As the regular session of the June 26 San Benito County Board of Supervisors meeting was adjourned, county counsel Barbara Thompson read, for the record, the agenda items to be discussed during the closed session that followed. There were four items that Thompson and the five supervisors would discuss. All were lawsuits. One in particular was of concern to Nancy Martinez.
The case is Martinez/Baldasano vs. the County of San Benito, a civil action filed Jan. 23, 2015 that will go to trial July 9 before the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Martinez filed it on behalf of her son, Justin Baldasano, whom she claims died as a result of two deputy sheriffs beating him on the night of Jan. 23, 2014. Though Justin did not die directly from his injuries, she contends that the trauma from the beating ultimately led to his death three years later at age 36.
In the suit, Martinez alleged that the county violated Justin’s state and federal civil rights, that sheriff’s deputies committed assault and battery and that there was intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional stress and wrongful death.
This is Justin’s story, as told by his mother to BenitoLink on June 26. Struggling to speak at times, it was emotionally draining for her as she recounted what happened the night the incident took place in their home. She told of how she witnessed her son’s beating. Then she related how she followed him through the county’s mental health and legal systems, including 34 court appearances in which at least four different prosecutors from the district attorney’s office took a turn at trying to convict Justin for crimes she claims he did not commit.
Martinez has lived the story these past few years, spending $400,000 to defend her son and moving forward with the civil case. Along the way, she accumulated more than 2,000 official documents including transcripts, data sheets accounting for the DA’s hours and money spent trying to win their case, and even records of how many Tasers with cameras the sheriff’s department has.
This last item is important because the two deputies who showed up at her back door at 2:50 a.m. on Jan. 23, 2014, responding to a 911 call to help Justin, should have had Tasers with cameras, but neither deputy had them. As a result, Martinez is the only non-law enforcement witness to the deputies’ interaction with her son.
Martinez worked with Fortune 500 companies in San Jose as a graphic designer for 30 years before moving to Hollister in 2013. She now works from home. Justin lived with his parents, Martinez and Joseph Baldasano. He worked for his mother, helping with kits she designed for trade shows. In 2012, his grandmother, uncle, and even his 15-year-old dog died within one month.
This, according to Martinez, led to a paranoid-delusional episode. Justin was hospitalized for two weeks. He remained under psychiatric care and medicated for a year. Martinez said he was taken off the medications because the doctor said he was stable. She said the doctor told her he believed Justin suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the recent family deaths.
On Jan. 22, 2014, the morning before the encounter with the deputies, Martinez said Justin came out of his room at 2 a.m. in a confused state. She sent him back to bed and called the doctor later that morning. The doctor couldn’t see him that day, but she was able to set an appointment for the following day.
“Unfortunately, the next morning he had another incident,” Martinez said, “where he was having a religious delusion.
He got up at 2 a.m. and checked on his dad—who had been suffering from cancer and other ailments for 25 years, and by this time, was bed-ridden—and came out and said, ‘Mom, something’s wrong. Sit down.’ And he started to pray. This all stemmed from us telling him his dad was dying. He started to pray and asked me to sit down in a chair. He put one hand over my heart and knelt on the chair and held a hand up to God.”
Martinez said the family wasn’t particularly religious and that this behavior was an aberration. While praying, she said, he was delusional and started speaking like a character from Lord of the Rings. She said the psychiatrist who had cared for Justin had advised her about what traits to watch for in order to better understand how to deal with his behavior. She felt he needed help and said Justin agreed with her because he thought some evil force was trying to take his father.
As Martinez remained with Justin, Joseph Baldasano called 911, and that’s when she said everything started to go wrong.
“Normally, when you tell them it’s a mental health issue they’re supposed to send someone to assist you, along with an ambulance,” she said. “My husband told them Justin was having a delusional episode. They knew on their way here that he was a 5150 [California law code for temporary, involuntary psychiatric commitment, more commonly applied to people considered threateningly unstable].”
The 911 operator asked where Martinez was and Baldasano said she was with Justin. The operator wanted him to get her to the phone and Baldasano said she couldn’t come because Justin had his hand on her.
“He had his hand on my heart,” she explained. “He wasn’t hurting me, beating me, or doing anything.”
Martinez said sheriff’s deputies Michael Mull and Victor Casada came to her back door 30 minutes later. She said she wasn’t concerned about how long it took them because Justin was just kneeling on the chair praying. She said the deputies couldn’t find the house at first because they misread the address. Joseph Baldasano, who was on an oxygen respirator, walked to the backyard and shined a flashlight outside to get their attention. As the deputies approached the house using their flashlights, Martinez said she and Justin stood up.
