May 1 2013 09:29 AM

Russell Hartsaw, mentally ill and elderly, was beaten to death after ending up in a jail cell with a guy named 'Evil.' How did that happen?

An undated photo of Russell Hartsaw
Photo from PhotoBucket

Sitting in his office at the back of Downtown's Popular Market, Jesse Gonzalez reaches under his desk and pulls out a collection of paper-clipped newspaper articles. One from 2007, in CityBeat, features a photo of his friend Russell Hartsaw. Hartsaw's dressed in black slacks and a black button-down shirt; the wind's blowing the hair on one side of his head almost straight up.

"If he weighed 160 pounds there," Gonzales points to the page, "he weighed 130."

That last part refers to another photo—the one Gonzalez gave an investigator from the District Attorney's office that shows a much frailer Hartsaw, closer to what he looked like in July 2011 when he was beaten to death by inmates at George Bailey Detention Facility who wrongly believed he was a child molester.

Between 2007 and 2012, 60 people died in San Diego County jails, pushing the inmate mortality rate here to the top of California's 10 largest jail systems. Since March 27, CityBeat's reported on some of those deaths, caused by suicide, drug withdrawal and excessive use of force. Five of the 60 deaths were labeled homicides and, among those, Hartsaw is the only inmate killed by other inmates. While his death raises questions about how jails house—and protect—their most vulnerable inmates, the last several months of Hartsaw's life offer a glimpse at man who was perhaps beyond help but whose myriad problems rendered him virtually ineligible for services.

At 70 years old, he'd spent more than half his life in prison; his longest stint of freedom appears to have been his last eight years, when he decided to try to turn his life around. Rulette Armstead, who was an assistant police chief when she met Hartsaw in 2003, recruited him to talk to her San Diego State University criminal-justice students and served on the board of a nonprofit that Hartsaw was trying to start to help homeless kids.

"I couldn't find 42 years of experience in text books," says Armstead, who's since retired from the police department but is still teaching. "He captivated my students—42 years of his life being locked up in prison."

But it was a struggle. Hartsaw would tell his friends that prison is better than jail and federal prison is better than state prison. And, it seemed, being locked up was better than freedom.

"He told me, ‘You know, sometimes I think about going out and actually pretending to commit a crime so that I could go back to prison,'" Armstead recalls. "‘I'm out here, I don't have any friends, nobody invites me to Christmas. In jail, I was around people all the time; I was never lonely.'" 

"He was trying to adjust," Gonzalez says, "but how can you adjust after 40-something years in prison?" 

In January 2011, Hartsaw landed back in jail after threatening two people with a stun gun. Court records in that case depict a man who was mentally and physically ill. An inmate roster printed on the day he died says he was supposed to be in protective custody. But, instead, Hartsaw was put into the jail's general population and into a dorm-like unit with a 6-foot-4, 215-pound gang member who rallied four other inmates to attack Hartsaw.

"That seems to be the critical question—what was he doing in the general population?" says Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior policy advocate on criminal justice issues for the San Diego-Imperial Counties ACLU.


Hartsaw would tell people that at age 9, he came home from school one day to find his parents, his dog and the family's mobile home gone. He'd spend the next nine years in foster homes, orphanages and juvenile detention facilities. His long rap sheet—all nonviolent crimes—starts with a conviction for misdemeanor theft in December 1959, seven months after his 18th birthday. In all, he'd go on to spend more than four decades behind bars, mostly in federal prisons in California, Ohio and Washington. Though he'd talk candidly about the harsh realities of prison, some of his crimes—like a clumsy attempt to rob a well-guarded bank—seemed to have a prison sentence, not cash, as the end goal. He and Gonzalez would talk for hours about Hartsaw's life behind bars.

"I guess he liked it," Gonzalez says. "He was somebody there."

On Jan. 7, 2011, roughly eight years after he'd been released from prison, Hartsaw was evicted from Trolley Court, the Downtown residential hotel where he'd been renting a tiny room since Nov. 1, 2006. The eviction notice, filed in Superior Court, documented a number of incidents in which Hartsaw acted inappropriately toward staff, concluding, "Several employees have expressed fear for their safety because of you [sic] ever increasing aggression, anger, threats and harassment."

