Riverside County to pay $7.5M over inmate who died after violent confrontation with deputies

Rob McMillan Image
Tuesday, May 21, 2024
$7.5M settlement reached in Riverside County inmate's death
Riverside County has reached a $7.5 million settlement with the family of a man who died after a violent confrontation with law enforcement while in jail.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (KABC) -- Riverside County has reached a $7.5 million settlement with the family of a man who died after a violent confrontation with law enforcement while in jail.

An attorney representing the children of 39-year-old Christopher Zumalt, who was arrested for public intoxication, said the actions of Riverside County correctional deputies when the man suffered a medical emergency while in a "sobering cell" were egregious.

"It was a gross overreaction to a very minor situation," attorney John Burton said. "When they have these adverse reactions, they need to be treated like patients and not like the enemy."

The incident occurred on Oct. 22, 2020, when neighbors of Zumalt's called 911 when he began acting erratically while on methamphetamine.

"He was having paranoid delusions that people were chasing him who weren't there, so a neighbor called the police, and they came out and he was very cooperative and friendly with them," Burton said.

"And they said 'We're going to have to take you in for being under the influence' and he said OK."

Burton said Zumalt was cooperative during the booking process at the Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility in Banning. But after several hours in the sobering cell, Burton said the effects of the methamphetamine in his system began taking a toll on his body.

"Instead of coming down from the methamphetamine, he got psychotic," Burton said. "He was pacing back and forth (in his cell) and becoming increasingly agitated. By the end of that time, he was kind of yelling. He was reaching in the toilet thinking there was money in the toilet."

But instead of calling in mental health professions to de-escalate the situation, Burton said correctional deputies decided they needed to extract him from the cell. The entire incident was captured on video, not only from surveillance cameras inside the jail, but from a handheld camera used by an employee.

"They activated what's called the emergency response team, which are 12 jailors who are all dressed up in body armor and helmets. Then they put in three doses of pepper spray over 10 minutes, and then exploded a flash-bang grenade and went in with an electrified shield and pinned him to the ground.

"Then they handcuffed him and put him in this chair and tied him in the chair way too tight. He was obviously alive at this point, squirming and moaning. But no one monitored him, and they didn't call the nurse to come and see him. They just left him there unmonitored."

After a few minutes, Burton said one of the deputies noticed that Zumalt had become unresponsive and called paramedics.

"After about 15 minutes the paramedics get him resuscitated, but by then it was too late. He had irreversible brain damage. They took him to the hospital, and he passed away two days later."

In a statement to Eyewitness News, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco defended the actions of his deputies.

"The facts of this case clearly show the actions of our deputies were appropriate and lawful," said Bianco. "Methamphetamine is a horrible, dangerous drug and has been causing these exact deaths across the country since the 1990s. The actions of Mr. Zumwalt while in a methamphetamine-induced psychosis caused his death. Fighting with deputies, required to do their job, increased his already taxed circulatory system.

"The settlement in this case is irrelevant and solely a business decision between attorneys, insurance companies, and risk management of the county. It in no way reflects on the facts of the case or points toward wrongdoing by deputies."