A methamphetamine user with a troubled past, John Hernandez was behaving strangely enough in a Sacramento drug store parking lot for two people to call 911 on a recent weekday afternoon.
Police said Hernandez challenged strangers to fight while walking around shirtless near Alhambra Boulevard. Soon after officers arrived, he fled. Officers chased him into the back hallway of a nearby medical office, where they hit him with batons and used Taser stun guns.
More than three weeks later, Hernandez is still in an intensive care unit with severe brain damage. Late Wednesday, his condition declined and he stopped breathing on his own, according to his mother, Debbie Hernandez.
What transpired during the incident is unclear. Sacramento police have not discussed the matter in detail, citing an ongoing investigation. The Police Department said Tuesday it will release video from the event, though it did not specify when it will make the footage available, nor did it identify John Hernandez by name, referring to him as a “combative subject.”
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Hernandez, 34, is not under arrest, but could be charged with resisting or obstructing an officer and resisting arrest, according to police spokesman Sgt. Bryce Heinlein. Thus far, police and family accounts have indicated that Hernandez was not armed that day.
During the incident, an officer told dispatchers it was “a possible excited delirium situation,” based on audio archived on Broadcastify.com, citing a disputed syndrome that proponents describe as an agitated state involving psychotic behavior and superhuman strength.
Hernandez’s family said the day afterward, police described the situation to them as a “bad altercation” and advised them to go to the hospital where Hernandez was on life support.
Debbie Hernandez believes excessive police force has left her son in a non-aware state from which doctors say he may never fully recover. She said her son’s heart stopped for more than 10 minutes after the confrontation, and a neurologist has predicted that her son’s best-case scenario is regaining the mental capacity of a 2-year-old.
Propped up in his hospital bed last week, John Hernandez went in and out of consciousness. Inked across his neck in scrolling cursive were the names of three women in the room: his mother, his ex-wife and his 7-year-old daughter. His brown eyes rolled back into his head when he was awake, and he seemed oblivious to his visitors.
“They don’t know if he will ever be able to walk or talk,” said Debbie Hernandez. “He doesn’t know we are there at all. That’s what makes me so sad.”
She has not yet filed a claim against the city but has hired civil rights lawyer John Burris, who last year represented the father of Joseph Mann, a mentally ill black man killed by Sacramento police in July. The city’s Office of Public Safety Accountability also has opened an investigation into the John Hernandez case after inquiries by The Sacramento Bee.
On the morning of March 6, Hernandez was in the Rite Aid parking lot as he was trying to make his way to an appearance in El Dorado Superior Court, said his younger brother Jerrod Hernandez.
Court records show that John Hernandez has a long history in that court, with many drug-related cases. Hernandez has been addicted to methamphetamine since his teenage years in Placerville, his mother said. He also has a single felony count of vandalism in Sacramento Superior Court, and he violated parole on that charge in May. Debbie Hernandez said her son has been “in and out of jail.”
The Saturday before the incident, Jerrod Hernandez went to pick up his brother, whose girlfriend had kicked him out of their Campbell apartment in the South Bay. When Jerrod arrived, John was “really high and very delusional,” Jerrod Hernandez said. His brother had tried many times to get clean, Jarrod said, but had relapsed again.
They headed to Sacramento on Sunday. By the time they reached Sacramento around midnight, John Hernandez was paranoid and fearful, Jerrod Hernandez said. He had planned to take John back to his Citrus Heights apartment but instead dropped him off at a McDonald’s on K Street near where he encountered police the next day.
“I can’t have you at my house,” Jerrod said he told John. “You’ll get me evicted.”
At 1:53 p.m. Monday, Sacramento police began receiving calls about “a shirtless man running up to people outside a business and expressing a desire to fight them,” according to a police news release. Heinlein said dispatchers received three calls about the man, two from the same person.
The first officer on the scene found John Hernandez sitting on a curb. Hernandez “became agitated and confrontational” when the officer tried to speak with him, according to police. Hernandez “refused to obey” verbal commands. When a second officer arrived, police said Hernandez “became more erratic and noncompliant.”
Hernandez then ran across L Street and into a Sutter medical building.
His sister, Melissa Serna, said she saw a clip of surveillance video from the facility that showed John Hernandez stopping at elevators just inside the sliding glass entryway and hitting the buttons. When the elevator doors didn’t open, he took off down a narrow, curving hallway, no more than 4 feet wide. Two officers could be seen running into the facility, she said.
Police said they attempted to use Tasers and batons to subdue Hernandez when they caught up to him in the hallway, but those less-lethal weapons were “not effective.” More officers arrived and “were finally able to subdue the subject,” police said. Heinlein could not say how many officers were involved or how many times they used Tasers.
Officers handcuffed Hernandez, who “was, at that time, alert and responsive to officers’ questions,” police said. But “prior to being transported from the scene,” Hernandez “became unresponsive and CPR was initiated by fire personnel,” police said.
Heinlein said that “once the fire department arrived, that is when he became unconscious and unresponsive.” The fire department incident report said Hernandez was “found in police custody and unresponsive. CPR initiated.”
Admitting records to the hospital provided by Debbie Hernandez said her son “became unresponsive after he was tased (sic) by police just prior to arrival. Patient was reportedly unresponsive for 10-12 minutes before pulses returned.” The initial exam found that Hernandez wasn’t breathing on his own and was “comatose” with “no response to stimuli.”
For weeks after the incident, Hernandez couldn’t breathe on his own, his mother said, and his family considered taking him off a ventilator.
Three weeks after the encounter, Hernandez remains in intensive care in a Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento, room with a window that overlooks Alhambra Boulevard. His full chest of tattoos peeks out from a sagging green hospital gown and his beard has grown in. Tubes are attached to almost every part of his body, and a dialysis machine sits next to the bed.
Family is almost always present. But not much has changed with his mental condition, said his mother, who drives almost daily from her Ripon home in San Joaquin County to be with her son. She said she is fearful of what will happen in coming months and years – and doesn’t know how he will get round-the-clock care.
“I’m ready to have a nervous breakdown right now,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”