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Parents of inmate who died in prison during FF training program sue Calif. county

Brian Dunn, attorney for Jacorey Shaw’s parents, says there was both negligence and a cover-up conspiracy involved in Shaw’s death investigation


A lawsuit recently filed in federal court says there is evidence Shaw was suffering from a heat-related illness but the autopsy report by Dr. Sung-ook Baik listed his death as natural, due to an undiagnosed heart condition.

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Erin Tracy
The Modesto Bee

STANISLAUS COUNTY, Calif. — Parents of a prison inmate who died during a firefighter training program are suing Stanislaus County and its forensic pathologist over what they called a “sham autopsy”.

Jacorey Shaw was 26 when he collapsed at the end of an arduous 2 1/2 hours of physical fitness testing at Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown on Sept. 6, 2018. Shaw, who previously had no health issues, was pronounced dead a little over an hour later.

A lawsuit recently filed in federal court says there is evidence Shaw was suffering from a heat-related illness but the autopsy report by Dr. Sung-ook Baik listed his death as natural, due to an undiagnosed heart condition.

Brian Dunn, the attorney for Shaw’s parents, says there was both negligence and a cover up conspiracy involved in Shaw’s death investigation.

In addition to Baik and Stanislaus County, Shaw’s parents are suing then-Sheriff Adam Christianson and several deputies; Tuolumne County, its sheriff and several of its deputies, as well as individuals employed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The CDCR is not a defendant because the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits federal courts from hearing certain lawsuits against states.

Shaw was training to join one the CDCRs 35 fire camps, where inmates volunteer help fight fires and response to other disasters, as well as participate in conservation programs. The CDCR operates the program in cooperation with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Dunn said Shaw was serving time for a drug-related offense but corrections officials said he was five years into a nine-year sentence for second-degree robbery and attempted second-degree robbery, both while armed with a firearm. Shaw transferred to Sierra Conservation Center two months before his death.

Family first sued Stanislaus, Tuolumne counties

The family first sued Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties for wrongful death in 2019. But in April, Dunn filed a new lawsuit naming individuals involved in the investigation and alleging conspiracy to violate civil rights; supervisory liability of civil rights; municipal liability based on unconstitutional failure to train; and denial of medical care and failure to protect.

Dunn, a managing partner at the Cochran firm’s California office, said new information came out in March during deposition hearings with Baik and the training coach for the fitness testing of the firefighter program.

Dunn said the coach, Dennis Jordan Curasi, testified in a deposition that Shaw was exhibiting signs of heat exhaustion and had asked for water but never got any.

The lawsuit alleges that supervisors at Sierra Conservation Center ordered employees like Curasi to “falsify, alter, and fabricate documents.” Dunn said Curasi was named in the first lawsuit but not the second.

Dunn said through discovery he obtained video from the prison showing events after Shaw collapsed but not before. He believes the video of the day’s training and Shaw’s medical emergency was deliberately destroyed.

The attorney had a medical examiner from Michigan, Daniel Spitz, review Baik’s autopsy report and related documents.

“There are numerous autopsy findings that are grossly misinterpreted and there are many opinions and conclusions that are without scientific basis,” Spitz wrote in his review. “There are numerous deficiencies with this death investigation and autopsy which led to erroneous conclusions.”

Asked about the allegations, Stanislaus County Counsel Thomas Boze said in an email, “As is standard protocol, the plaintiff’s allegations are being investigated to determine if any departmental policies were violated. However, this matter is in litigation and we cannot comment further.”

Spitz said Baik performed the autopsy on Shaw without knowing all the circumstances of his death like the temperature that day, which the lawsuit alleges was well over 90 degrees.

Spitz said Baik neglected to test Shaw’s ocular fluid for electrolytes or make note of whether he had any urine in his bladder, both of which would provide indications of dehydration.

In making his findings, Baik noted Shaw had an enlarged heart and left ventricle. Spitz, citing a 1988 Mayo Clinic study, said both were well within the normal range.

Issue over particulars of autopsy

Baik didn’t take any of Shaw’s heart tissue for microscopic analysis which Spitz called the “gold standard” for examining the heart and the lawsuit said would have definitively determined whether Shaw was suffering from some form of preexisting heart condition prior to his death.

During his deposition, Baik said no photographs were taken of Shaw’s body because that is only done when the death is considered a homicide or otherwise suspicious.

“Based on this statement, it seems clear that Dr. Baik had ruled out any suspicious circumstances prior to conducting the autopsy,” Spitz wrote.

The lawsuit alleges a lieutenant at the prison repeatedly referenced a “possible heart condition " in his description of a cause of Shaw’s death when preparing documents for a California Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigator. It also says the lieutenant provided the investigators with cooler temperature readings from a location with a higher elevation than Jamestown.

A spokesperson for the department said she could not comment on pending litigation.

The Cal/ OSHA investigator found there were no violations by the CDCR on the day of Shaw’s death.

The lawsuit alleges that the Cal/ OSHA investigator came to that conclusion based on lies and that the employees at the Sierra Conservation Center failed to implement the CDCR’s own protocols to prevent heat related illness.

“Jacorey’s death was far from an accident, it was due to a complete disregard of established safety protocols that would have saved his life,” Dunn said in an email. “Not only did those responsible for his well-being allow him to die, they then conspired to conceal his true cause of death in order to absolve themselves of their moral and legal responsibilities.”

Dunn said he and the family do not yet know how much they will seek in damages.


(c)2021 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.)