Friday’s Santa Barbara County Jail inmate death appears to have been a suicide,
Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Drew Sugars said Monday.

Juan Rodriguez-Zepeda

Juan Rodriguez-Zepeda

The Coroner’s Bureau is investigating the cause of death and scheduled an autopsy for this week.

A custody deputy found inmate Juan Rodriguez-Zepeda unconscious in his one-man cell about 3:35 p.m. Friday. Sugars said several deputies immediately responded and began CPR on Rodriguez-Zepeda, who was not breathing.

Jail medical staff, Santa Barbara County firefighters and American Medical Response paramedics also responded, but Rodriguez-Zepeda could not be revived and he was pronounced dead at 3:54 p.m., Sugars said.

Rodriguez-Zepeda, 29, of Lompoc, had been in the County Jail since being booked March 21 on suspicion of DUI and vehicular homicide in a March 19 head-on crash on Highway 154. One of the victims, Danny Ordas, 67, of Santa Barbara, died of injuries from the collision, which also injured two other people.

Sugars said he wasn’t sure why Rodriguez-Zepeda was housed in a single-man cell, but that the cells are used for myriad reasons, including if the person has a history or feud with another inmate, a family member in jail, a gang affiliation or another issue that would warrant separating the individual.

Rodriguez-Zepeda was not in a safety cell, which is used if inmates are considered a danger to themselves or other people, Sugars said Monday morning. He didn’t know how long Rodriguez-Zepeda had been housed in a single-man cell.

The County Main Jail was on extended lockdown after a series of fights in the jail within a week and another on a bus en route to a Santa Maria court appearance. The first fight, involving 12 men in an exercise room area, was a “premeditated fight involving members of Hispanic gangs with ties to the state prison system,” Sugars said. Two men were taken to Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital. The second fight occurred as the jail was being taken off lockdown, one housing section at a time. That one involved six men, one who was transported to the hospital.

Even on the buses, inmates are chained at the hands and feet and some are placed in solitary seats that are “essentially a cage when they travel,” Sugars said. Regardless, somehow four inmates were able to fight and injure one another, though none was sent to the hospital.

Sugars said housing inmates is complicated by the overcrowding issue and increase of high-risk inmates.

After the third fight, he said, “the inmate population has boiled away through early release. Now we’re at a point where 80 percent are high-risk or violent and (often) on the way or back from state prison. It’s a different clientele.

“This was built to be a county jail; these days it’s more like a state prison. It’s not built for that level of inmate — only one-third of the facility is built to handle that.”

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Managing Editor

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com.