Correctional officer's death exposes hazing, toxic culture at Calif. prison

Valentino Rodriguez Jr. was "throwing up all the time at work and hyperventilating" from depression and PTSD


By Wes Venteicher
The Sacramento Bee

WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Valentino Rodriguez Jr. texted his wife, Irma, an hour and a half before she found him dead Oct. 21 at their home in West Sacramento.

Rodriguez Jr. was 30, and had been a correctional officer at a state prison in Folsom. Nine months earlier he had gone out on leave for stress, telling his wife he could no longer tolerate the harassment and threats from other officers.

He had met with the prison's warden a week earlier, on Oct. 15, and on the 21st some of the officers were calling his phone.

"It's out now that I told on the team," he wrote in the text to his wife.

Irma Rodriguez, 26, returned home from dinner with two friends to find her husband lying purple-faced on the bathroom floor. Scattered nearby were pills, tin foil and a straw. The Yolo County Coroner's Office pronounced him dead at 9:25 p.m.

On his black iPhone 11, Rodriguez Jr. left a record of mistreatment and potential rule violations by other officers at California State Prison, Sacramento. His text exchanges have fueled a father's search for answers and an official Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation investigation.

The prison, one of the state's most dangerous, is already under federal scrutiny after an officer allegedly tripped an inmate whose hands were cuffed behind his back in 2016 and, along with another officer, covered up details when the inmate died. A state lawmaker called out a "culture of intolerance and criminality" among correctional officers after the charges were filed, requesting a broad investigation.

The prison's culture broke Rodriguez Jr., said members of his family.

His father, his widow and his siblings described him as goofy, kind and relentlessly curious. He liked to play Pokémon and watch anime. He wanted a career outside the family's pool-plastering business, but his father worried from the start that the prison environment wouldn't suit his son.

His family doesn't know what he said to Warden Jeff Lynch during his last trip to the institution, but his texts suggest the warden or someone else in an official capacity asked him to put something in writing.

"Tomorrow they want me to write a memo," he said in the text to his wife. "And i don't know what ima do."

Rodriguez Jr.'s death, caused by fentanyl intoxication, was accidental, Yolo County Chief Deputy Coroner Gina Moya said Wednesday.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has struggled to address a growing mental health crisis among correctional officers — reflected in suicide numbers — that is often attributed to violent workplaces.

A University of California, Berkeley survey of California correctional officers published in 2017 found officers are exposed to violence at rates comparable to military veterans, and that the job is linked to health problems, depression and suicidal thoughts. Nine state correctional officers killed themselves last year alone, according to figures kept by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

Rodriguez Jr.'s experiences, which resemble those of a High Desert State Prison officer whose 2011 death received national attention, point to a distinct and different problem within the prison known as New Folsom.

"My son was hazed to death," said Rodriguez Jr.'s father, Valentino Rodriguez Sr., 58.

Officers repeatedly called Rodriguez Jr. a gay slur, made fun of his weight and taunted him, saying that his wife was cheating on him with Black men, according to text exchanges on his phone. Rodriguez Jr. said in texts that the harassment came even as he worked harder than his coworkers and performed his work well.

The elder Rodriguez shared the contents of the phone with the corrections department's Office of Internal Affairs, the FBI and The Sacramento Bee.

The corrections department declined to share specifics of its investigation or make Secretary Kathleen Allison available for an interview, but in an email, spokeswoman Dana Simas suggested employees could face consequences.

"Immediately after CDCR was made aware of potential misconduct by some institution staff, the department opened a full investigation and, per policy, has redirected any subjects pending the outcome," Simas said in the email. "CDCR takes its peace officer Code of Conduct very seriously and we will enforce our policies to the fullest extent."

A high-security prison

Rodriguez Jr. transferred to New Folsom in April 2016 after working for about a year at San Quentin State Prison.

New Folsom has a security level of 4, the highest in the state's classification system. It houses some of California's most dangerous inmates — murderers, rapists and a group of mentally ill patients deemed too dangerous for the state's mental hospitals.

Inmates frequently assault correctional officers and one another. Instances of "gassing," in which inmates throw urine or feces at employees, are everyday occurrences, according to three officers who spoke with The Bee on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation.

Gang politics are more pronounced than at lower-level institutions, and the environment forces officers to approach their work with even more intensity, one of them said.

"As an officer, you have to be hard," he said. "You have to know when to flip that switch and get crazy. Because if you don't fight that crazy individual with a crazy mentality, you're going to lose."

