Jail assault on deputies shines light on unsafe conditions in Pitkin County facility, sheriff says
Two deputies injured during incident last month, one still recovering
A Pitkin County Jail inmate tried to strangle two deputies late last month, further highlighting the dangers associated with the aging facility, Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said Monday.
A 62-year-old deputy was not hospitalized after the Jan. 27 attack, but remains out of work and recovering at home from neck injuries, he said. A sergeant also suffered neck injuries, according to court documents.
“This is very serious,” DiSalvo said. “It’s violent. Losing a deputy is my number one fear.”
A month ago, Pitkin County commissioners preliminarily approved a plan to transfer most inmates to the Garfield County Jail in Glenwood Springs because of unsafe conditions at the 30-year-old jail in downtown Aspen. However, that plan has not yet been officially presented to the board so the contract with Garfield County has not yet been signed.
“We hope to get the contract signed soon,” DiSalvo said.
The Jan. 27 attack involved an inmate who’s been held at the jail since late October.
That was when Cesar Gonzalez, 24, allegedly attacked and choked a custodian at Aspen Elementary School without provocation Oct. 25. Gonzalez jumped on the 61-year-old man’s back as he was fixing a water fountain, then placed him in a chokehold that caused to man to nearly lose consciousness, according to a police report.
The custodian was able to fight off Gonzalez and later told police he feared for his life during the attack. At the time, Gonzalez made statements about entering a “portal” and fighting someone in another dimension and later said he had ingested LSD.
Gonzalez was being held in a padded isolation cell in the jail’s booking area Jan. 27 after he told deputies earlier that morning that he didn’t feel safe in his cell in the general population area, according to a warrantless affidavit filed in Pitkin County District Court. At about 8 a.m., the 62-year-old deputy asked other deputies to watch her, then opened the cell door and leaned her head inside to ask if Gonzalez wanted breakfast.
Gonzalez, who was lying on his back, quickly rose to his feet and overpowered the deputy as she attempted to close the door, according to the affidavit, which describes video surveillance of the attack. He pushed his way out of the cell and into the booking area, then went after the deputy.
“Gonzalez immediately wrapped both arms around (the deputy’s) head, then quickly shifted his hands, placing one on the back of her head and one hand under her chin,” the affidavit states. “Gonzalez violently twisted (the deputy’s) head with his hands. It appeared to be a serious attempt to break (the deputy’s) neck.”
A mental health professional working at the jail was the first to come to the deputy’s aid, followed by the sergeant on duty and another deputy. The sergeant and the second deputy were soon joined by a third deputy, and all began trying to wrestle Gonzalez off the deputy who was attacked while simultaneously trying to subdue him, according to the affidavit.
At one point, Gonzalez grabbed a Taser attached to the belt of one of the deputies, but other deputies were able to pry his hand off the weapon before he could get a hold of it. Once they got him off the first deputy, he grabbed for the sergeant’s neck and appeared to try to strangle him, the affidavit states.
“Gonzalez ripped half of (the sergeant’s) uniform collar off,” according to the affidavit. “(The sergeant) remembered Gonzalez having ‘supernatural strength.’”
Finally, four deputies were able to gain control of Gonzalez, and strapped him in to a restraint chair. The sergeant also saw a doctor and reported having neck pain similar to whiplash, the affidavit states.
Gonzalez had not been a problem before Jan. 27, DiSalvo said.
One possible reason for the attack may have occurred five days prior, when the deputy who was first assaulted broke some bad news to him and told him his family wasn’t able to bail him out as he expected, according to the affidavit.
Gonzalez was charged Monday with seven counts of felony second-degree assault and two counts of misdemeanor third-degree assault. He already is facing charges of burglary and second-degree assault from the October attack.
The observation cell Gonzalez was in does not have a slot to provide him food, so the deputy had no choice but to open the door to the cell, DiSalvo said. That’s yet another safety flaw at the facility, he said.
Also, the cell doesn’t have an intercom system to facilitate communication with inmates inside. The cell used to have an intercom, but it wasn’t replaced after former Snowmass Village Town Councilman Chris Jacobson tore it apart in July 2015 after he was arrested for drunken driving, DiSalvo said.
In fact, the entire booking area at the jail is dangerously laid out so that there’s no separation between inmates and deputies, DiSalvo told commissioners in January. An inmate assaulted a deputy in the booking area with a computer monitor this summer, he said.
Garfield County will charge Pitkin County $60 per inmate per day once the agreement is in place. The Pitkin County Jail will remain open for people who only need to be held as long as 48 hours, DiSalvo has said. Any inmate held longer will be transferred to Garfield County, he said.
The violent assault is the latest in a string of recent incidents at the jail, including the suicide of a 64-year-old female inmate in November 2019. In addition, a female inmate and a male inmate were left alone for two at least hours and had sex in a cell in 2017, while another inmate pried a light housing fixture from the ceiling in 2016 and used it to hack off a sprinkler head, causing more than $200,000 in damage.
Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said Monday that the jail is outdated and that the agreement with Garfield County will buy time to allow Pitkin County to figure out how to replace it.
“Our facility was built for a different time and a different population,” he said.
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