution: he’d serve time in Hays, Guadalupe, and Bexar county jails to get off probation. With the charges behind him, Taylor’s family planned to send him to an intensive six-month rehab program in Arizona that came highly recommended. Taylor had tried the place once before, but authorities in Texas came calling and forced him back months early, threatening to revoke his probation.
Bexar County was the last stop on Taylor’s South Texas jail tour, and he walked through its glass double-doors the night of August 21, 2012 to turn himself in.
Six hours later, a guard found him in an isolation cell kneeling in a prayer-like position, with blood coming from his nose and his forehead stuck to the cold floor. Officials later pronounced him dead of a methadone overdose.
Taylor had entered a Bexar County jail battling with its own sickness.
The year he died, the last year former sheriff Amadeo Ortiz was at the reins, the Bexar County jail suffered a series of public embarrassments. There were the personnel issues, like the guard who fought charges for posing as a police investigator to shake down a local business for cash, or the jailers arrested for smuggling in hacksaw blades in tacos, cell phones in Ramen noodle cups, or heroin in barbacoa. One female inmate came forward accusing a jailer of fixing her schedule to get her alone to repeatedly rape her.
There were the administrative headaches, too. Along with battling high suicide rates at the lockup, Ortiz publicly sparred with the Bexar County Commissioners Court over management of the jail, county government’s single largest expenditure. While County officials argued the jail should be able to absorb budget cuts, given that jail diversion programs had lowered the inmate population some 15 percent from the jail’s overcrowded heydays, Ortiz insisted he faced a critical staffing crisis.
Meanwhile, Bexar County jailers quit in droves due to what many called untenable working conditions, which included routine back-to-back eight-hour shifts. On rare occasions, when the jail had no one left to cover a shift, guards were ordered to work a “forced” overtime shift; former and current jail guards who spoke with the Current told of some unlucky jailers required to pull three shifts in a row.
“It was a self-perpetuating cycle,” said former jailer Eustacio Diaz, who was on guard in booking the night Taylor died. Last year, jail officials said that, on average, 10 guards quit every month. At one point last summer, 14 left within a two-week window. Diaz’s sister, also a jail guard, quit two weeks before he did late last year.
“People get exhausted,” Diaz said. “When you’ve got a facility staffed like that, mistakes happen. People can die.”
It appears corners got cut the night Taylor died. In a lawsuit filed against Bexar County late last week, Taylor’s family argues that those mistakes contributed to Taylor’s death in lockup.
Records provided to Taylor’s family indicate he was never screened for drug use or medical history upon entry to the jail. Because he called a guard “a fat fuck” and muttered “fuck these guys,” according to jail records, Taylor was thrown in an isolation cell in the jail’s booking area. No guards walked down the hallway where Taylor sat in a cell for an hour, according to records, even though policy dictates that isolated inmates be checked at least every 15 minutes. Taylor wasn’t breathing and didn’t have a pulse when a guard who stopped in to take his booking photo found him.
As Taylor’s family questions why he was taken to isolation instead of medical if he was in the throes of an overdose, current and former jail guards question how the current sheriff has decided to handle Taylor’s death: by sending one of their own to the Bexar County District Attorney’s office for prosecution.
Sheriff’s officials and the DA’s office confirmed authorities are considering charges against detention officer Ernesto Flores, accusing him of falsifying the unit’s logbook and pretending to make cell checks that video surveillance proves he did not do. A DA spokesman told the Current the office plans to take the case to a grand jury, seeking an indictment for tampering with an official government document, a third-degree felony.
Flores, who was fired in March, contends he fudged the books because a supervisor ordered him to just moments after guards discovered Taylor’s body. Former and current jailers who spoke with the Current call the practice “pencil-whipping,” describing it as a cover-your-ass move that was and is pervasive inside county lockup.
Flores maintains that he’s been scapegoated as Sheriff Susan Pamerleau attempts to scrub the jail’s image by publicly addressing problems at the facility.
“They’re blaming it on me, but I just happened to be standing by the book when this Taylor guy died,” Flores said last month. “Sarge told me to pencil-whip it, so I did.”
In 1999, a dumb high-school prank turned Tommy Taylor into a convicted felon.
Taylor had a group of friends over at his mother’s home in Mesa, Ariz., when a friend dropped in, either high or drunk, said mother Terie Taylor. They took the friend’s keys so he couldn’t drive. When the boy passed out on the couch, the guys lit the fringes at the bottom of his jeans with a lighter to wake him up – they called it a “hot foot.”
“He woke up and they all laughed. They thought they’d put the fire out and walked outside,” Terie said. “I was upstairs when I heard the fire alarm go off.”
