‘Unacceptable and inexcusable’: 11 HCSO employees fired, 6 others suspended after inmate’s death inside Harris County Jail, sheriff says

The inmate's mother is finally speaking out

During a Friday media briefing, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez discussed the findings of an Internal Affairs investigation into the Feb. 17 death of Jaquaree Simmons inside the Harris County Jail. Gonzalez announced 11 HCSO employees were fired and six others were suspended in connection with Simmons’ death.

READ MORE: Family looking for answers 2 months after 23-year-old man died inside Harris County jail

Following Simmons’ death, Gonzalez launched an Internal Affairs investigation, which was undertaken concurrently with the Houston Police Department’s independent criminal investigation into the incident. Because HPD’s investigation remains ongoing, Gonzalez refrained from providing some details related to the case. While the Houston Police Department’s criminal inquiry focuses on Simmons’ death, the internal affairs investigation conducts a broader investigation, which includes an assessment of the conduct of HCSO staff.

“The circumstances of his death raised immediate red flags,” Gonzalez said during the Friday briefing. “Franky, the initial explanation given by those who were involved just didn’t comport with the facts.”

Throughout the course of HCSO’s Internal Affairs investigation, 73 interviews were conducted with 37 employees and 20 people detained in Harris County jails, some of which required follow-up interviews.

“These initial statements proved to be invaluable and instrumental in helping us develop a cleared understanding of what occurred that day,” said Major Thomas Diaz, who led the Internal Affairs investigation.

All told, a dozen HCSO investigators and supervisors devoted three months to the case to ensure they gathered and analyzed all evidence available. They shared their finding with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Science, which concluded Simmons died from blunt force injuries to his head with subdural hematoma, Gonzalez said.

After reviewing the findings of the investigations, Gonzalez fired 11 employees for various serious policy violations, which include use of excessive force, failure to document use of force and making false statements to investigators.

“During a natural disaster, we expect to see the very best in our employees,” Gonzalez said. “These 11 people betrayed my trust and the trust of our community. They abused their authority. Their conduct toward Mr. Simmons was reprehensible. They showed complete disregard for the safety and wellbeing of a person they were directly responsible for protecting. They escalated rather than de-escalated the situation. Their conduct was unacceptable and inexcusable and their acts discredit them, the sheriff’s office and their fellow employees. None of them deserve to wear to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Patch ever again.”

In addition to the 11 terminations, Gonzalez ordered the unpaid suspension of six employees who violated policies and procedures in connection with Simmons’ death. All six employees are on notice.

“Unless they exhibit immediate and consistent compliance with and adherence to all sheriff’s office policies, rules and regulations, they will be subjected to the imposition of further disciplinary action up to and including termination,” Gonzalez said. “I understand that these disciplinary actions in no way make up for what happened to Jaquaree Simmons inside our jail but I owe it to him, to his mother and to our community to do everything in my power to ensure those who had a hand in it are held accountable and that this sort of thing never happens again.”

Simmons’ mother spoke out about the firing of the officers and said she just wants justice for her son.

“I just want justice for my son. That’s what I want. Every day I go through not being able to eat, not being able to sleep, and so do my children. I want them arrested. I want them to take accountability for what they did to my son,” Simmons’ mother LaRhonda Biggles said.

Friday, Sheriff Gonzalez said The Houston Police Department is conducting a separate criminal investigation. Their findings are expected to be forwarded to the Harris County District Attorney’s office, although the timeline was not clear Friday.

“It’s a separate investigation independent from ours, to ultimately determine if any criminal charges are applicable to any of the individuals who were involved in the sequence of events that happened,” Gonzalez said.

What happened

Based on the evidence gathered, HCSO’s internal affairs investigators concluded the following events occurred. On Feb. 10, HPD booked Simmons into the Harris County Jail for the charge of felon in possession of a firearm. He was evaluated by medical personnel who reported no significant health issues, either physical or mental.

He was assigned to the seventh floor of the 701 jail where he was to remain in quarantine in accordance with HCSO’s COVID-19 protocols.

