A war of words erupted Friday over video footage taken of David Sal Silva’s deadly encounter with law enforcement officers.
On a day when several people gathered for a memorial event at the site of Silva’s fatal beating and the first audio and video surfaced, an attorney for his family demanded access to videos taken by bystanders while the Kern County sheriff pleaded for patience.
At a news conference at his downtown Bakersfield office, attorney David Cohn, representing the Silva family, said the videos were vital evidence. He expressed concern about tampering.
“Those videos that were taken are the most important piece to this case and another main concern is that those videos aren’t altered or destroyed by the Sheriff’s Department,” said Cohn, of the firm Chain, Cohn, Stiles.
Later in the day, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said he was asking the public to be patient and give his office the opportunity to conduct an investigation. He was critical of comments made by lawyers for the family and the witnesses.
“It appears that a couple attorneys are making statements based on I don't know what because the investigation hasn't been completed yet,” Youngblood said.
Cohn was flanked at the news conference by Silva’s mother, father and brother. They did not speak.
Cohn said he plans to file a civil rights lawsuit in federal District Court in Fresno next week.
Also on Friday, witnesses provided new accounts of the beating and of sheriff’s department efforts to confiscate their phones.
Thirty-three-year-old Silva, the father of four young children, died early Wednesday morning after deputies say he fought with them and California Highway Patrol officers who had responded to a report of a possibly intoxicated man outside Kern Medical Center. Silva had trouble breathing, officers said, and died at KMC.
KERO television, channel 23, posted both an apparent video of the beating and an audio tape of a 911 call.
The video was said to be from a surveillance camera and is not a closeup view of what happened. However, it shows someone being repeatedly beaten with a stick while more and more law enforcement vehicles arrive.
According to information released earlier, seven sheriff’s deputies, two CHP officers and a police dog were at the scene.
The 911 call records witness Sulina Quair, 34, saying, “There is a man laying on the floor and your police officers beat the (expletive) out of him and killed him. I have it all on video camera. We videotaped the whole thing.”
The 911 operator asks her supervisor to handle the call and Quair continues, saying she is:
“On the corner of Flower and Palm right now and you have one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight sheriffs. The guy was laying on the floor and eight sheriffs ran up and started beating him up with sticks. The man is dead laying right here, right now.”
She adds, “I got it all on video camera and I’m sending it to the news. These cops have no reason to do this to this man.”
The communications supervisor asks for her phone number so a watch commander can call her. She provides it.
On Friday, Quair said Silva’s screams and bloody face still haunted her. She was about 20 feet way from Silva as he struggled with deputies.
“I have been crying a lot and his voice just plays over and over in my head,” Quair said Friday. “I sit there and I can still hear him choking in his own blood, trying to gasp for air.”
Tuesday night, Quair was stepping out of KMC with her family, mother Maria Melendez, 53, and sister Melissa Quair, 31, after visiting a relative at the hospital.
They never imagined they were about to witness a confrontation involving law enforcement.
“It just so happened that we were at the right place at the right time to be able to videotape the murdering that took place,” Melendez said.
One result of the call to 911 was that deputies seized Melendez’s phone Wednesday morning while she was at her daughter Melissa’s home.
Officers take phones
More details emerged Friday of how officers took the witness’s cell phones.
Melissa Quair’s boyfriend also had taken video of the incident and at 3 a.m. two sheriff’s detectives arrived at her home to confiscate the boyfriend’s phone.
“We had stopped by Taco Bell to get something to eat, and we were eating and at about 3 a.m. two detectives showed up, barged in without my permission and demanded to see my boyfriend for his phone,” Melissa said.
In that video, Melissa said Friday, it is very clear that the deputies were beating Silva. At one point, she recalled, the deputies had Silva hogtied and they lifted him and dropped him twice and asked if he was still with them.
She said she and her boyfriend were essentially kept captive inside their own home until they released their phones.
As was reported earlier, the boyfriend eventually gave up his phone without a search warrant being presented because he had to be at work at 8 a.m. and didn’t want to be late, she said.
“They lied to us and said that they would personally deliver the phone back to us the next day but when we called they said they were keeping the phone until the investigation was over,” she said.
Later in the morning, Melendez showed up at Melissa’s house and was immediately confronted by the same two detectives who told her she had to turn over her phone, she said.
Melendez said she wasn’t going to give up her phone without a search warrant and was then again told that the search warrant was on its way.
The videos obtained by Melendez and her daughter’s boyfriend now are evidence that they hope will help the Silva family and attorneys.
“We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words,” lawyer Cohn said during the news conference. “And thank God we have concerned citizens who take video and pictures of incidents like this and who are ultimately policing the police.”
Cohn has sent letters to government agencies requesting that any videos that were collected not be altered or tampered with. He sent the letters, he said, to the Sheriff’s Department, California Highway Patrol and Bakersfield Police Department, in addition to city and county attorneys.
The Sheriff’s Office has not informed Cohn or the family of the status of an autopsy done Thursday, but Cohn is confident the results will be accurate.
Friday morning, the coroner’s office reported that the cause of death is pending toxicology and microscopic studies.
At the vigil for Silva Friday afternoon, his father, Sal Silva, kneeled down and touched the blood stains left on the sidewalk from the incident.
“I can’t believe this happened,” he said sobbing. “My son was a family man who loved his kids and family and in the back of my mind I still hold on to the possibility that the body we haven’t seen, might not be my son.”
Said Cohn: “I have two grieving parents and one grieving brother who want to see the body of their son and brother. But we will get to the bottom of this and I ask the sheriff’s department, once again, what are you hiding?”
The sheriff said he's unable to release the cell phones that were seized because they were taken through a search warrant.
Youngblood asserted that only a judge could now order the release of the phones. He said the videos will be released but he didn’t say when.
“We will share everything with the public, including the videos,” Youngblood said.
Melendez said she resented being harassed by detectives.
“I told them that I felt they were making us look like the bad guys, like we were the ones who had killed the man,” Melendez said. “The image of that night still turns my stomach.... It’s overwhelming.
— Californian staff writer Jason Kotowski contributed to this report.