Protesters call on SLO County sheriff to resign after release of jail death video

San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon lent her voice to a growing chorus criticizing county Sheriff Ian Parkinson after The Tribune's release of chilling video footage that showed the final hours leading up to the death of a County Jail inmate in January of last year.

Harmon was one of dozens who gathered for a quickly organized protest Saturday afternoon in front of the San Luis Obispo Superior Courthouse to demand accountability from county officials. Protesters planned to sit in a makeshift restraint chair for hour-long shifts for a total of 46 hours, the amount of time Atascadero resident Andrew Holland spent strapped naked to such a device with nothing but a blanket and safety helmet covering him before his death.

"I call on Ian Parkinson to step out of this race," Harmon said to the roaring approval of a crowd, referring to his re-election campaign leading to the June primary.

Harmon and others also called for District Attorney Dan Dow to launch an investigation of the Sheriff's Office.

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Holland died Jan. 22, 2017, after being strapped to a restraint chair for 46 hours. Left to sit naked in his own urine and feces, Holland was released from the chair shortly before he died from a pulmonary embolism. Video depicts deputies watching from outside his holding cell as he struggled to breath and lost consciousness, smiling as paramedics attempted to revive him.

Small-business owner and local activist Tim Jouet was the first to take the chair, sitting nude except for a blanket and helmet, much as Holland sat. Former Tribune columnist Tom Fulks later took over for Jouet. The chair is expected to remain occupied until 11 a.m. Monday when a closing event is planned.

Event emcee Tarrah Graves of SLO Progressives said she and fellow organizers didn't want to waste any time setting up the protest; she said the event was not previously cleared with the San Luis Obispo Police Department but that it was a peaceful assembly. Graves said the protest was not a partisan event.

"We call on all people to step up and get mad," she said.

"This is not, nor should be, a partisan issue. This is not about right and left, this is about right and wrong," Harmon said.

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Holland's parents, Carty and Sharon Holland, have been some of the most vocal advocates for reform after their son's death, including donating $50,000 to candidates running to unseat Parkinson and Dow. They weren't present at the protest — Saturday was their wedding anniversary — but Holland's older brother, Corbin Holland, and cousin, Jackie Wright Holland, were present and spoke.

Fighting back tears, Corbin Holland said that when he first heard news of his brother's death, "I thought, 'He's finally free.' "

But then, Corbin Holland said his family learned more about the circumstances of his brother's death.

"What's been so hard is the cover-up," he said.

After learning of Andrew Holland's initial autopsy report — from The Tribune, not from Parkinson — Corbin Holland said his family demanded a second opinion.

"Had that not happened, none of this stuff would have been disclosed," he said.

Corbin Holland described the horror of the conditions his brother was kept in; first in isolation, then locked in a chair.

"Andrew was treated like an animal, worse than an animal," he said. "Fifteen months in and out of isolation could destroy the strongest of minds."

In an email Thursday, County Administrative Officer Wade Horton called the video "extremely painful to watch."

"What happened to Andrew Holland was a tragedy that impacts our entire community," Horton wrote. "Although we can't bring Andrew back, our county has made and continues to make changes in response to this terrible event."

Such reforms Horton listed include banning the restraint chair, hiring a independent contractor to audit county procedures, and adopted the Stepping Up initiative, a sweeping plan that reduces the number of mental ill in the jail.

Corbin Holland placed the blame for his brother's death squarely at Parkinson's feet.

"The sheriff hid the truth. Andrew's death was a homicide. He was killed by a culture of cruelty, dehumanization and utter indifference. He was killed needlessly," he said before breaking down into sobbing.

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Clarification: The first paragraph of this story has been changed to better reflect SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon’s statement.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7934, @andrewsheeler