On the morning of Feb. 16, Simmons used his clothing to clog the toilet in his cell, which caused it to overflow and flood his cell. Detention officers responded and removed Simmons from the cell so they could clean it. During the process, they removed Simmons’ clothes from him. They then returned Simmons to his cell without any clothes. Diaz said no one documented the use of force, a policy violation.

When removing an inmate’s clothes, detention officers should advise a supervisor, increase the rate at which visual checks are conducted and provide a suicide smock. Diaz said none of those actions occurred.

On the evening of Feb. 16, detention officers arrived at Simmons’ cell to deliver a meal. One of the detention officers filed a written report stating that Simmons threw his tray at the officer, lunged toward him and threatened him. The detention officer struck Simmons with a closed fist and closed the cell door, leaving Simmons inside his cell. Detention officers then called for help to remove Simmons from his cell so he could be evaluated by medical personnel.

Again, detention officers used force against Simmons as they handcuffed him and escorted him out of his cell. Investigators believe it was at this time that Simmons suffered multiple blows to his head. Diaz said none of the employees present for the second instance of use of force documented the incident, an additional policy violation. Diaz said policies regarding appropriate use of force were violated along with a policy that requires staff to intervene when they observe excessive use of force.

Medical staff evaluated Simmons in the clinic that night and reported he was conscious and had a cut to his left eyebrow and upper lip. They reported he had no pain. Medical staff ordered that an x-ray be taken as soon as possible and prescribed Simmons’ pain medication. He was then returned to his cell.

At the time, power was out inside the building as a result of the winter storm which left millions of Texas residents without electricity in mid-February.

Diaz said the internal affairs investigation revealed staff never managed to take Simmons back to the medical clinic for his prescribed x-ray, even after power had been restored and the clinic requested he is returned. According to sheriff’s office policies and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards’ requirement, detention officers must conduct visual checks on everyone in the jail every 60 minutes, Diaz said. During regular circumstances, this is documented electronically. However, the electronic system was not used during the power outage, which forced staff to revert to handwritten rounds sheets.

The internal affairs investigation determined that rounds were documented in other parts of the jail system but were not completed in the cellblock where Simmons was housed.

At 12:10 p.m. on Feb. 17, when staff arrived at Simmons’ cell to deliver a meal they found him unresponsive. Staff immediately began chest compressions, contacted medical personnel who responded and contacted the Houston Fire Department, which transported Simmons to Lyndon B. Johnson hospital where he was pronounced dead at 1:27 p.m.

The officers fired or suspended in connection with the incident

This case remains under an active criminal investigation by the Houston Police Department. HCSO will present all its findings to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to determine whether criminal charges are appropriate.

The following employees were fired:

  • Detention Officer Garland Barrett
  • Detention Officer Patricia Brummett
  • Detention Officer Joshua Dixon
  • Detention Officer Mallety
  • Detention Officer Israel Martinez
  • Detention Officer Eric Morales
  • Detention Sgt. Jacob Ramirez
  • Detention Officer Alfredo Rodriguez
  • Detention Officer Daniel Rodriguez
  • Deputy Dana Walker
  • Detention Officer Chadwick Westmoreland

The following employees were suspended:

  • Detention Officer Antonio Barrera: Suspended for 10 days
  • Sgt. Benny Galindez: Suspended for 3 days
  • Detention Officer Jeremy McFarland: Suspended for 5 days
  • Detention Officer Alexandra Saucier: Suspended for 3 days
  • Detention Officer Ralph Tamayo: Suspended for 5 days
  • Detention Sgt. Rene Villaloboz: Suspended for 3 days

*Each disciplinary action also carries a probation period.

About the Authors:

Briana Zamora-Nipper joined the KPRC 2 digital team as a community associate producer in 2019. During her time in H-Town, she's covered everything from fancy Houston homes to tropical storms. Previously, she worked at Austin Monthly Magazine and KAGS TV, where she earned a Regional Edward R. Murrow award for her work as a digital producer.