Rodriguez Jr. excelled at the work and was promoted uncommonly quickly to the Investigative Services Unit, an elite group of about 20 officers who investigate drug trafficking, gang activity, contraband items, violent crimes and suicides inside the prison.

Rodriguez Jr. watched other officers injure an inmate while restraining the inmate not long after he started at the prison and had to describe the events in a written report, said his wife.

He worried aloud about writing the report, she said, telling her he had to make sure to say "everything the right way" or risk losing his job.

"That's when the pressure started," she said. " ... it was like this overwhelming sense that someone was watching him."

Harassing texts from correctional officers

Text exchanges on Rodriguez Jr.'s phone show in explicit detail how other Investigative Services Unit officers treated him after he skipped rungs on the promotional ladder to join their ranks in 2018.

The officers called the newcomer "half-patch" in group texts, suggesting he wasn't worthy of his position, and called him a gay slur when he discussed work or shared photos from his personal life, the texts show.

In August 2019, he shared a photo of a large buck his friend had harvested from a Rodriguez family property hours earlier.

He wrote, "Who likes venison steaks and jerky?"

Officer Daniel Garland responded: "You f—!!! Send a picture of your girls ass!!!"

In another exchange with the group, Rodriguez Jr. shared a photo of a margarita. The officers joked that its contents were semen.

Rodriguez Jr. detailed the treatment that ultimately drove him to take leave on workers' compensation in a Sept. 19, 2020, text to Internal Affairs Sgt. Brandon Strohmaier, who was part of the unit.

He told Strohmaier that one of the officers called Black inmates monkeys and the n-word, and he said the officer used the word in taunts about Rodriguez Jr.'s wife cheating on him.

The officers ordered him to complete menial tasks and made him do their work while they played video games, slept or left their shifts early, he told Strohmaier in the text. In a separate text, he specified they were playing "Call of Duty" in group matches at work.

Rodriguez Jr. told Strohmaier in the text that at one point, he was conducting six investigations, while most of the other officers had "1 or 0" investigations going.

"Yet i was told I'm the weak link or i don't do my part," he said in the text.

"That team is broken," Rodriguez Jr. said in the text to Strohmaier. "There is s--- they do, say, or don't do that could cause everyone from the Warden down to get the boot."

None of the officers responded to voicemails left on their cellphones last week.

Rodriguez Jr. said in the text to Strohmaier that his boss, Sgt. David Anderson, threatened to fire him if he told anyone what was going on inside the unit.

"I was singled out and told 'if you say anything or open your mouth I'll f---ing replace you like that,'" Rodriguez Jr. said in the text.

Anderson, reached by phone last week, hung up when informed that Rodriguez Jr. was the subject of an upcoming story.

Rodriguez Jr. told Strohmaier in the text that the final straw came after a group text on Dec. 30, 2019.

He had passed along instructions for logging on to a computer system the officers used in conjunction with the Sacramento County Main Jail.

Garland responded with a gay slur, saying "who gives a f---."

When Rodriguez Jr. responded in kind, he received a video in the group chat in which a young man said, "You ever get out of pocket again, I'm gonna slap your fat ass."

"Everyone laughed at it and thought it was funny and i realized i didn't want to associate myself with them anymore," Rodriguez Jr. told Strohmaier.

Treatment for PTSD

In his last year of work, Rodriguez Jr. was "throwing up all the time at work and hyperventilating" from depression and PTSD, he said in the text to Strohmaier.

He sought help after suffering what he said was a breakdown at work, said Irma Rodriguez. Psychologists' treatment notes say he went out on leave on Jan. 28, 2020.

He started therapy and antidepressants while he was unsure whether he would return to the prison, according to his texts and psychological reports prepared by workers' compensation doctors.

Doctors tied his leave request to a Nov. 17, 2017, injury. He had chased a prisoner who was carrying a contraband cellphone, and the inmate elbowed him, said Rodriguez Sr. Other officers tackled the inmate, bringing Rodriguez Jr. to the ground at the same time, and he suffered a knee injury and a concussion from the landing, his father said.

He went on leave for a month and a half after the attack. He returned to work suffering from nightmares, stress and nausea, according to a September 2020 psychological report from therapist Steve Haws. He gained 45 pounds, according to Haws' report.