The fire badly burned the boy’s leg. Taylor took the blame when his friend’s parents insisted on pressing charges, Terie said. Later that week, cops dragged him out of a high-school classroom in handcuffs, charging him with aggravated assault.
That’s how, at 17 years old, Taylor wound up in Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s infamous “Tent City” jail for three months. He missed his senior year, and during a spring break trip he couldn’t attend, his girlfriend cheated on him. Weeks later, she came back saying she was pregnant with his child, Terie said.
Naturally, Taylor’s family doubted the kid was his. “But Braiden came out with blond hair, blue eyes, and looked just like Tommy,” Terie said. “There was no denying it.”
In 2003, when Braiden was still a toddler, he fell into a swimming pool and drowned. “Tommy was quiet, introverted, and didn’t show his emotions much,” said sister Tonie Taylor Grindle. “But that was the first time I saw him hurt that bad.”
Taylor’s grandfather, who was a father figure to him, had died months earlier. Family and friends suspect those combined losses first triggered Taylor’s serious drug use.
Months after Braiden’s death, Taylor swallowed a bottle of pills when he was home alone in an apparent suicide attempt. He dialed 911 when he changed his mind.
“The firefighters that showed up were being real ugly with him,” Grindle said. “Tommy said they were telling him things like, ‘You dumb-shit, you can’t even kill yourself right.’”
Perhaps that’s why Taylor spit on one of the first responders before they carted him off to the hospital. When doctors discharged Taylor, Terie watched as police led her son out in handcuffs on charges of assaulting a public servant.
“They threw the book at him for it,” she said. “I’ll never understand that.”
An autopsy report from Bexar County lists the numerous tattoos that covered Taylor’s arms and torso.
“‘RIP Braiden’ is tattooed on the right lateral lower chest wall.”
Newly elected Sheriff Susan Pamerleau says she discovered a jail in financial crisis soon after being sworn into office in January.
While Commissioners allotted $250,000 for jailer overtime through fiscal year 2013, which began in October, Pamerleau announced the office had burned through $1.2 million in overtime during those three months before she took office.
The crunch highlighted the schism that had widened between Pamerleau’s predecessor, Amadeo Ortiz, and County officials over his last year in office. Bexar County Manager David Smith routinely called such overtime costs unnecessary, and told commissioners and reporters alike the overruns were symptoms of mismanagement and waste.
In 2009, Ortiz took over a jail staffed with 932 detention officers that averaged about 4,300 inmates every day – his first summer in office, inmate populations swelled to 4,600. But by 2011 local jail reduction strategies began to show results, dropping inmate levels to less than 3,600, where they’ve hovered ever since. Still, the jail’s budget remained flat until commissioners drafted a 2012 budget that cut $4 million from the jail, mainly through the axing of 100 jailer positions through attrition — commissioners begrudgingly reinstated $2 million of those cuts last year.
Months before Taylor died in lockup, a Texas Commission on Jail Standards staffing analysis seemed to back up Ortiz’s warnings that the jail was understaffed, saying Bexar County needed nearly 100 more detention officers than officials had budgeted for in order to keep the jail running properly. Ortiz heralded the report during his unsuccessful re-election campaign.
“The only way that we passed inspections was…we used a lot of mandatory overtime, so much that we burned out the officers,” Ortiz told a news conference last year, claiming the staffing crunch had “destroyed morale” at the jail. Then-TCJS director Adan Muñoz told reporters, “Eventually, this facility will not be safe and secure for inmates and detention officers.”
Meanwhile, the County rejected the TCJS finding and continued to scold the sheriff.
An Express-News report early this year highlighted some of the questionable management that exacerbated the staffing problem, showing Ortiz inexplicably failed to fill spots vacated by several jailers called in for reserve or National Guard duty; those overruns blew up overtime costs, comprising at least 18 percent of the jail’s overtime spending, the daily reported.
By the time Pamerleau took over, the jail employed only 789 jailers. Weeks after her swearing in, she asked the County for emergency funding, saying that otherwise jailers who had already worked overtime couldn’t get paid.
By March, Pamerleau announced to commissioners that her own staffing analysis concluded that 882 guards are needed to support the jail, below the 922 the TCJS estimated last year, but above the 830 commissioners had budgeted for.
Pamerleau told Commissioners her office had managed to hire new guards and cut overtime pay — from about $100,000 a week after she took office down to $68,000 a week — but that she still needed some 50 new jailers.
The most recent TCJS turnover report, meanwhile, says 20 guards left the jail in March, meaning Bexar County jailers are still quitting at a higher rate than any other large jail in the state.
