Santa Barbara: The Tragic and Unfortunate Death of “KC”

By Jeff Giordano   |   August 15, 2023

This is a story about the death of a troubled 34-year-old woman, “KC.” A death that led to a Grand Jury investigation and a scathing Grand Jury report. A difficult story that you will not read nearly enough about. Allow me to explain:

Last week’s Montecito Journal did a great job digging into the recent demise of the Santa Barbara NewsPress and, more importantly, explaining why the loss of investigative journalism matters – especially in a county as ethically challenged as ours. Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post punctuated the loss of local news best: “When you lose local investigative journalism, corruption can flourish, taxes can rise, and public officials can indulge their worst impulses.” Sound familiar? 

Against this backdrop comes a series of deeply disturbing Grand Jury reports that could themselves form the basis of an investigative series. Discussed by the supervisors on July 18, these reports follow an eight-month investigation into four in-custody deaths (KC, EEA, KP, and JT) that occurred in the Main Jail and the new $120M Northern Branch Jail, i.e., our $42M ($42 million!!) over-budget Jail Mahal. 

KC was classified as Severely Mentally Ill (SMI) in 2018. Then in March 2022, she was arrested for burglary, incarcerated in our North Jail, and on May 3 was found Incompetent to Stand Trial (IST). She was ordered into a treatment facility within 28 days but because there were no beds available, she languished “primarily kept in isolation and (at various times) deprived of visitation, commissary, and other privileges.” Yeah, shocking as it may be, SMI folks don’t follow rules all that well. Anyway, four months later KC was found dead in her cell, a victim of a Fentanyl overdose. Just 31-days later EEA, who had also been judged incompetent, fell victim to a Fentanyl overdose. In June there were 52 inmates deemed IST in our Jail system, one of the very highest in the State.

As a former Prosecutor, this investigation was personally disappointing as it called into question the competence – on a variety of levels – of our Sheriff’s Department (no, our multi-million-dollar outsourced Wellpath contract does not provide for mental health intervention between 11 pm and 7 am), Sheriff Coroner’s Office (no, an outside and independent coroner was not retained), and the District Attorney’s Office who, based on our sheriff-coroner findings, declined to prosecute (a State Attorney General review was recommended). 

The mental health of each inmate framed the investigation which, with respect to data, was completely stonewalled. Let’s start with the fact that it costs $25.4M to operate our North Jail (again, well over what had been anticipated) yet over an 11-month period our Grand Jury was not provided any data concerning what percentage of the approximately 250 North Jail inmates may be suffering from mental health disorders. Left to dig on their own, the jury found that the sheriff’s own website stated that between 15% and 60% (how’s that for exactitude) of their calls involve mentally ill subjects. 

The jury noted that while the Sheriff’s Department finally did hire a “statistician” in July 2022, by June 2023 the Grand Jury still had yet to receive the information. Is this a joke?! Thirty-two percent of our annual $1.4B budget – $456M! – goes to Public Safety yet we are all now waiting on the findings of a single hire? Let’s get real, this is less about the facts and more about the complete lack of respect (hubris) that certain Departments have for our Grand Jury’s watchdog function. NEWS FLASH: Every County employee, whether elected or appointed, is accountable! 

Oh, one more bit of news: Because our IST referral rate is so high, we may be paying $6M ($6M!) in IST Solution penalties. Funny, I didn’t see this number in our budget, though I guess we can just tack it onto the $76M jail expansion pod that was approved just before this report was issued. The whole thing sort of makes me lament the fact that California no longer allows private jails because, let’s be honest, when it comes to custody-related planning/budgeting, I think we’ll need more than just one “statistician” to cure what ails us. 

One can’t help but compare Ventura County who, in May, after “years of thought and planning,” opened a 64-bed facility (90% state-funded) to house SMI inmates. To build the facility, Ventura spent $6M (the size of our IST penalty). Yes, when budgeting, using trend data to understand your inmate population matters. 

The deaths of KC, EEA, KP, and JT needed to be investigated. And I, for one, sincerely hope that Sheriff Bill Brown, newly elected District Attorney Savrnoch and our five County Supervisors use the always solid work of our County Grand Jury (thank you) to make improvements. That said, I am a cynic, so I fear that what happened with the Cannabis Grand Jury recommendations (e.g., a County Code of Ethics) will happen with these – nothing. Here’s hoping I’m wrong, but either way please take a few minutes to review the reports that this year’s Grand Jury produced; it’s important: SBCGJ.Org.


You might also be interested in...