But, by Jan. 7, Hartsaw was already in jail. The day before, he'd pulled out a stun gun and threatened two Trolley Court employees. He was charged with two counts of making a criminal threat.

Hartsaw's attorney in that case, Marcee Chipman, declined to speak to CityBeat, citing the upcoming trial of two inmates charged in his murder, but the court file tells the story of a man in poor mental and physical health. Twice his arraignment had to be postponed because he was too sick to come to court. In late January, a judge recommended that Hartsaw be seen by a jail psychiatrist and, in April, requested that he be evaluated by the Probation Department's Mentally Ill Offender (MIO) unit, which provides intensive supervision and services to adult probationers with a serious mental illness.

The District Attorney agreed to give Hartsaw probation, so long as he sought anger-management counseling and stayed away from Trolley Court. On May 20, 2011, Chipman filed a statement with the court outlining Hartsaw's probation options. He'd been rejected by MIO "because of his criminal history, and other undisclosed reasons," she wrote. She'd tried to get Hartsaw into the county's Behavioral Health Court, which, similar to MIO, offers mentally ill offenders treatment and other services. He was rejected there, too. He was too old for two other programs.

All Chipman could find was a clinic in Mission Valley where Hartsaw could get counseling and a program in Pacific Beach that offered walk-in services between 9 and 11 a.m., four days a week. Hartsaw didn't have a car and struggled with public transportation. Gonzalez recalls Hartsaw getting lost during a bus trip to Rolando, even after Gonzalez had given him explicit instructions.

"Unfortunately, there were no county probation-court services available," Chipman wrote to the judge. "This is the best that I could provide for Mr. Hartsaw."

Hartsaw was put on probation in late May, but it didn't last long. Within a month, he was arrested and jailed on a probation violation. While his court file doesn't say what the violation was, it does note that Hartsaw was homeless.

Gonzalez saw him during the brief time he was out of jail. Hartsaw, who usually wore slacks and a black, button-up shirt, was dressed in shorts and had dyed his hair. "I didn't recognize him," Gonzalez says. "I knew he was going over the edge."


According to court records and Hartsaw's autopsy report, around 9:30 p.m. on July 17, 2011, he asked to be transferred to another quad—basically, a large dorm-style cell—in the jail's medical unit. He wasn't getting along with inmates in his quad, he told Deputy David Ulloa.

Ulloa went downstairs, to Quad 101, and asked Mario Lopez for permission to move Hartsaw into his quad. Lopez, a gang member with a rap sheet only slightly longer that Hartsaw's, was the quad's leader, or "tank captain." Lopez later told investigators that Ulloa told him that Hartsaw "had a mouth" and was calling other inmates "punk" and "bitch." Lopez gave Ulloa the OK to transfer Hartsaw in and, as a reward, received two inmate-welfare kits.

According to a motion by the DA seeking to exclude the Sheriff's Department from culpability in Hartsaw's death, "Deputy Ulloa did not have concerns about placing Hartsaw in #101 after speaking with Hartsaw."

According to the DA's complaint, after the 12:50 a.m. bed check, Lopez and four other inmates assaulted Hartsaw. Lopez, the complaint alleges, took the lead and, after an initial beating, told other inmates, "It's not over. Let me show you how it's done." Hartsaw was still alive at that point, a witness told police. Lopez, the complaint says, continued to "kick, stomp and jump on Hartsaw's head and body." When he was done, the men dragged Hartsaw to the floor near his bunk and made it look as if he'd fallen. But, deputies didn't buy it; Hartsaw's injuries were too severe. In a court brief, prosecutors describe the damage to his face alone:

"Hartsaw's face was distorted, his nasal bones were fractured such that his face was concave."

On July 23, five days after Hartsaw's death, a deputy intercepted a note from Lopez to another inmate. In it, Lopez refers to himself as a "187"—the state penal code for murder. He refers to a "chomo"— jail slang for a child molester—and says his "obligation was to smash all trash."

