SLO County Jail inmate died of natural causes, coroner rules

Russell Alan Hammer, 62, was in San Luis Obispo County Jail awaiting mental health reports in his domestic violence case when he died in jail custody in November.
Russell Alan Hammer, 62, was in San Luis Obispo County Jail awaiting mental health reports in his domestic violence case when he died in jail custody in November.

A San Luis Obispo County Jail inmate who died in November died from natural causes, and no traces of drugs or alcohol were found in his system, a Sheriff-Coroner’s Office report released Wednesday confirmed.

Russell Alan Hammer, 62, of Hanford died November 27, 2017, after complaining of chest pain and shortness of breath. He became unresponsive as jail staff were wheeling him to the jail medical facility, according to the official autopsy report released by Sheriff’s officials.

Dr. Joye Carter, who was hired as the county’s new medical examiner last September, ruled that Hammer died of pulmonary thrombo-embolism and deep vein thrombosis of his left leg. Carter ruled the death as natural.

Hammer was the third inmate to die in the jail in 2017 and the 12th inmate to die in Sheriff’s Office custody since January 2012. With Hammer’s death, the jail’s inmate death rate in 2017 was nearly three times the most recent national average recorded in 2014.

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The jail is the subject of a civil rights investigation by the FBI, which officially began in May. An FBI spokesperson was not immediately available for comment on the status of that investigation early Wednesday.

According to an autopsy report written by Detective Coroner Rory Linn, he and Carter reported to the jail to investigate the death and found Hammer lying on the concrete floor in a walkway between I Deck and O Deck. He was hooked up to an oxygen machine, intravenous fluids and defibrillator pads, the report says.

Linn wrote that there were no signs of external trauma.

Jail staff reportedly told Linn that Hammer contacted them from his single-person cell saying he was short of breath.

“Medical staff was immediately notified and jail staff began transporting the decedent to the medical facility at the jail,” the report reads. “During the transport in a wheelchair, the decedent became unresponsive.”

Linn wrote that after life-saving efforts failed, staff examined Hammer’s cell, finding no evidence of drug use, foul play or criminal activity.

Hammer’s autopsy was performed the next day, with Carter finding congestion in the pulmonary lobes of Hammer’s lungs and blood clots within dilated veins in his calf, according to the report. Linn wrote that aggravating factors included Hammer’s peripheral vascular disease and cellulitis in his left calf.

Hammer, who was initially housed in a dorm with other inmates after being booked on assault charges, was eventually moved into a single cell “for mental health concerns,” Linn wrote. The Tribune previously reported that court records show Hammer was accused of stabbing his wife with a butcher knife and charged Nov. 8 with corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant and assault with a deadly weapon, both felonies.

Records show he was in the care of San Luis Obispo County Mental Health from at least Nov. 8 until Nov. 13, when his attorney declared a doubt of his mental competency to stand trial. A Superior Court judge suspended his criminal case and appointed two forensic psychologists to perform psychiatric evaluations. Hammer was due back in court in December for review of doctors’ findings.

His death is the latest in a series of deaths that have brought attention to questionable treatment of inmates with mental and medical health needs by jail and county health staff. In July 2017, the county awarded $5 million to the family of former inmate Andrew Holland, a mentally ill Atascadero man who died after being held in a restraint chair for nearly two days.

The county has implemented a host of policy reforms for mentally ill inmates and is separately awaiting results of a review by a third-party consultant tasked with providing other recommended changes. Results of that review are expected within the coming months. A request for proposals to contract outside medical and mental health services at the jail is also expected to be released early this year.

The jail is expecting to open its newly constructed medical facility building in May.

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1

In-custody deaths at the SLO County Jail, 2012-17

The following people died while in custody of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office since January 2012.

Jan. 5, 2012: Kevin Lee Strahl, 53. Cause: Hepatic failure, liver fatty change

Nov. 12, 2012: Joseph Morillo, 43. Cause: Cardiac arrest due to thickening of heart muscle and morbid obesity

Jan. 27, 2014: Rudy Silva. Died in hospital care. Cause: Acute hypoxic respiratory failure, septic shock, Influenza A and Staphylococcus Aureus Bacteremia

March 12, 2014: Josey Richard Meche, 28. Cause: Cardiac dysrhythmia with acute methamphetamine toxicity

May 30, 2014: Timothy Richard Jancowicz, 29. Cause: Respiratory arrest due to heroin toxicity

Jan. 11, 2015: David Thomas Osborn Sr., 63, Cause: Acute myocardial infarction, Atherosclerotic coronary artery disease, hyperglycemia

March 24, 2015: Sean Michael Alexander, 33. Cause: Microscopic encephalitis, marked pulmonary edema

Sept. 20, 2016: Jordan Benjamin Turner, 36. Cause: Suicide with razor blade

July 16, 2016: Nicole Honait Luxor, 62. Died in hospital care. Cause: Complications from gallbladder cancer

Jan. 22, 2017: Andrew Chaylon Holland, 36. Intrapulmonary embolism

April 13, 2017: Kevin Lee McLaughlin, 60. Cause: Cardiac arrhythmia due to acute chronic ischemic heart disease

November 27, 2017: Russell Alan Hammer, 62. Cause: Pulmonary thrombo-embolism, deep vein thrombosis

Note: Unless stated otherwise, death occurred at the San Luis Obispo County Jail

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