In 2005, about two years after his son’s death, Tommy Taylor moved to Texas, attending community college in Austin. His drug addiction soon worsened, his mother said. Taylor eventually met Rachel Brunet, who was dealing with her own addition to prescription pain meds, and soon after they started dating Brunet got pregnant with their daughter, Adilynn.
Nathan Pacheco, one of Taylor’s best friends who worked alongside him at Integrated Electric Services in New Braunfels, said it was clear Braiden’s death still tugged at Taylor.
“He always talked about his boy … He didn’t talk about his feelings much, but what little came out, you could tell it was still crushing him,” Pacheco said. A couple years ago, Taylor opened up to Pacheco about his addiction during a break at their side jobs at Home Depot.
“He broke down crying, telling me how hard it was to stop,” Pacheco said. “That addiction just sunk its teeth into him.”
Taylor was high in San Marcos when, in the summer of 2010, he got arrested for evading arrest — his mother says that when cops arrested him while trying to break up a fight, Taylor slipped his cuffs. The next year in Guadalupe County, authorities accused Taylor of trying to steal a pack of cigarettes from a Wal-Mart.
Soon after that arrest, Taylor went to a Salvation Army rehab center in Arizona; Terie’s nephew, a heroin addict, cleaned up there years earlier. But probation in Hays County came calling after Taylor had been in rehab for about a month, Terie said. “He couldn’t leave the State of Texas,” she said.
“They told him he had to come back, that they’d find him something here.”
Taylor bounced between short rehab stints in San Antonio and San Marcos much of the following year. None were longer than 30 days. “Each time Tommy would get out, he’d tell me, ‘Mom, I still feel terrible. I don’t know how long this can last,’” Terie said. It wasn’t long before he backslid.
In April 2012, Taylor called one of his probation officers saying he needed to find a long-term treatment center and had just secured a leave of absence from his job. Two days later, San Antonio police arrested him for driving high with pills in the car, charging him for DWI and misdemeanor drug possession.
One of Taylor’s probation officers revoked his probation and issued a warrant for his arrest shortly thereafter; Taylor’s family says it was to get him in front of a judge as soon as possible in hopes of getting court-ordered rehab, though Taylor’s probation officers wouldn’t speak to the Current to confirm the details.
What’s clear is that Taylor was picked up and taken to the Hays County jail, which triggered arrest warrants in Guadalupe and Bexar counties for violating probation. When a judge declined to order him into long-term treatment, Taylor got fed up. He told his mother he wanted to serve time on all his charges instead of waiting on probation, and find a six-month program when he got out.
Taylor served three weeks in Hays County and was subsequently transferred to Guadalupe County, where he served another few weeks. Due to a paperwork error, authorities never transferred him to Bexar County like they should have.
“He told me, ‘This is my lucky day,’” Terie said. “He was so happy he had a few days with Adilynn before going back to jail.”
The night she took him to jail, Taylor’s mother brought along Rachel Brunet to drop her off at a local halfway house. They left Canyon Lake, where Terie lives, that evening and stopped at an Arby’s along the way for dinner.
“Tommy wouldn’t tell me what he took, but I could tell he had been taking something,” Brunet said. “I think he wanted everyone to think he was clean and doing well … but you could see it in the pupils of his eyes. He had bright blue eyes, but they always looked distant when he was on something.”
Those first few hours in jail were always the worst, Taylor used to tell his mother. “I knew he wanted to take something,” Terie said. “I’m sure he wanted to just float through that first night.” Records indicate Taylor turned himself in at the front desk of the Bexar County jail at around 8 p.m.
Medical records from Taylor’s previous jail stint in Bexar County, after his April 2012 arrest, show he admitted to using “heroin or other opiate drugs,” and exhibited slurred speech at the jail. No such assessment took place the night Taylor turned himself in. One jail staffer, who didn’t want to be quoted discussing jail operations, said Taylor was never screened and said that it still takes several hours before many inmates receive such attention due to bottlenecks in the jail’s booking section.
Jail records say Taylor became verbally combative in holding four hours after he turned himself in and that two guards took him to an isolation cell just after midnight. Someone stopped in to give him food around 1 a.m.
At about 2:15, a guard found Taylor lying facedown and unresponsive in his cell, according to an EMS report. According to the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s office, Taylor died from a mixture of methadone toxicity and cardiomyopathy, which can result from long-term substance abuse.
Ernesto Flores barely remembers Tommy Taylor. At some point, while running around the jail’s holding area the night he died, Flores thinks he saw Taylor out of the corner of his eye while throwing a combative inmate in a nearby isolation cell.