“We’re standing 12 inches apart,” Martinez said. “Nobody’s hurt. There are no weapons, no screaming. They came to my back door with their tasers drawn. They never spoke to us or identified themselves to us.”
Martinez says she told them, "He's having a religious delusion and he needs to go to the hospital."
She said the deputies stood outside the home and said, "Put your hands behind your back." She said Justin was facing her and then turned slightly to face the deputies, who fired their Tasers. She said as the deputies continued discharging their tasers, Justin shouted over and over, “They’re trying to kill me.”
His arms flailing, he started to back away and fell to his hands and knees. Martinez said she turned on the lights and jumped between the deputies and Justin, telling them to stop. Then, she said, Deputy Mull went around her and hit Justin, who was on his hands and knees, once on the head with the flashlight, cutting a three-inch wound on his face and knocking him unconscious.
“About 15 seconds later,” Martinez said, “Justin’s hand moved and [Mull] started beating him on the head, on the neck and back, as he laid on the floor. Then Casada jumped in and started beating my son in the head with his fists and tased him again. Then,” she added emotionally, “he kicked him in the face.”
Even though he was already on the floor, she said the deputies were screaming at Justin to get down. She said the entire incident lasted less than two minutes. She said she was too shocked to react or try to help Justin.
“I just stood there for maybe 10 seconds because I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “And then [Casada] put my son in a carotid [choke] hold and my son’s face started to turn blue. I ran forward and pushed Casada and screamed. It was like they woke up. They looked at me and stepped back.”
Martinez said at that point she just wanted to get Justin to the hospital because he was bleeding and his breathing was labored. But the deputies told her they had to take pictures first. By that time, an ambulance had arrived. Justin was conscious and not moving. The emergency medical technicians put Justin on a backboard and took him to Hazel Hawkins Hospital.
As far as Martinez was concerned, the die had been cast, regarding how Justin would be perceived from this point on by the EMTs, hospital staff and the legal apparatus.
“When you have law enforcement submitting a report to them, the EMTs build their own reports around that,” she said. “In their report to the hospital, [the EMTs] stated the deputies told them Justin had been aggressive and attacked them. That never happened.”
She said before Justin was taken to the hospital, the deputies gave her a case report form that stated he was being taken there for a 5150, which is supposed to be a 72-hour psychiatric hold. She said arrived at Hazel Hawkins 25 minutes later, after retrieving Justin’s psychiatric records to give to the doctors.
Martinez asked at the front desk to see her son. Deputy Casada came out and told her she would not be allowed to see him because he was under arrest for assault and battery. She thought perhaps he had struck one of the EMTs or a doctor. She learned much later that he was charged with assaulting the deputies while at the house.
“He tore the pocket of Sergeant Mull’s jacket as he was trying to pull himself up as [Mull] was beating him on the head and shoulders,” she said. “And as Casada was using the carotid hold on him he pulled out [Casada’s] earpiece as he tried not to be choked. That’s all that happened to them. All the blood was Justin’s.”
She mentioned, too, that the deputies were supposed to have Tasers with cameras, but did not. She even had documentation stating that the county had 31 operational Tasers with cameras available for only 14 deputies.
“But God forbid they use the equipment they’re supposed to,” she said.
When Martinez insisted that Casada tell her who Justin assaulted, she said the deputy replied that because Justin was over 18 he didn’t have to tell her anything. She told him she needed to give Justin’s medical records to the doctor and said Casada refused to let her do so. She told Casada that Justin could not advocate for himself because he was delusional. She said Casada turned around and walked away.
“This makes the doctor believe exactly what they said happened,” she said. “They told the doctor ‘he was sitting on me and hurting me.’ I know this because I have the hospital reports.”
Martinez said Hazel Hawkins is not a designated psychiatric hospital and is not equipped to treat the mentally ill. She said that despite this, at the time, the county took people suffering from mental illness there where they were kept in the emergency department until they were considered ready, which could take days or weeks. She said the emergency room doctors were not allowed to write psychiatric evaluations, so they could not do a 72-hour, 5150 hold. The evaluations, she said, have to be done by law enforcement or mental health professionals. She said the deputies told the doctor that they were going to take Justin to jail, where he would receive the psychiatric help he needed.
