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El Paso County jail deaths on the rise and include suicides and drug overdoses

El Paso County Detention Facility.jpg
Aaron J. Montes
/

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This story mentions suicide and the contents may be disturbing for some readers.)

EL PASO, Texas (KTEP) - Nancy Martinez will never forget the December morning she found out her husband Eric Dominguez died.

A deputy with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office knocked on the door last year and told his family the 35-year-old was dead.

That same morning, Martinez went to the El Paso County Medical Examiner’s Office to identify his body. According to the autopsy report, Dominguez died from “gastrointestinal bleeding due to peptic ulcer of the stomach.”

Martinez said she was worried about her husband’s health while he was in jail because he had a painful ulcer. He started saying he couldn't breathe and he was vomiting blood three days before his death.

The Texas Rangers investigated Dominguez’ death as required under state law. A 2017 Senate Bill passed by the Texas legislature requires an independent investigation when someone dies in a law enforcement agency's custody.

The report by the Texas Rangers detailing the death included interviews with detention officers and nurses working at the time Dominguez died.

They described conditions in Dominguez’ jail cell that night. “Upon entering cellblock two right I noticed vomit and blood on the floor and mattress,” a detention officer told investigators.

Martinez wanted to post bond for her husband after he was booked into the El Paso County Detention Facility on Nov. 28. But he was eligible to bond out of jail within the typical 48-hour period, according to county jail records.

Dominguez was being held on previous possession of drug and petty theft charges, according to court records.

“He figured, he’d just stay there until court,” she said. “That’s the reason I couldn’t post bond. Because he didn’t have a bond. I would’ve taken out one in a heartbeat.”

She never got that chance. Nine days after he was booked into the county jail, Dominguez died.

He’s among an increasing number of inmates who have died in the county of El Paso’s two jail facilities according to an analysis of Custodial Death Reports submitted to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

Between 2010 and 2015 there were a total of 14 inmates deaths at El Paso County’s downtown jail and East Side annex facility. Most people are listed as having died of natural causes while in custody.

But between 2016 and 2020, the number of inmate deaths increased to 21. With 15 deaths in just the last two years.

Nine were suicides. Four were listed as mixed drug toxicity. According to autopsy reports, several of the inmates had fentanyl in their system.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine , according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths in the U.S., according to NIDA.

The Sheriff’s Office was not available to respond to questions about why inmates have fentanyl in their system or whether illegal drugs have been found in jail facilities.

Sheriff Richard Wiles agreed to do an interview about the increasing number of inmate deaths. But Chris Acosta, the spokeswoman for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office later said he could not comment because of a possible lawsuit.

“The county policy is not to give interviews, or any kind of statement related to such matters,” Acosta said.

The family of Azahlia Corral is suing El Paso County in federal court for civil rights violations, after the 22-year-old committed suicide in the East Side Annex facility in February 2021.

“Azahlia’s death is yet another example of significant issues in jails across Texas,” said Dean Malone, the attorney representing the Corral family. The Dallas-based attorney specializes in cases involving inmate neglect or deaths.

Two deaths in one night

In the jails, more inmates are dying from “drug toxicity” and overdoses, according to autopsies and custodial death reports submitted to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

The same night at the same jail where Eric Dominguez died of gastrointestinal bleeding; Justin Joshua Flores also died in custody. The 31-year-old had been jailed at the Downtown El Paso County Detention Facility on Nov. 26, two days before Dominguez.

A jail magistrate had permitted Flores to post a $20,000 cash or surety bond so he could leave, according to El Paso County jail records.

But on Dec. 6, Flores fainted in his cell an hour after he was given “medicine,” according to an El Paso County Sheriff’s Office report. The Texas Rangers' investigation found another inmate alerted detention officers Flores was not breathing and called for help.

He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital nearly 20 minutes later, according to the Texas Rangers' findings.

Flores died of an “acute mixed drug toxicity,” according to an autopsy by the El Paso County Medical Examiner’s Office. The autopsy report lists fentanyl, antidepressants and anti-convulsant drugs that were found in his system.

The report also states, Naloxone, which is used to reverse an opioid overdose, was also in his system. Flores’ case remains under review by the Texas Rangers. It’s not clear in the report if detention officers or others tried to administer Naloxone to Flores.

Looking for answers

Naloxone was also found in Dominguez's system according to his autopsy report.

His wife wants answers about what happened the night he died. She says she’s asked for information from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.

She says she was promised her questions about Dominguez’s death would be answered after the Texas Rangers completed their investigation. The Rangers report was issued on April 11th, and says Dominguez’s case is “closed.”

But Martinez says the sheriff’s office still won’t provide her with more information or answer her questions.

The sheriff’s office and El Paso County Attorney’s Office are challenging her request for copies of recorded phone calls she had with Dominguez when he was in jail.

Martinez said a detective with the sheriff’s office texted her “You have to fill out an open records request. And, I emailed you. You can turn it in at the sheriff’s office,” according to the text message. “But it’s going to be up to legal if they release anything,” he added.

The report by the Texas Rangers includes 11 statements from detention officers and nurses at the El Paso County Detention Facility in Downtown.

Dominguez had complained of discomfort on the morning of Dec. 6, according to interviews with a nurse and detention officer at the jail. He also told detention officers he had been throwing up blood.

According to interviews with detention officers, he was being treated for withdrawal symptoms from drug addiction.

But, on the night nurses were administering medicine to inmates, detention officers noticed Dominguez was struggling. They were calling for him to take his medicine from an opening at the front of his cell but he was not responding.

“Dominguez eventually came out on his own but I noticed he was stumbling, waving side-to-side as if he was drunk,” a detention officer told the Texas Rangers. “When he arrived to the vestibule I observed he fell forward and hit his facial area on the steel bars of the vestibule.”

The detention officer said Dominguez was unable to grip a metal bar as he was falling backwards and hit his head on a metal stool. Two detention officers then helped Dominguez onto a gurney and he was taken to a clinic area.

While Dominguez was being treated, two detention officers looked at his cell. One called it “filthy.”

“After I completed the check, I had the cell cleaned and during that time I noticed that there was dry blood, urine, feces, and food all over the inside of the cell,” another detention officer told the Texas Rangers. “Once the cell was cleaned, it was still wet so I left him in 4 right until the cell was dry.”

Before being moved back to a cell, Dominguez was given crackers and water while he laid on the gurney in the clinic between 10 and 30 minutes, according to statements from a detention officer and two nurses.

One nurse said his vitals were checked and stable. The nurse noted Dominguez told her he had not been feeling well all day.

“Eric said he just wanted to hang out at the clinic for a bit,” according to a nurse included in the report. “Eric appeared to be OK because he was talking to us and joking around with us.”

Dominguez told detention officers he could not walk, and they escorted him to another cell so they could clean the one where he was staying.

Two hours later, detention officers found Dominguez unresponsive and slumped against that cell door, according to several interviews with detention officers and nurses at the jail.

The jail staff injected two shots of Narcan, one in each of his legs as part of a response to resuscitate him, according to the Texas Rangers' report. But the detention officers said his body did not show any response to the shots.

He was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

For nearly 7 months, Martinez has been asking the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office for an explanation about how Dominguez died. Martinez says she misses her husband and wants answers.

“For me, everyday that goes by, it gets harder,” Martinez said.

If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.