The day 70-year-old Russell Hartsaw was killed in a San Diego jail, he was supposed to be in protective custody, a housing status reserved for inmates who could be targets in a jail’s general population. Frail, mentally ill and gay, Hartsaw somehow managed to argue his way out of protective custody and into a dorm-style unit where he was beaten to death by Mario Lopez, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound gang member nicknamed “Evil.” Days later, a deputy intercepted a note from Lopez in which he bragged to another inmate about killing a “chomo” — jail slang for a child molester — and that his “obligation was to smash all trash.”
Hartsaw’s rap sheet included armed robbery when he was much younger and, more recently, threatening two people with a broken stun gun, but nothing involving child molestation.
In 2013, a jury found Lopez guilty of Hartsaw’s murder. Not part of the trial, though, was whether deputies erred in granting Hartsaw’s request to be removed from protective custody, and placing him with someone like Lopez.
“They should have known the poor guy was losing it,” said Jesse Gonzalez, Hartsaw’s longtime friend who’d watched his slow decline.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department conducted its own review of Hartsaw’s death, but such records are exempt from disclosure under state public records law. The public can’t access those records, but the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, an independent oversight body, can. CLERB investigates complaints against county law enforcement officers and any in-custody death that may have been the result of law enforcement misconduct. It issues summaries of its investigations and, if necessary, recommends disciplinary action and policy changes — though the sheriff is under no obligation to follow those recommendations.
But five and a half years after Hartsaw’s death, CLERB has yet to release its findings. Hartsaw’s name is at the top of CLERB’s list of the 46 deaths it’s investigating, the most open death cases in the board’s 25-year history.