According to Martinez, “It wouldn’t have mattered, because in 2014 the Behavioral Health Department didn't do 5150 assessments at the jail.” (See the 2015-2016 San Benito County Civil Grand Jury Report)
Three hours later, Justin was taken to the county jail. Martinez said the doctor wrote in his report to the sheriff’s department that Justin had to have stitches removed in seven days and receive a psychiatric evaluation. She said 5150s may be booked, but they’re supposed to receive mental care afterwards.
“They just put him in a safety cell and left him there,” Martinez said. “It has a concrete floor with a grate in the floor to use as a bathroom. He was in a hospital gown and they left him on the floor on a two-inch mattress all night, with no pain meds, they’re supposed to check every 15 minutes and document it. There is no documentation.”
Martinez said a clinician, not a doctor, from the Behavioral Health Department came to the jail that night. Because Justin was delusional, the clinician’s advice was to keep him in the safety cell for another 24 hours.
The next morning a female clinician came to the jail and later told Martinez the safety cell was not a good place for anyone to be kept and recommended he be put into the general population.
Martinez told the clinician that in his delusional state Justin would be in danger there. By happenstance, a bail bondsman found out what was going on and called her to ask if she wanted to post bail.
Justin was released at 11 a.m. the next day on a $3,000 bond. He had been in jail since 7 a.m. the previous morning and never saw a psychiatrist.
Justin was still delusional and did not know what had happened to him, so Martinez took him back to the hospital. The hospital staff called county behavioral health, who interviewed him and put him on a 5150. She said initially no one was available to make the calls to place him at a psychiatric hospital. But then a bed was found at Heritage Oaks Psychiatric Hospital in Sacramento.
Martinez said it took 14 hours to arrange the placement and find an ambulance, which was difficult because there was no county ambulance that would transport “non-911” cases. And she couldn’t take him herself because after declaring Justin a 5150, the hospital and behavioral health was responsible for him.
Justin stayed at Heritage Oaks for three days. It was there that he was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia and then put on medication. Martinez promised she would take Justin to doctors in San Benito County, so she was able to bring him home.
At that point, she still did not know the specific charges, or whom Justin had allegedly assaulted. In an attempt to find out, she called and left numerous messages for Sheriff Darren Thompson. She said he finally responded on Feb. 20, 2014, after she said she'd camp out at the department until he made time to deal with her.
“I thought the conversation went fine and he was being honest with me,” Martinez said. “I explained what happened and he told me this is something that happened twice before with people who were mentally ill, once before Justin and once after. I explained how these deputies beat him without even announcing who they were and coming in like mad dogs. I filed a complaint with him.”
Martinez said Thompson seemed upset that she had not been allowed to see the doctor or hand over the medical records. But what unfolded next, she said, was a cover-up.
Thompson told Martinez to fill out a request for the report on the charges. She did so and was told it would come within 10 days. When she called two weeks later to find out why she hadn’t heard anything, she was told she wasn’t entitled to receive the report. She went to the sheriff’s department and was given a penal code by a staff member and told to go look it up.
After being told no one would be available all day, Martinez waited. Twenty minutes later, Captain Tony Lamonica came over to Martinez and asked what she wanted. She told him all she wanted to know was who her son was accused of assaulting. She said Lamonica tried to get her to admit Justin did something wrong.
“All he was concerned about was could I prove what I said,” Martinez said. “I told him this is not a game. This is my son’s life you’re playing with. At that point, he told me [Justin] assaulted the deputies. I said ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’ I was there the entire time and that did not happen.”
Martinez said she later found out that Lamonica had gone to the jail the morning Justin was there—still under the influence of the antipsychotic drugs—and talked to him at length, trying to get him to confess.
Martinez contacted a Santa Clara County attorney who advised her that charges against Justin would be dropped.
“In Santa Clara County,” Martinez said, “this would never have gone to a criminal court.”
Joseph Baldasano died on March 19, 2014, and on March 27 Martinez went to court with Justin to face the felony charges. Over the course of two and a half years and a total of 34 hearings, Justin went before three separate judges, the first being San Benito County Superior Court Judge Steven Sanders.
One of the prosecutors told Judge Sanders that no charges were being filed, but they reserved the right to file them at any time within the next three years. Martinez said Sheriff Thompson had told her that even though Justin had to appear in court there mostly likely would not be any charges, telling her that this was just a procedure to make sure people stayed on their medications.