"I took care of a fuck'n chomo that ain't gon to hurt kids no more," the note says. He signed it "Evil One."

How Lopez concluded that Hartsaw was a child molester isn't clear. Hartsaw's rap sheet includes a conviction in 1967 for violating California Penal Code 288a which, back then, involved getting caught giving or receiving oral sex. In an April 6, 2011, letter agreeing to allow Hartsaw to be sentenced to probation, Deputy District Attorney Greg McClain explained why the PC 288a charge shouldn't factor into the sentencing recommendation.

"What remains of the court file indicates that the case involved consensual conduct between adults that is no longer a violation of California law, but was under the statute as it existed in 1967."

It's possible that, if someone took a quick look at Hartsaw's rap sheet, the 288a could be confused with 288(a)—committing a "lewd or lascivious act" with a child under the age of 14. But, in a court brief, prosecutors dismiss that possibility: "There is no evidence that any defendant saw Hartsaw's rap sheet or knew the extent of his criminal history."

Ulloa told prosecutors that Hartsaw told him he was required to register as a sex offender.

Both Armstead and Gonzalez recall that not long after Hartsaw's release from prison in 2003, he was notified that he needed to register as a sex offender for the 1967 crime. But, both say, he filed a protest with the state Attorney General's office and was relieved of the requirement.

On April 19, CityBeat asked the Attorney General's office whether there's any record of Hartsaw having to register as a sex offender. We were told on April 26 to file a public-records request. By press time, we hadn't received a response.

A roster of inmates included in the court file shows Hartsaw's housing status as "protective custody." According to jail policies, protective custody can be voluntary or involuntary and is reserved for inmates whose life has been threatened, inmates who are developmentally disabled and inmates who "by virtue of his/her small size, advanced age, or other characteristic may be in danger of abuse from inmates in general population."

Hartsaw was also classified as "Keep Separate All" (KSA)— "a housing status that further restricts housing options within Protective Custody" (PC), policies say.

The investigative report included with Hartsaw's autopsy says that he'd insisted on being put in the general population.

Cmdr. John Ingrassia, the Sheriff's Department's jail supervisor, said via email that inmates can ask to be removed from both protective custody and "keep safe all" status, "but not all requests are honored."

Jail Population Management Unit staff "review the requesting / insisting inmate's history and reason for the PC or KSA status to determine whether or not any changes have occurred to support a decision to return the inmate to general population housing," Ingrassia explains.

Hartsaw, he says, asked to be removed from PC and KSA, and his request was approved.

The Sheriff's Department rejected CityBeat's request for Hartsaw's inmate file.


Three of the inmates involved in Hartsaw's death pleaded guilty to lesser charges—Enrique Huerta and James Houlsen to voluntary manslaughter and John McGrogan to being an accessory to murder. Lopez and a fifth inmate, David Donas, are facing trial in July.

With prison realignment—Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to reduce inmate overcrowding by shifting responsibility for lower-level felons from state to local control—comes opportunities for counties to take a closer look at who they're holding in jail and why, says the ACLU's Dooley-Sammuli.

"Who is a risk to public safety and who can be safely monitored in the community?" 

But the services need to be there for tough cases like Hartsaw.

"As awful as what happened in the jail, it's a problematic finding that the system knew what he needed and told him that he was not going to be allowed to get those services," she says.

A news brief in the July 20, 2011, issue of The San Diego Union-Tribune mentions a 70-year-old inmate who'd died at George Bailey Detention Facility, but not by name. Gonzalez knew it was Hartsaw. He wonders if Hartsaw, who'd told Gonzalez he'd had thoughts of killing himself, intentionally violated probation, landed himself back in jail and got into a situation where he knew he'd get killed.

"He couldn't make it on the outside," he says. "In my heart, I think he had a death wish."

Armstead says she'd begged Hartsaw to stay out of custody. "You don't want to die in prison," she'd tell him.

"He was tormented," she says, "and I don't think he could ever get past that."

Dave Maass contributed reporting to this story.

Email or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.

An earlier version of this story said that Enrique Huerta and David Donas pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. They actually pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. We apologize for the error.


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