Death in sheriff's custody leads Riverside County to pay $7.5-million settlement

Riverside County and the family of a man who died in custody in 2020 have reached a $7.5-million settlement, a lawyer for the family said.

Christopher Zumwalt, a 39-year-old construction worker who specialized in remodeling kitchens, was detained in October 2020 by the Riverside County Sheriff's Office.

At the time, "he was temporarily estranged from his girlfriend and was upset," said John Burton, a lawyer who represented Zumwalt's three children, "and he took methamphetamine, which was not typical of him."

A neighbor called the police after Zumwalt had an adverse reaction to the drug. When arrested, "he was completely cooperative with the police," Burton said.

Video from the Sheriff's Office shared with the Times by Burton confirmed that Zumwalt was cooperative during his arrest and booking at Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility in Banning.

While being fingerprinted, Zumwalt was left to sit unrestrained on a bench and complied with officers' orders, the video showed.

He was then placed in a sobering cell, at first with another inmate and then alone, for over 10 hours, during which "he became psychotic," according to Burton.

On the video, Zumwalt yelled, pounded on the door to the cell and stripped naked. At one point he reached into the toilet, "thinking there was money in there," Burton said.

A nurse wanted to do a medical evaluation, but the unrestrained inmate was too agitated. Officials called in an emergency response team of about a dozen officers clad in helmets and gas masks.

The video shows officers throwing canisters of tear gas and a flash-bang grenade into the cell as Zumwalt screams. When officers enter the cell, they can be seen wrestling Zumwalt to the floor in the smoke-filled room.

Officers tased Zumwalt in a struggle that lasted several minutes before subduing him and placing him a restraint chair with a covering over his head and a towel over his naked midsection.

The restraints were tied too tightly, preventing him from breathing freely, according to Burton. Officers wheeled Zumwalt to another cell, closed the door and left him there alone for nearly 10 minutes before entering the room to find him unresponsive, the video showed.

Paramedics were able to resuscitate Zumwalt, but he had suffered "too much cardiac down time, too much brain damage," Burton said. He was put on life support and died two days later.

Zumwalt's family did not know anything about the incident until they found out he was comatose at a hospital, according to Burton. The county told them he had had a medical emergency in jail.

Eventually, the family obtained reports from the county indicating that force had been used on Zumwalt. They hired lawyers who were able to get body cam and jail videos from the Sheriff's Office.

The videos "are so powerful and tell such a clear story that that's what influenced the defense to settle," Burton said.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said the fault lay entirely with Zumwalt.

"The facts of this case clearly show the actions of our deputies were appropriate and lawful," Bianco said. "The actions of Mr. Zumwalt while in a methamphetamine-induced psychosis caused his death. Fighting with deputies, required to do their job, increased his already taxed circulatory system."

Nor does the county's decision to pay Zumwalt's family $7.5 million represent a rebuke of his deputies, Bianco said.

"The settlement in this case is irrelevant and solely a business decision between attorneys, insurance companies, and risk management of the county," Bianco said. "It in no way reflects on the facts of the case or points toward wrongdoing by deputies."

Zumwalt's death was part of a spike in in-custody jail deaths in Riverside County, Burton said, which is why the county's legal woes continue.

In February 2023, the state attorney general opened a civil rights investigation into the Riverside County Sheriff's Office amid allegations of excessive force against detainees and inhumane jail conditions.

2022 was the deadliest year in Riverside County jails in more than two decades, Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said at a news conference announcing the investigation.

“It is time for us to shine a light on the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office and its practices,” Bonta said. His investigation is ongoing.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.