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Deputies cleared in pepper spray death
June 22, 2005, 12:00 AM By Michelle Durand Daily Journal Staff
District Attorney Jim Fox has cleared five sheriff's deputies including two who refused to speak on their own behalf of wrongdoing in the March death of 36-year-old Fernando Cazares.

The official cause of Cazares' death is cardiopulmonary arrest due to cocaine-associated excited delirium, exaggerated by the struggle, pepper-spray inhalation and forcible restraints in a prone position, according to pathologist Dr. Peter Benson

After his death, some witnesses claimed Cazares was beaten repeatedly with heavy flashlights even when he was no longer struggling. Those same witnesses softened their recollections during later interviews and the autopsy showed no head injuries or brain swelling consistent with the repeated strikes neighbors recalled.

The three deputies who spoke with Fox's investigators received letters absolving them of responsibility in the March 15 incident. The other two, Jason Peardon and Josh Chilton, will not be prosecuted but are not receiving the letters of commendation Fox forwarded Monday to the Sheriff's Office, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.

As a result of their unwillingness to be interviewed, the investigation was limited to statements from other witnesses. We were not able to review a candid account of the facts from the two deputies most knowledgeable about the incident, Fox stated in a letter to Sheriff Don Horsley.

Chilton and Peardon were first on scene and both admittedly struck Cazares with flashlights but the force was deemed acceptable.

Although Deputy Peardon used a flashlight, in order to defend himself and the life of his partner, the injuries sustained by the flashlight were not lethal to Fernando Cazares, District Attorney Investigator Nora Fasshauer stated in her final comprehensive report.

Deputies and officers are under no obligation to cooperate with prosecutors and the two were within their right to refuse comment on the advice of their attorneys. However, such silence following an in-custody death is very uncommon, Wagstaffe said.

Cazares was pronounced dead at Kaiser Hospital at 3:09 a.m., an hour after Chilton and Peardon were dispatched to the 300 block of Second Avenue in unincorporated Redwood City. Ana Cazares, the deceased's sister, hysterically told the dispatcher that her brother was a crazy person who was on drugs. She said he went ballistic and was screaming I'm the master. I'm the master. She and her mother locked themselves in a bedroom. She also reported breaking a Dos Equis beer bottle over her brother's head but her mother later claimed she was the one who struck.

His mother, Maria, later told investigators she was afraid of her son, who arrived home at 1 a.m. acting strangely.

She said she was afraid because she's heard that family members are capable of killing other family members when they are out of their minds and she felt that Cazares was out of his mind, according to a sheriff's report included in the findings.

When the officers arrived at the second-story apartment he shared with his family, Cazares threatened to kill them and refused to be subdued. Peardon called for a wrap device but was told none was available. A struggle ensued, involving bouts of pepper spray and hand-to-hand combat. Cazares struck Chilton in the mouth with a remote control later retrieved from the street and at one point both officers struck him with their flashlights.

Three other officers Deputy Mark Cody, Deputy Lisandro Lopez and Sgt. Greg Pitlock responded to another call for help with the belief the first two were in distress. Together, the group continued fighting until Cazares was pushed to the car hood and cuffed. He then went limp.

Deputy Cody noted that during Cazares' continued attempts to break free of the deputies' grip, he tossed the deputies about like a washing machine agitator, Fasshauer reported. Cody also claimed Cazares had superhuman strength prior to his collapse.

Coroner Robert Foucrault finished his report on Casares' autopsy and toxicology results in May but was barred from releasing an official cause of death until the completion of Fox's investigation.

Shortly after Casares died, his family and supporters claimed the officers hit him repeatedly in the head with heavy flashlights. A family attorney took sworn statements from five witnesses attesting to that fact but district attorney investigator interviews turned up small inconsistencies. In some, neighbors who claimed to see blows later recanted.

Attorney Mark Martel did not return repeated attempts for comment.

At the time of his death, Cazares' blood and urine showed recent cocaine use as well as a drug prescribed for schizophrenia.

Ana Cazares told authorities her brother had been clean for about two years but had in recent weeks been out late and likely using drugs again.

Tests on the officer's batons and flashlights turned up no signs of blood, fluid or tissue.

Casares was one of five in-custody deaths by various law enforcement agencies throughout San Mateo County within a very brief span of time. Three others are still under investigation but Wagstaffe expects reports in at least two to be released in coming weeks.

Prior to this spate, the last incident was the death of Ricardo Escobedo, 29, who was subdued with a wrap-type device by Redwood City police in 2002. The official cause of death was also determined to be excited delirium. The officers were cleared of wrongdoing and Escobedo's family settled a wrongful death claim earlier this year.

Michelle Durand can be reached by e-mail: michelle@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 104. What do you think of this story? Send a letter to the editor: letters@smdailyjournal.com.<


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