A forceful Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood announced at a tense press conference Thursday that David Sal Silva, whose death earlier this month raised questions about use of force by deputies, died as a result of hypertensive heart disease and was not only intoxicated but had methamphetamine and other drugs in his system at the time of his death.
A pathologist has ruled Silva’s death accidental, Youngblood said.
In addition, he said, deputies never struck Silva in the head or neck. The findings of the sheriff’s department were that three deputies struck Silva, and they hit him in areas that policy allows them to strike.
Youngblood said Silva, a large man, put up a violent struggle and it took several people to take him into custody.
Youngblood also charged that there has been misinformation in the media, and that while the public has patiently waited for the investigation to unfold, the press has stirred up controversy in damaging ways.
During the 20-minute press conference, with a number of other high-ranking law enforcement officials in the room apparently as invited guests, including Bakersfield police Chief Greg Williamson and former Sheriff Carl Sparks, Youngblood gave no ground in defending the actions of his deputies and emphasizing the belligerence of Silva.
On May 7, a report came in of an intoxicated man at Flower Street and Palm Drive outside Kern Medical Center. The deputy used what Youngblood called a knuckle rub to wake the sleeping man, later identified as Silva, who got up on his knees but then fell and landed on his face, Youngblood said.
Also known as the sternal rub, the technique is used by law enforcement and emergency medical professionals to check for unconsciousness. It involves vigorously rubbing the chest or sternum with the knuckles.
The deputy tried to get Silva to his feet, but Silva took a rigid stance and the deputy at that point felt like he was dealing with someone under the influence of drugs, Youngblood said.
The deputy tried to gain control, but Silva continued to struggle and the deputy released his canine. The dog bit Silva several times and also bit the deputy during the struggle.
Six minutes after the incident began, the second deputy arrived, Youngblood said. The first deputy used two baton strikes but was unable to control Silva, and the second deputy also struck Silva several times to try to get him to release the dog’s throat.
A third deputy arrived a minute later and also used his baton twice, Youngblood said. Silva continued to fight, and when the authorities tried to hold him down, Silva bucked the deputies off and kicked at them, the sheriff said.
Two California Highway Patrol officers arrived and were eventually able to get a hobble — a hog-tie like device used to restrain people — on him. Two more deputies then arrived, but only the first three deputies used their batons, Youngblood said.
One of the CHP officers, a 12-year veteran, described Silva’s actions as the most violent case of resisting arrest he’s ever seen, the sheriff said. He said his deputies acted appropriately.
“And sometimes, in the confrontation, you have to do what you have to do to keep someone from hurting themselves or from hurting officers, Youngblood said. “We want to go home as well.”
A pathologist determined a bruise on Silva’s face was a result of him falling and not the result of a baton strike, Youngblood said. The pathologist who performed the autopsy is, as with all pathologists used by the coroner’s office, an independent contractor and not a Sheriff’s Office employee, sheriff’s spokesman Ray Pruitt said.
The pathologist found that Silva had amphetamine, methamphetamine and Phenazepam in his system at the time of his death, and a blood alcohol content of .095. In addition, he had Vicodin, hydrocodone and Soma pills in his pocket.
Youngblood noted that individuals on multiple drugs sometimes exhibit erratic behavior.
As a result of speculation by witnesses and some in the public at large that deputy misconduct occurred, death threats have been made against deputies involved in Silva’s arrest, Youngblood said.
He said he had to take deputies off the street to protect the threatened deputies. The threats came from outside Kern County, Youngblood said, and as far as he knows, no arrests have been made.
The deputies involved in the Silva incident will be cleared to return to work, Youngblood said. They have been on paid administrative leave.
Youngblood had harsh words for media coverage of Silva’s death and questioned the impartiality of some witnesses to the event.
Witnesses, in addition to saying Silva begged for his life, have said deputies repeatedly hit Silva in the head. The autopsy found otherwise.
“The media, in my opinion, raced to be first, didn’t race to be right,” Youngblood said.
He said he’s been disappointed by the news coverage since the beginning, and that a Californian headline in particular ignited the situation.
The headline in question ran May 10 and said, “He Begged For His Life,” which is what the brother of Silva said witnesses told him.
“This particular case and the way this was handled in the media sent shockwaves all across the United States,” Youngblood said. “Every law enforcement officer in this country was in question.”
Youngblood also said the credibility of the witnesses needs to be considered.
“If you take a look at the witness statements in this case and then look at the evidence, it’s pretty clear that we had a group of witnesses out there that didn’t like law enforcement from the beginning,” the sheriff said.
Youngblood also made it clear that witnesses who had cell phones that were believed to contain video evidence were not held against their will. He said they were allowed to leave at any time, and deputies were there a total of about four hours, not the 11 hours the media has reported based on witness statements.
“No one was held hostage, they just couldn’t take the phone that held the evidence,” he said.
He said, in response to a reporter's question about deputies "using social media" to describe Silva's condition or that he had been hit with baton strikes, that he had no knowledge of such actions.
The sheriff said he believes the facts of the case, and not media reports, will be on how the public judges the Sheriff’s Office in the end.
“I think the public is going to judge us by the evidence,” Youngblood said. “Not by propaganda.”