DALLAS (AP) – Less than two months after the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was jailed in Texas after a routine traffic stop, two of her jailers quietly moved to other jobs.
Rafael Zuniga and Michael Serges left the Waller County sheriff’s office in September 2015 for the Waller Police Department, a smaller agency with less responsibility, according to state records obtained by The Associated Press. They started work on the same day.
They have kept those jobs even after admitting under oath their roles in falsifying a jail monitoring log that indicated guards checked on Bland an hour before she was found hanging in her cell in July 2015, according to an attorney for the Bland family, which has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the county and several employees, including the two former jailers. Local authorities ruled Bland’s death a suicide.
Attorney Tom Rhodes told the AP this week that Zuniga acknowledged in a deposition that the log was filled out in advance with times that he supposedly conducted cell checks. Serges acknowledged that he signed the bottom of the log sheet at the beginning of the shift before any actual checks, according to Rhodes, who described the depositions but did not provide transcripts to the AP.
Sidney Johnson, the first black councilman in Waller, said he’s suspicious about the jailers’ move to the municipal payroll so soon after Bland’s death, but that his requests for more information have been ignored. He added that had he known about the men’s involvement in the Bland case, “we wouldn’t have hired them.”
Jail records show Bland had said at booking she previously tried to commit suicide, which means she should have been checked at least every 30 minutes by jail standards. State guidelines say all inmates are to be checked hourly.
Instead, two hours elapsed before jailers noticed Bland was unconscious, which isn’t reflected in the jail log, Rhodes told the AP. The sheriff’s office has acknowledged the documented 8 a.m. in-person check was done by intercom.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards cited the jail after Bland’s death for not observing inmates in person and failing to provide documentation that its staff had been trained on how to deal with potentially suicidal inmates.
“There’s a lot more going on here than there’s reflected in the documents,” Rhodes said. “Because the documents in many cases are just flat-out wrong.”
Larry Simmons, an attorney for the county and the jailers, declined to answer questions and is pursuing a gag order.
In a brief phone interview with the AP, Serges confirmed he works for the Waller city police, remembered Bland but said he had no substantive conversations with her and denied in general he’d done anything wrong. Zuniga could not be reached.
At the time of Bland’s death, Zuniga had been a Waller County jailer for about six months, according to state records. Serges has been in law enforcement for 11 years.
Zuniga testified in July that it was his practice to “prefill” the jail log with the times of his scheduled checks, Rhodes said, while Serges testified that he would sign blank logs at the start of his shift as a way of noting who was on duty. Rhodes also told the AP that Zuniga testified he’d been trained to fill out logs that way, but did not say who taught him.
When asked whether they had checked Bland’s cell at 8:01 a.m., as noted in the jail log, both Zuniga and Serges said they had not, Rhodes said. Bland was pronounced dead at 9:06 a.m., authorities said.
Phil Rehak, who retired as police chief two weeks after Bland’s death, said he didn’t know anything about the hires. Acting police chief Mike Williams did not return phone messages.
Waller Mayor Danny Marburger said he didn’t know about the men’s ties to the Bland case when Williams proposed their hires to the city council last August, but that he wouldn’t push to have them fired or suspended unless they were indicted or arrested or he received “concrete evidence” of wrongdoing.
The jailers getting new jobs “certainly raises a lot of questions,” said Mimi Marziani, executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project.
“We don’t know all the facts yet,” Marziani said. “It is clear, however, that there was an utter failure to keep her safe.”
The only person who has been indicted by a grand jury investigating Bland’s death is former state trooper Brian Encinia, who was charged with misdemeanor perjury after video from his patrol car contradicted his claims that Bland assaulted him without provocation.