Among the 2,000 or so people who find themselves locked inside Sacramento County Main Jail on any given day, Edward “Skittles” Larson and Choi Saeteurn hardly seemed remarkable.
Larson, 54, was a registered sex offender with a drinking problem and a penchant for telling corny, and sometimes lewd, jokes. Saeteurn, 68, was a grandfather with a lengthy arrest record that included possession of controlled substances and assault with a firearm.
Before their latest brushes with the law could be resolved in court, both men were dead, allegedly at the hands of their cellmates. The killings, within about a month of each other in December and January, were only the third and fourth slayings at the downtown jail since 1984, according to records kept by the California Department of Justice.
Ernest Salmons, 33, was arrested on suspicion of killing Larson, whose lifeless body was discovered in his cell in the wee hours of Dec. 14. Just a few weeks later, on Jan. 16, Saeteurn was found dead in his quarters. His cellmate, Khot Panyanouvong, 35, is now charged with murder in the older man’s death.
Undersheriff Jamie Lewis told The Sacramento Bee that the two deaths are unrelated and that they do not appear to reflect any kind of underlying problem regarding inmate placement or supervision.
Others suggested that the deaths may reflect inadequate supervision of inmates and a lack of timely medical care when someone gets injured within the jail.
“There is a lack of communication and a lack of supervision,” said Sacramento criminal defense attorney Stewart Katz, who has represented dozens of inmates in claims of inadequate medical staffing and poor emergency response, among other issues, at the county jail.
“They don’t do the things they say they do and are supposed to do by law,” Katz said, including quickly responding to emergency call buttons. “It’s an abandonment of responsibility.”
Katz, in a federal lawsuit, argued that inmate Mark Anthony Scott died in 2012 because a sheriff’s deputy and a nurse refused to help him even though he was vomiting blood for hours. Other inmates provided sworn statements claiming that the use of the emergency button inside the cell was ineffective in summoning help.
One inmate, Chema Strawther, said that Scott’s cellmate repeatedly pushed the emergency button but that deputies told him “words to the effect of, ‘Quit pushing the button,’” according to the suit.
Katz said the suit recently was resolved but that details of the settlement are not yet public.
Few details have been made public about the recent homicides in the jail.
Panyanouvong, suspected of killing Saeteurn, declined a request for a jailhouse interview. His family members did not respond to requests for comment.
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department has said that Panyanouvong was originally booked on suspicion of a parole violation and resisting arrest. He has arrests dating back to 2000 for charges including possession of controlled substances, DUI, vandalism, burglary and possession of paraphernalia.
Saeteurn was discovered dead in the locked cell he shared with Panyanouvong during an early morning check, sheriff’s officials said. Lewis said the older man appears to have died from “blunt trauma and asphyxiation.”
Panyanouvong, Lewis said, appears to be mentally ill. “There was some indication that the suspect was hearing voices,” he said.
‘Please move him’
Larson also had mental issues, according to friends and acquaintances, and suffered from a variety of physical problems that limited his mobility. His death initially was not labeled suspicious. But the county coroner’s investigation showed injuries that suggested he had been beaten, and Lewis said he may have been assaulted multiple times. His official cause of death was “blunt force” injuries.
The undersheriff said Larson never reported being harmed or asked for medical help. “It’s only a problem if it came to our attention and we failed to act, but there is no indication that the assaults actually came to our attention,” Lewis said.
Salmons, now charged with murder, told The Bee in an interview that he hit Larson but never meant to seriously harm his cellmate. When he discovered Larson unresponsive, he said, he repeatedly asked deputies for help, only to be rebuffed.
Salmons, who was being held on a charge of motorcycle theft, said he had slapped Larson the previous afternoon, causing him to fall down and hit the back of his head.
When Salmons woke about 3 a.m., he said, Larson lay unresponsive on the floor.
“They wouldn’t even answer the emergency button,” he said of deputies on staff. “It took them almost 40 minutes to answer that button when I was saying, ‘Hey, this guy ain’t breathing. This guy ain’t moving. Something’s wrong in here.’”
Salmons said he and Larson did not get along, and that he tried to get him moved from their cell before their final altercation.
Larson, he said, had poor hygiene and bathroom habits, and “was being disrespectful with his sexuality” and “trying to hit on me.” He said he was unaware of Larson’s status as a sex offender.
“I asked six different officers, six different deputies, to get that guy out of my cell, to please move him,” Salmons said.
On the day before Larson died, “I said, ‘I can’t stay in here.’ I said, ‘He’s going to get beat up.’ And they still wouldn’t do nothing. They wouldn’t even come to the door.”
Lewis said the jail, which often operates at or near capacity, cannot honor all requests for relocation. Salmons had complained about other cellmates as well, he said.
“The makeup of the jail is not such that we can isolate every single inmate,” he said. “I mean, there are a number of people who are together who may not be the perfect marriage, but who are suitable by classification to be housed together.”
The department, Lewis said, will fully investigate both homicides. He questioned the claim by Salmons that deputies delayed responding to his alarm.
“That is obviously inconsistent with what our practice and our policy is,” Lewis said. “We have floor checks once an hour, minimum. It’s a face to the person in the cell, and any indication that the inmate is in distress would prompt response from medical, from additional officers, from whatever. Even at 3 a.m.”
‘It wasn’t no punch’
Larson, who friends and acquaintances said has been homeless on and off for years, had served time in prison for sex offenses. He recently lived at the Hotel Marshall, a now-shuttered haven for societal castoffs who are unable to find housing anywhere else. After the Marshall closed last summer, he moved into another residential hotel, the Capitol Park, but he lasted only a couple of months, said owner Irene Henry.
Henry described Larson as a loner who stayed in his room most of the time and had a severe drinking problem that caused him to stumble and fall when he ventured outside. He left Capitol Park in November, saying he was checking himself into an alcohol rehab facility, Henry said.
“He told me they had a bed for him, but then I heard he got arrested for failing to register,” she said. “He left here for a place that we thought would be safe, and then he died. It’s just kind of shocking.”
Salmons described himself as a Christian man who would never deliberately harm someone like Larson. “I ain’t a murderer. I ain’t even a manslaughterer, if that’s a word,” he declared. “I’m a lover, not a hater.”
But when Larson soiled himself and the bedding inside their shared cell, he said, he became angry and slapped him across the face.
“It wasn’t no punch,” Salmons said, but Larson fell backward, hitting the back of his head against his concrete bunk. He said Larson remained conscious afterward and appeared to be OK, walking in a common area and later changing his clothes.
In the evening, Salmons said, he read a book while his cellmate apparently slept on the concrete floor with his head under a desk. Salmons said he didn’t think there was anything unusual going on because Larson routinely slept in that location.
Salmons took a shower at around 10, he said, before going to sleep.
He woke at 3, and saw Larson still curled on the floor.
He kicked Larson’s feet in an effort to get him to move away from the toilet, he said, but Larson did not respond.
“A deputy was out there, and that’s when I started pushing the button,” Salmons said. “I knew something was wrong, ’cause I looked down at his face and his lips were kind of blue.”
A deputy looked into the cell and asked Salmons to kick his cellmate again to “try to move him over, so I did.” Again, he got no response.
“The deputy said, ‘Yeah, he’s breathing. I see his stomach moving,’” Salmons recalled. “‘I see the blankets going up and down.’ She walked away.’”
Finally, after reaching another deputy using the call button, Salmons said, the female officer came back and took a closer look at Larson.
“He was dead.”
Call The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @Cynthia_Hubert.