“I remember him near the floor,” Flores told the Current, possibly reaching to the ground, looking like he was picking something up. “I don’t know when that was. I told [internal affairs] flat-out that I didn’t check on him, that I had to run to finish something else, that I was freaking busy.”
Flores contends he was wrapped up handling inmate transfers during his shift — he estimated he may have been in charge of overseeing the transfer of anywhere between 20 to 80 inmates in any given shift, though he wasn’t sure how many he handled the night Taylor died.
“I was away from that unit 40 to 45 minutes at a time, easy, depending on how many guys I’ve got for transfer,” Flores said. “I don’t know when they think I should have been doing those checks. It was unrealistic for one guy.”
Flores was standing near the logbook when guards found Taylor’s body, he recalled. The floor sergeant, he insists, looked at him and yelled, “Hey Flores, make sure the books are up to date.”
So Flores “pencil-whipped it,” he said, or wrote in cell checks that were never performed. It’s become second nature to guards throughout the jail, according to Flores and current and former guards at the facility that spoke to the Current, who argue that the practice is a side-effect of inadequate staffing and overworked officers.
Taylor died on Flores’ first shift. He worked his mandatory overtime the next shift, and then went home. When he came back the next day, he was put on administrative leave.
Flores says he was honest from the start with internal affairs investigators who questioned him about the death: “I told them I didn’t do those checks, but that I was told to fix the books. I was upfront about that the whole time. I never once tried to lie to them.”
He found out January 8, days after Sheriff Pamerleau was sworn-in, that the office had officially accused him of lying. He was fired in March, but didn’t know about pending criminal action until he read about it in a Current blog post in late April.
“Sure, Ernesto pencil-whipped the books, but he didn’t really have a choice in the matter,” said Ernesto Diaz, who claims the practice was pervasive before he quit in November. “Ernesto was dealing with a broken system.”
One current Bexar County jailer, who didn’t want to be named for fear of reprisal, told the Current, “If the Sheriff wanted to crack down on [pencil-whipping], if she wanted to line up, fire, and press charges against every officer that does this, she’d lose about half her jailers.”
During the internal affairs investigation into the death, Flores was asked why he followed the order. “They said something like, ‘Well, if somebody blows through a red light, are you going to do the same?’”
Under normal circumstances, no, of course not. “But if I was following my superiors for over a year, and all we ever did was run red lights, then yeah, of course I’d run one. And I probably wouldn’t think anything of it.”
There have been a number of noticeable changes since Sheriff Pamerleau was sworn in January 1. Her office has insisted she’s trying to be frank about the department’s warts — as of press time, however, Pamerleau declined to be interviewed and her office failed to respond to specific questions from the Current.
Pamerleau has been quick to air the office’s dirty laundry in public. When, within her first month in office, three sheriff’s deputies were arrested for drunk driving, Pamerleau called a press conference to condemn the behavior — the local deputies union, meanwhile, set up a program to provide free cabs for sloshed members needing a ride. Her office alerted reporters last month when, due to an antiquated paper-based system, guards erroneously released an inmate. Pamerleau called another May press conference when Deputy Andreas Aldaña, a nine-year veteran of the department, bit off a portion of another jail guard’s ear during a fight at the lockup. Citing “a pattern of behavior which must be addressed immediately,” Pamerleau announced chaplain and counseling services for deputies. Last Friday, the Sheriff’s communications officer contacted the media after an inmate stabbed a jail detention officer in the leg with “some sort of sharp object.” The inmate was charged with aggrevated assault with a deadly weapon against a public service, a felony.
Tonie Taylor Grindle is quick to say Sheriff Pamerleau handled her brother’s death with care and respect as soon as she took over. At some point this year, Pamerleau brought Grindle into the jail’s booking area so she could see for herself where her brother died.
“That was hard. Literally, his cell was just feet away from a medical unit,” she said. “If he was screened, if the checks were done, medical would have jumped in,” she contended. “If they had been paying attention, I think they could have saved Tommy. I really believe that.”
Whether the reliance on pencil whipping contributed to Taylor’s death may never be known. Diaz, who was one of the officers who put Taylor in isolation and insists he didn’t appear to need medical attention, remarked, “Ernesto’s actions didn’t kill Mr. Taylor. Mr. Taylor’s drug use killed Mr. Taylor.”
But the internal investigation into Taylor’s death revealed more than just stressed and stretched jailers. Detention officers that spoke with the Current say the incident highlights a deeper problem at the jail that Pamerleau will have to tackle if she’s serious about reform — that working conditions have disintegrated to a point where officers and supervisors alike regularly lie to get by.
“Look, Ernesto was unlucky,” said one current jail guard. “If I had been the one near it (the logbook) that night, they would have told me to fix the books… It could have been anybody.”