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A Year After an Inmate Was Choked to Death in Jail, a Murder Charge but Few Details

Lorenzo Herrera, 19, was found dead in a Fresno County Jail cell in March 2018. A man has been charged, but detectives say they’re still trying to determine if there are additional suspects.

A violent offender housing cell at the Fresno County Jail. (Eric Paul Zamora/The Fresno Bee)

This article was produced in partnership with The Sacramento Bee, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

This story is part of an ongoing investigation into the crisis in California’s jails. Sign up for the Overcorrection newsletter to receive updates in this series as soon as they publish.

Prosecutors in Fresno County have charged a man with murdering a 19-year-old jail inmate more than a year ago, newly filed court records show, but detectives say they’re still trying to determine if there are additional suspects.

Lorenzo Herrera was choked to death in the Fresno County Main Jail on March 24, 2018.

McClatchy and ProPublica detailed Herrera’s case, and the mystery surrounding it, in an April article, the first in a series examining conditions inside California jails after historic prison reforms, called realignment, which diverted thousands of convicts to county custody. His death was among 11 in the county’s jails last year — the deadliest year in recent history — and it went unsolved and without significant public updates for months.

Prosecutors in the spring charged Alex Pacheco with first-degree murder. On June 26, Pacheco was transferred back to Fresno County’s jail from the state prison where he was serving a sentence for robbery, according to documents filed last week in an ongoing federal lawsuit.

Pacheco, 29, is the only person charged in Herrera’s murder. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment last month. The records don’t detail whether Pacheco was the victim’s cellmate or what the motive was.

“This family still wants justice for their son and wants to make sure something like this never happens again,” Alexis Amezcua, an attorney representing Herrera’s family in a lawsuit against the county, said in an interview Tuesday.

At the time of Herrera’s death, Pacheco was in the Fresno County Jail awaiting trial on the 2015 robbery and assault case. Pacheco broke into the backyard of a pregnant woman’s home in Fresno, forced her inside, choked her and then stole thousands of dollars before fleeing. He was convicted and sentenced in July 2018 to 14 years in prison, court records show.

Pacheco is due in court on Herrera’s murder Aug. 21.

The increase in violence and death in Fresno County lockups started soon after the state was ordered in 2011 by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce its prison population. That’s when California officials approved realignment, sending people convicted of felonies that are nonviolent, nonsexual and nonserious to serve prison sentences in county jails rather than state prisons.

While decreasing the overload in state prisons, the results in county jails across California have been deadly. Many sheriffs’ offices, which run nearly all jails in the state, have struggled to handle the influx mentally ill and high-risk inmates incarcerated for longer sentences than the jails have ever dealt with before. Several county jail systems, including Fresno’s, were already under court orders for violating the constitutional rights of people in their cells. Inmates are dying in markedly higher numbers.

No other jail in California has seen a sharper increase in inmate deaths than the Fresno County Jail, whose three buildings house more than 3,000 inmates. In the seven years before realignment, 23 inmates died in jail custody, data from the California Department of Justice shows. That figure more than doubled to 47 deaths during the seven years after the state shifted more responsibility to the county jails.

Only one Fresno County inmate killed another in the seven years before realignment. Since then, four have died at the hands of other inmates.

In addition to the 11 Fresno County inmates, including Herrera, who died last year from drug and alcohol withdrawal, suicide, medical complications and murder, 13 others were beaten and hospitalized for multiple days, court records show.

Attorneys filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Herrera’s parents in federal court in 2018, arguing that the teen was wrongly placed in the pod with violent defendants, and that despite a 2015 court order, the jail’s inadequate staffing levels left areas unmonitored and unsafe for both inmates and correctional officers.

The sheriff’s office has turned over 13,000 pages of documents, nearly 1,000 photographs and “several hours” of video footage and audio recordings, according to the documents submitted last week. Pacheco’s arrest was noted for the first time in a procedural filing in that lawsuit.

A jury trial is scheduled for 2021. The county has denied all wrongdoing in its court filings.

“They miss their son,” Amezcua said. “Nobody wants to have to go through this sort of litigation. But they’re prepared to do it.”

Herrera was booked into Fresno County’s jail in January 2018 on burglary and assault charges after he and two other young men allegedly smashed into a home southeast of Fresno and then evaded law enforcement. Police said Herrera pointed a gun at an officer before surrendering.

Herrera had no previous criminal history, according to court records.

The jail classified Herrera as a gang member and assigned him to one of the pods for maximum security inmates. An intake photo showed Herrera holding a dry-erase board identifying himself as a “Northerner” from Reedley, a subsect of the Norteños street gang.

His father, Carlos Herrera, saw the image as a survival tactic and said self-identifying as a gang member is part of living in the Central Valley and being Hispanic. “My son wasn’t no gang member,” Herrera said in an interview this year.

Herrera survived the violent chaos of the Fresno County Jail for 66 days, including living through a brawl that left another inmate unconscious. Then, on an afternoon in March, jail officers found him dead in a cell.

Though the killer was someone in custody, officials were silent about the investigation for much of the past year. Details emerged only in a trickle of court documents and sporadic interviews.

Detectives with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office said they had interviewed every inmate who was detained with Herrera. And according to a March court filing, they had been awaiting DNA test results from evidence.

The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office did not announce Pacheco’s arrest in the jailhouse slaying, as would be typical in high-profile or unsolved homicides. Tony Botti, a department spokesman, on Tuesday said doing so “could jeopardize other leads we are looking into.”

“We continue to investigate this case,” he said.

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