Rodriguez Jr.'s condition worsened after he joined the Investigative Services Unit, Haws wrote in the report, stating his patient was "harassed on a daily basis and feel (sic) into a deep depression."

Rodriguez Jr. considered quitting completely in early 2020 and going to work for his father, but ended up on stress leave under workers' compensation, according to treatment notes.

While on leave, he texted a former coworker to say that even going to the prison to pick up his paychecks got his blood pressure and heart rate "out of control."

A father's quest

Valentino Rodriguez Sr. keeps a photo of his son, fixed with a slight smile, hanging in the office of Generation Pool Plastering, the business he owns in West Sacramento. The photo is draped with a rosary.

His father still grieves. He has scrutinized his son's texts. He has called the numbers his son called. He obtained additional records from AT&T after deducing his son deleted some call records.

"I just want justice for my son," Rodriguez Sr. said.

The Rodriguez family filed a complaint with the department's Office of Internal Affairs shortly after Rodriguez Jr.'s death, including some of the texts.

Three months ago, an internal affairs officer told Rodriguez Sr. in an email that he had completed an initial inquiry based on the complaint and on the contents of a thumb drive. Rodriguez Sr. said the thumb drive held information from the phone.

The internal affairs officer said in the email that a "reasonable belief was established to allege serious misconduct occurred," and he had referred the matter to a Special Investigations Unit for "a full official investigation."

Rodriguez Sr. has read "The Green Wall," former correctional officer D.J. Vodicka's account of blowing the whistle on officers he alleged were corrupt at Salinas Valley State Prison and Pleasant Valley State Prison in the early 2000s.

He has studied the case of Scott Jones, the former High Desert State Prison officer, who shot himself in the head in 2011 after he was hazed and isolated by other officers after they allegedly pressured him to falsify a workers' compensation report.

He said his son's death fits a pattern. Despite the corrections department's "zero tolerance" policy prohibiting officers from concealing wrongdoing through a "code of silence," Rodriguez Sr. believes his son was pressured to keep quiet about misconduct he witnessed.

Rodriguez Jr.'s texts detail little misconduct outside his own treatment. But in a Jan. 12, 2020, entry in the Notes app on his phone, titled "Reasons to leave," Rodriguez Jr. included "whistleblower violations," along with threats, harassment and other reasons.

Rodriguez Jr. referenced his struggle in the text to Strohmaier, which he sent on Sept. 19, 2020.

"I should have spoke up but i didn't want to cause problems for the people who stuck their necks out to get me the job," he said in the text. "And honestly, it's my fault for not standing up to begin with. I sold my pride for the job and it wasn't worth it."

The next month, he was called to meet Warden Lynch.

Strohmaier didn't respond to a voicemail left on his cell phone. Lynch, through a department spokeswoman, didn't respond to an interview request.

Nine months of peace

Rodriguez Sr. remains grateful for the nine months his son was on leave from the prison.

The father and his two sons all were working together. Rodriguez Jr. worked primarily in sales, and he was good at it. Gregory Rodriguez, a year and a half younger than his brother, preferred the work of laying tile and surfacing pools.

Gregory Rodriguez said he looked forward to his brother becoming the "shot caller" in the business while he would continue his tradesman's work.

Two and a half weeks before Rodriguez Jr.'s death, the business' shop — a cavernous concrete brick building with a large fenced enclosure and patches of astroturf outside — was a place of joy.

Rodriguez Jr. and his fiance decided, amid the coronavirus, to abandon plans for a big wedding in Mexico and instead to get married Oct. 3 at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. They held an outdoor reception at the shop.

The event was organized so hastily they used a fake cake. A few dogs roamed among the tables, Irma Rodriguez said.

In a speech, the groom expressed gratitude for his new bride. A video captured his speech.

"It clicked with me when I was standing up there on the altar today that I'm right where I'm supposed to be in life," Rodriguez Jr. said in the speech. "I didn't have any doubts, I didn't wish to run; I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and that was marrying this woman."

A text he sent a few days later to the former officer who had preceded him in the investigative unit showed the "ghosts," as he sometimes called the lingering effects of the prison, hadn't left completely.

"I got married over the weekend and I was dry heaving and freaking out all week," he said in the text. "Not about getting married; mostly stuck on dumb things like speeches, my vows, dancing, and being able to sneak away from the crowd of people. But surprisingly as soon as I saw her down the isle (sic) on Saturday everything went out the window and the night were perfect."

Three weeks later, the family held his funeral service in the same place.

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