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Coroner Story

[whitespace] Victor Duran shrine Blood and Roses: A shrine on St. John Street has become a rallying point for people who believe Victor Duran was killed by law enforcement officers.

Christopher Gardner

According to medical examiner Massoud Vameghi, small-time criminal Victor Duran died from wounds inflicted in jail. Others blame officer brutality. Meanwhile, his family wonders how their boy went bad.

By Michael Learmonth

JERRY TOWNSEND shields the smoldering wick of a candle against a chilly evening breeze. She stands with 52 other people, hunched over their own struggling candles, who have gathered at dusk at the corner of Seventh and St. John streets in San Jose. They say a prayer in front of a steadily growing shrine consisting of a wooden cross painted white and festooned with red roses, cards of condolence and a framed picture of Victor Samuel Duran standing on his porch smiling a toothy smile, wearing a Raiders jersey.

The shrine stands on the spot where witnesses say Duran was beaten by San Jose police during an arrest six weeks ago. A day later, Duran, 32, was dead.

The corner has become a frequent meeting place for people who knew Duran--his many friends, his brother, his two sisters and his girlfriend, Candy Aiken. Also gathered are people who never knew Duran. People like Maria Ortiz of the Barrio Defense Committee, who is circulating a petition demanding a grand jury investigation into the incident, along with a newsletter that alleges, among other things, that Duran "was killed" as a part of an effort to "kick poor people out" of the area where San Jose plans to build a new city hall.

The family seems to appreciate the concern of the activists and the hangers-on. But for them, the vigil is not a political organizing opportunity but a time to mourn a young man who was too quickly taken away from them.

Townsend, Duran's aunt, just wants to tell someone--anyone--about the gregarious little boy she raised.

"Somebody needs to know how loving he was," she says. "He never spoke a word in the house without 'yes, ma'am' or 'no, ma'am.' What he did on the outside, we don't know."

The furor over Duran's death reached fever pitch last week when Massoud Vameghi, the county's assistant coroner, concluded in an autopsy that Duran was strangled to death.

Vameghi found that Duran's injuries came in at least two stages. There were injuries to his chest and abdomen that he says appeared to have been sustained during the arrest. But a second wound, a "blunt trauma to the neck," was far more recent, according to his report. The trauma to the left side of the neck, Vameghi concluded, occurred so close to the time of death that there was no time for a bruise to form. Asked in an interview if Duran had died as a result of having been choked while in jail, Vameghi replied, "That's what it looks like."

Jail spokesman Rick Kitson strongly disputes Vameghi's findings, saying the Department of Corrections and other agencies are "working to reconcile the coroner's findings with their own factual findings."

"We have the safest large jail in the country," Kitson says.

The Department of Corrections investigation of the incident is still pending, but its initial report says Duran was found conscious, sitting on the floor of the infirmary, holding a blanket full of vomit. This conflicts with Vameghi's contention that Duran was killed by strangulation. The discrepancy could pit the department's credibility against that of the county coroner, which was the subject of a scathing grand jury report that called for the retirement of chief coroner Angelo K. Ozoa. The report faulted Ozoa's office for poor leadership and cited "lack of discipline, noncompliance with procedures and disrespect for authority by many, but not all, investigators."

"As these findings come out, it may help fuel the coroner issue," Kitson says.

With at least four different official investigations under way, each agency that had contact with Duran that night is desperately trying to prove that someone else is responsible for his death. The coroner's report points to an incident at the jail. The Department of Corrections is calling the autopsy into question and privately pointing out the massive injuries Duran sustained at the hands of San Jose police officers.

The chain of events that led to Duran's death began after midnight on May 27, when police spotted him riding a bicycle on E. Santa Clara Street in downtown San Jose. According to the Duran family's lawyer, Anthony Boskovich, the police say they attempted to stop Duran for riding without a headlight "in order to protect him." Witnesses at the scene say Duran fled on his bike and was apprehended at the corner of Seventh and St. John.

A police report claims Duran fell off his bike and a struggle ensued, and that when Duran ended up lying manacled and face down, police heard a clank on the street and discovered a sawed-off shotgun in a sling on Duran's belt. Contrary to news stories, the shotgun was unloaded, but Duran was in possession of some shells, the report says.

Witnesses say one police officer stood Duran up and leaned him over a squad car as another officer beat on his back with his forearm. A third officer arrived and struck Duran with his baton repeatedly in the abdomen, one witness says.

Boskovich has filed wrongful death claims against the city of San Jose and the sheriff's department. Since the claims were filed, the sheriff's office has not returned phone calls, and the police department has referred inquiries to the city attorney. At press time, the city attorney's office had not returned phone calls.

Victor Duran sign

DURAN WAS IN poor health. He weighed 366 pounds, he had an enlarged heart and cirrhosis of the liver so advanced he was in need of a transplant. In December, he began receiving Social Security for his disability, and he had been trying to lose weight to qualify for a liver transplant.

