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Strangers become allies seeking justice in San Diego jail death

The mother of a woman who died in a San Diego county jail, rallied all week for justice with the help of a local advocate. KPBS reporter Kitty Alvarado talked with them about their unexpected friendship and the change one jail death created.<br/>

Yusef Miller and Paloma Serna have a friendship that was founded in tragedy and loss: the death of Paloma’s 24-year-old daughter Elisa Serna. Elisa died inside San Diego County’s Las Colinas Detention Facility in 2019.

“We love him, I mean he means so much to us,” said Paloma with a big smile.

Paloma said she made the two-day drive in a bad snow storm from Montana, where she's from, to make it to a hearing on her daughter’s case. It got postponed, so she spent the week rallying with Miller and his justice advocacy group North County Equity and Justice Coalition.


“I thank God that I even met you guys,” said Miller to Paloma.

 “If it wasn't for you Yusef, we would just be sitting at home, because  I would have just took the deputy’s word that, 'oh she died of an overdose,' which I always dreaded, to get that call,” said Paloma as she broke down in tears.  

Paloma said Elisa was in jail for petty theft.

“Because she was a drug addict,” she said.

But she died after being in custody for five days. She had not yet been tried or been convicted, but Elisa was under medical supervision.


"She was pregnant,” Paloma said adding, “the videos, it does not show her ever eating, not once.”

She said she looked like she lost five or six pounds.

“Every time she had a seizure they never went in there to check on her," she said. "They just left her there.”

“What really haunted me is that she was pregnant, that really haunted me,” Miller added. “She was asking for help, begging for help.”

An investigation into her death shows Elisa was having drug withdrawals, and during one of those seizures, she hit her head and collapsed on the concrete floor. The report states the deputy and nurse who later checked on her did not move her and walked out of the cell; Elisa died in that same position where she fell.

“I couldn't even sleep," Miller said. “How could this happen in the modern day, how could this happen in the jail?”

Miller said the response to Elisa’s death makes what happened even worse.

“She was neglected further so long that she had rigor mortis when they came in,” he said. “She was neglected to death.” 

Paul Parker is executive officer of the Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB). He said the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department conducted an investigation into the death and then handed their file to CLERB, their board issued their own initial recommendation about the case and deputy.

“We didn't think there was a policy that applied,” said Parker about the deputy who checked on Elisa. “We believed that they basically referred to and deferred to medical personnel.”

He said their hands were tied when it came to Dr. Friederike Von Lintig and registered nurse Danalee Pascua, who were supposed to be caring for Elisa in the jail.

“Unfortunately, CLERB has no jurisdiction over medical personnel. So we can't say whether we think they did something right or wrong or even look into that,” Parker said, adding that’s something he’s trying to change.

So Miller looked to the community for help.

“We mobilized the community to show up to the CLERB,” Miller said, “to express our disappointment that no one would be held accountable."

That's something Paloma deeply appreciated.

“I never met him and he kept on, Yusef kept on pushing the CLERB to look at the case again, and this is before we saw the video,” Paloma said.

Parker said with feedback from the community and board members, CLERB was able to identify policy that applied to the case and give a final recommendation.

“We sustained a violation of a procedural misconduct and that the deputy had the obligation to do something,” Parker said.

Parker said he does not know whether or not the deputy was disciplined over this recommendation, the information was confidential. But the district attorney did charge Von Lintig and Pascua with involuntary manslaughter after that final recommendation.

“And I think that may have been a catalyst to get the ball moving and looking at it from a different perspective,” Parker said.

But Paloma believes Miller’s persistence was what made the difference. 

Miller said Elisa may have died before giving birth to her second child. But she did give life to a movement.

“The Saving Lives in Custody Campaign was born because of Elisa Serna," said Miller. "And now we have a huge family, a club of loved ones who now support one another.”

He said the families tell him the group has done more for them than anything they could imagine.

Miller makes himself available 24/7 to families whose loved ones died in jail. He organizes rallies, offers support and resources, and he does the work for free.

“I really appreciate there’s some place of comfort and relief until justice can be obtained,” he said.  

And through that they have effected change. A state audit was launched after Elisa's death that showed the county’s jail deaths have been the highest in the state for nearly two decades.

“And the community was exposed to the system which took the life of Elisa Serna and Gilbert Gil and and Omar Arroyo and Saxon Rodriguez, and people were saying maybe my loved one,” he said.  

Sheriff Kelly Martinez is now putting in place many of the recommendations that came from that report.

Parker said Elisa’s death also had an impact on their organization.

“Her death opened my eyes," he said. "Her death strengthened my resolve to attempt to obtain jurisdiction over medical service providers so that nothing else, so that nothing similar happens in the future.”

 And there’s a state bill called the Saving Lives in Custody Act, that pushes for jail reform that is on its second attempt to pass.

“Elisa Serna's case was so powerful that it went from grassroots all the way up to the state level, and we had no idea that it would go this far. We just put our heart and soul in it,” Miller said. 

Paloma said that’s how two strangers seeking justice struck a bond. 

“Oh he’s family ... I can call him any time of the day,” she said.

Paloma said many people saw her daughter as a throwaway, whose life and death did not matter. But thanks to Miller and those willing to listen, she did not die in vain.

“Us parents, we have already their future planned out, you know. I mean, we always wanted her to do well in life,” said Paloma, who could not hold back tears.

Miller and Paloma are fighting to get the deputy charged as well and she believes real justice would mean the life of her unborn grandchild would matter too.

“They should be charged with two deaths in this case.” Paloma said.  

The San Diego County District Attorney’s office tells KPBS they cannot comment on the case or if others will face charges. The doctor and nurse will be back in court in June.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.