John Adena died in custody at the Shasta County Jail, in September of 2019.
But it wasn’t until more than a year later, his family says, that they finally received his autopsy results from Shasta County.
The contents stunned them. Adena’s cause of death was listed as carotid artery dissection, a condition usually caused by neck or chest trauma. In Adena’s case, the carotid artery had torn under his chest wall, an injury sometimes seen as a result of the blunt force to the chest experienced during high speed vehicle accidents.
His parents have now filed a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that Mr. Adena’s death was caused by intentional abuse at the hands of Shasta County Jail correctional officers. According to the complaint, Adena was “repeatedly” and “severely” beaten by jail deputies during his weeks in the Shasta County jail, causing his death.
Michelle Gallagher, Adena’s sister, says the family did not initially suspect foul play in her brother’s death, instead assuming that it must have been due to an undiagnosed medical condition, or other natural or accidental cause of death. She says the family only became concerned after repeated attempts to obtain an official cause of death and autopsy report for her brother were “blocked” by county officials.
“It was this process of just constantly hitting wall after wall after wall,“ Gallagher says, describing how her father would call the Shasta County Coroner’s Office each month to find out if there was any new information about his son’s cause of death. Originally, Gallagher says, the family was told the autopsy results would be back by the end of 2019, within a few months of Adena’s death. Later, she says, they were told the autopsy results could not be discussed because the investigation of Adena’s death was ongoing.
The lack of official information from the County made gaining a sense of closure difficult for the family, Gallagher explains, describing the confusion her family faced after her brother’s death.
“It was just shocking enough that my brother was in jail. It was shocking enough that he was mentally ill, that he wound up being arrested … and then when he died we didn’t have anyone saying this is how things work, this is the timeline … No one called us to explain anything. We didn’t have anyone guiding us through the process.”
Instead, she says the family was “stonewalled” by the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department for most of the next year, receiving no further information on the cause of her brother’s death, despite repeated requests.
Breaking briefly into subdued tears, the usually composed Gallagher described the last time she saw her brother alive, in a Shasta County courtroom during a court hearing several weeks after his arrest. They thought they saw the back of his head bleeding, she says, and he looked sad.
She and other family members attempted to visit Adena in jail during his incarceration, Gallagher said, but were first told he didn’t want to see family, then that his visiting privileges had been revoked due to behavioral issues. No one from his family was allowed to speak with him during his weeks of incarceration, Gallagher says, so they knew very little of what was happening to Adena in the jail. After his death, seeking any kind of explanation, she describes how the family pored over his arrest report and talked to his friends and former coworkers to learn more about what might have gone wrong. They learned little that could explain his death in custody.
Meanwhile, as time passed, the family’s legal options were becoming more complicated. California law requires that a complaint be filed within six months to allow for a legal wrongful death lawsuit against a government entity. As March 2020 passed, marking the six month point after Adena’s death, the family continued to lack even the most basic information about why he had died, Gallagher says.
It’s unclear what caused the apparent delay in the transmission of this information between County officials and the Adena family despite their repeated requests.
There is no official policy or timeline for release of information to families of deceased inmates, according to Ashleigh Roller, an Administrative Secretary for the Shasta County Coroner’s Office. That’s because timelines vary, she said, depending on the specifics of the case. In some cases, she said, autopsy results may be withheld pending an ongoing investigation.
Roller said that the legal death certificate, always released to the family within ten days, provides adequate death information to protect the family’s legal interests. But Adena’s mother, Circe Adena, speaking through her daughter Gallagher, says that while the family did receive a death certificate within ten days of her son’s death, it listed the cause of death only as “pending.” The official autopsy report confirms that the cause of death was originally listed as “pending” in both county and state records.
Adena’s autopsy was conducted in September 2019, only a few days after his death. Within a few weeks, county records show, in October of 2019, his toxicology results were received back by the County. But it wasn’t until September of 2020, a year after Adena’s death, that the official cause of death was finally updated in county and state records.
It’s not clear what caused this delay. Shasta County’s Chief Deputy Coroner, Logan Stonehouse, says it’s possible that the delay in the recording and release of Adena’s autopsy results was due to a backlog of pending cases. But Shasta Scout reviewed a similar timeline for another death in custody that occurred just a few weeks before Adena’s death. In that case, the official cause of death was updated within four months. Asked about disparities in the timeline for autopsy results in these two cases, Stonehouse said only that he could not speak for the forensic pathologist.
Meanwhile, Gallagher says, her family remained in the dark, receiving no updates in information on her brother’s cause of death. They decided to seek legal help. And when a Record Searchlight story series by Matt Brannon indicated an unusually high incidence of deaths in the Shasta County Jail the family became concerned that Adena’s death might somehow be connected to other deaths in custody. In November 2020, she says, with the help of their legal team, the family finally received autopsy results, more than fourteen months after her brother’s death in custody.
County officials did not respond to a request to confirm when Adena’s family received his official autopsy report, or provide a comment on why it was not released to the family earlier. But Jim Ross, Shasta County Assistant Counsel confirmed that there is no official timeline by which families receive a cause of death. He said legal timelines vary based on whether the death falls under California or federal law but said he lacked details to discuss specifics of Adena’s case. He did not respond to a follow up voicemail.
The delay in the release of the autopsy report to the family complicated their legal options, a lawyer for the Adena family, Julia Sherwin, says. Lacking the official autopsy report and cause of death, they missed both the six month and COVID-extended deadline for filing a tort claim of unlawful death with Shasta County, a first step towards filing a wrongful death lawsuit in California. Instead, Sherwin says, the family’s civil rights claim has now been filed federally, where the statute of limitations for an unlawful death lawsuit against a government entity is a full two years.
It’s clear that Shasta County officials are aware of these timelines. The county’s own website warns residents that the deadline for filling personal injury claims against the county is “complex and has short deadlines” and encourages individuals to “file without delay.”
But the Adena family appear to have faced delays in their ability to file a claim against the county by lack of timely information from the county itself.
That angers Gallagher, who says that her brother’s death opened her eyes to the realities of injustice. “Accountability, transparency, and change,” Gallagher says, “those three things are my motto right now.” Her husband is a law enforcement officer, she says, which gives her a unique vantage point. Fixing issues with the justice system is good for police everywhere, she says, because it increases the public’s trust. That’s why it’s so important that the county is honest about their mistakes and works to rectify them, she explains.
“If there was a series of mistakes that led to them holding this autopsy,” Gallagher says, “ let’s just be really brutally honest and bring it forward. “
Family and friends of John Adena will hold a rally and silent march Tuesday, June 29th, at 5 pm at the gazebo in Lake Redding Park. The hope, Gallagher says, is that the community will begin to work together to push for accountability at the Shasta County Jail.
“I realize it’s a complex issue,” Gallagher says, speaking about problem at the jail, “but we need people to take personal responsibility.”
6.28.2021, 8:19 pm: At the Adena family’s request, a few minor details of this story that were previously shared by Michelle Gallagher have been updated to convey the family’s story more accurately.