“We went home and were thinking it’s over,” Martinez said. “My whole concern was taking care of my son. My husband had passed and I was trying to get Justin through this.”
Then in May 2014, the DA charged Justin with three felony counts, two for assaulting the deputies and one for assaulting Martinez.
Trying to ‘break us’
“Everyone had been told he attacked them,” Martinez said. “They all believed this because law enforcement people said it. The judge said there was an ‘order for protection.’ I said ‘really?’ and he said, ‘Don’t you know about it?’ and I said, ‘Not a clue.’ Then the judge said, ‘It says he was sitting on you and choking you.’ I said, ‘That’s news to me.’”
During those 34 court appearances, the felony charges were reduced to misdemeanors as the prosecutors continued to try to convince Justin to plead guilty. He refused, as he was pleading not guilty and not guilty due to insanity.
“We kept saying not guilty and they kept dropping the charges down and had two doctors examine Justin,” Martinez said, adding that they determined he had indeed been delusional and should be found not guilty.
Martinez recalled, “Judge Sanders said to DA Karen Forcum, ‘Why are you doing this? Even if we go to trial and he’s found guilty, I’m going to declare him not guilty because he was delusional.’ Forcum told the judge that ‘The Sheriff’s Office says we have to have criminal charges or it’s going to negatively impact the county.’"
Then Martinez added, "They did this because they knew what they had done.”
Martinez said that, even though she had filed a civil lawsuit against the county after a year of waiting for it to stop, if the DA’s office had spoken to her or her husband the whole thing could have been resolved. All she wanted to do, she said, was to stop putting him through more trauma. But the criminal proceedings against Justin continued to drag on for two years. She’s convinced the county was in so deep by this time they were trying to “break us mentally, physically and financially.”
She said after Forcum revealed what the San Benito County Sheriff’s Office wanted to do, Martinez’s attorney asked if he was going to have to file a malicious prosecution action against the DA and the sheriff. Forcum never appeared in the courtroom again.
After a succession of county prosecutors failed to get Justin to take a plea, the charge was reduced yet again to disturbing the peace, along with three years on probation. But Justin declined.
“We were scheduled to go to trial March 21, 2016, which was a Monday,” Martinez said. “Then the Friday night before that, the DA called my attorney and said they were dismissing all charges in the interest of justice. After I’m out over $144,000, they dismiss it.”
But Justin’s plight was not over. Martinez said that for the next two years he never went outside the house. He seldom talked or even moved. He gained more than 100 pounds and eventually died of an embolism.
“This is the tip of the iceberg that I just told you,” Martinez said, adding that she has never seen any internal investigation on the incident of any sort.
BenitoLink contacted Sheriff Thompson, county counsel Barbara Thompson, and District Attorney Candice Hooper for comment.
Assistant District Attorney Ellen Campos, the attorney assigned to the Baldasano case at the time it was set to go to trial, emailed: “The People were prepared to go to trial in this case. After careful evaluation of the mental health evidence presented by the defense, we believed that Mr. Baldasano had serious mental issues. Although the officers’ actions were appropriate, we determined that it would be best not to proceed with criminal prosecution and to let the defendant address his mental health issues without having to go through the process of a criminal trial.”
Barbara Thompson told BenitoLink that she could not comment because the case is still in litigation. Sheriff Thompson also said he could not comment on advice of counsel, but he said, “Once [litigation] concludes, barring any further advice from counsel, I would appreciate the chance to respond. I hope you appreciate my position.”
Martinez emailed BenitoLink with a postscript claiming deputy “…Mull admitted hitting Justin in the head five or six times with the flashlight in his report that he submitted and in his deposition. She said it was more. Mull went on to explain that he did it because Justin was attacking him and he was afraid. If this were true, then the wounds would be on the front of Justin’s body.”
In a photo Martinez sent to BenitoLink, there are several bruises on Justin’s back.
“At this point, Mull has never been in court,” Martinez wrote, “this is probably one reason I haven’t settled. Neither Mull nor Casada have ever had to admit what they did. With the judicial system the way it is, no one has yet ever heard Justin’s and my side of the story.”
She went on to write that “…for over two years the assumption on the criminal case in San Benito County was that Justin had to prove he didn’t do what the charges stated. Yet because of the way the district attorney’s office continued to play ‘musical DAs,’ we never had a chance to give our side of the story. It was abuse of power to continue to change DAs in order to keep this going.”
Martinez said she wanted Justin’s story told because she wants the system to change in order to protect others from going through the same thing.
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