Duran was badly hurt during his arrest. His autopsy showed severe abdominal bruising and a rib broken in two places. According to Vameghi's report, those wounds most likely were sustained during the arrest.

The autopsy also shows a fracture of the hyoid bone in Duran's neck that appeared to Vameghi to have been caused by strangulation. Finally, according to the autopsy, there was blood pooling in Duran's eyes--a common sign of strangulation.

The question for the family remains: Who killed Victor Duran and why?

According to Kitson, only a handful of people had access to Duran after he was booked into the main jail May 27 at 4:30am. He was locked in an individual holding cell, Kitson says, which isolated him from other inmates. Duran's cell faced a large common area so any scuffle inside the cell, Kitson argues, would have had witnesses.

Duran was moved from that cell to the infirmary at about noon after complaining of pain in his abdomen, left ankle and left knee. The doctors expected to keep him there for one or two days for observation. Duran was scheduled for a chest X-ray that evening, but he refused it. Early the next morning, at 4:35am, Duran called for help and was found sitting on the floor of the infirmary holding a blanket full of vomit. The medical staff administered CPR and called an ambulance. Duran was intibated--a breathing tube shoved down his throat--on the way to the hospital. Resuscitation efforts failed, and he was pronounced dead at 5:15am.

Kitson says the only people who would have been present during Duran's stay in the infirmary were the guard on duty, two nurses and Valley Medical doctors, and that it's preposterous to conclude that any of them killed him.

One jail guard, speaking on a condition of anonymity, said he doubted that any guard "would be stupid enough to risk their career by going in and choking this guy." He noted that guards have been especially careful since a case in 1995, when Joseph Leitner ended up in a coma after guards "disciplined" him.

Rather than a fatal injury inflicted during his stay in the jail or the infirmary, Kitson argues that Duran died from the injuries he had already sustained, compounded by his poor health. "Everything we have indicates a deteriorating medical condition," he says.

The question of motive is also murky. By Kitson's account, Duran was a model prisoner. "Throughout his day at the Department of Corrections, there was no violence," Kitson says, arguing that there had been no struggle in jail that could have led to Duran's death.

Duran's arrest record shows a pattern of drug use, but not violence. Five years ago, Duran was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and methamphetamines. He was drug-tested at the jail, where technicians described him in their report as "cooperative."

Last year, Duran was arrested for possession of rock cocaine for sale. Again, he cooperated with authorities and was taken in to the jail, where seven rocks were found wrapped in cellophane hidden in his navel.

In February, Duran was caught outside Pac N Save after having allegedly shoplifted a Pentel correction pen worth $2.79. Duran admitted the theft and apologized, saying it was "stupid," and he allowed two security guards to hold him until police arrived.

Duran's girlfriend, Candy Aiken, says she can imagine he might have "mouthed off" to police, but physical violence was not in his character.

"The people in the jail know what happened," Boskovich says. "They've circled the wagons, and that's not right."

JUDGING BY THE number of mourners turning out to his shrine, Duran was certainly well-liked. Aiken, 23, says her boyfriend wanted to overcome his problems and become a youth counselor. She says he loved to watch football, go to the movies and drive to Santa Cruz.

Aiken says, crying, that Duran tried to call her after he was arrested, but she was at work.

"The thing that hurts the most is that he was alone and he had to suffer," she says.

Aiken's younger siblings, Carla and Christopher Souza, remember Duran as an older brother.

"He just looked out for us no matter what happened," says Carla, 16. "Everybody tries to make him look bad because he was big, but he never did anything to any of us."

Christopher, 15, says Duran took him to Warriors and San Jose Giants games.

Among the agencies investigating Duran's death are the San Jose Police Department, the sheriff's office, the Department of Corrections, the coroner and the Valley Health and Hospital System, which is in charge of medical services at the jail. Reviewing the investigations will be the county counsel, the district attorney and the San Jose city attorney.

Anthony Boskovich, meanwhile, awaits the results. At worst, he says, Duran was murdered in the jail. At best, he says, jail personnel watched while Duran slowly died of trauma from the internal injuries he sustained during the arrest.

"The injuries inflicted by the police were severe enough to kill him on their own," the attorney says. "He was at risk, and they let him die." Boskovich believes Duran's death will focus attention on practices of the San Jose Police Department.

"What this points out to me is that the beating that Victor Duran took is not an uncommon occurrence," Boskovich says. "People of color and of lower economic status are beaten every day. The only thing that makes Victor Duran different from all the other inmates in the county is that he died."

Boskovich says deaths among pretrial detainees are rare. He can think of only one other incident, which happened more than a decade ago.

At the shrine, Duran's older brother led the group in prayer by reading Psalms 31: "I will be glad and rejoice in your love, for you saw my affliction and knew the anguish of my soul."

Duran's family knew he was a troubled young man. In the weeks since his death, they have learned more about the other side of his life, the side that caused him to run afoul of the police.

"That stuff you read is stuff we didn't even know about," she says. "He didn't deserve to die."

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From the July 9-15, 1998 issue of Metro.

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