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Man Dies in Sheriff Custody at Santa Barbara County Jail

56-year-old Santa Barbara man Joel Huerta dies in cell early Thursday morning after arrest on suspicion of public intoxication

A Santa Barbara man died at the County Jail shortly after being placed in a cell Thursday morning, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department. 

Joel Huerta, 56, died about 40 minutes after arriving at the jail, sheriff's department spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said.

"It all happened very quickly," she said. 

Huerta was arrested on suspicion of being under the influence of drugs around 12:30 a.m. Thursday after Santa Barbara police officers responded to a call in the 500 block of East De la Guerra Street, sheriff's department spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said. 

He was restrained and taken to the County Jail "due to his level of impairment," Hoover said. 

"Upon his arrival (at 12:50 a.m.), jail medical staff attempted to assess Huerta, but he refused to answer any questions," she said in a statement Thursday evening. 

"Due to the circumstances that he was highly impaired and wasn't answering questions," ​Huerta was taken to a cell for observation and had his restraints removed, Hoover said.

He became unresponsive almost immediately, she said.  

Custody deputies and medical staff used an automatic external defibrillator and performed CPR. County Fire paramedics arrived and continued resuscitation efforts but Huerta died around 1:30 a.m., Hoover said. 

The County Fire Department received the medical emergency call for the jail at 4434 Calle Real at 1:05 a.m., Capt. Dave Zaniboni said. 

His family was notified and the Coroner's Office is conducting an autopsy Friday and an investigation to determine the cause of death. The official cause will be pending lab and toxicology results which will take several weeks, Hoover said. 

The sheriff's office and Santa Barbara Police Department are also conducting internal investigations.  

The 11:47 p.m. call to the SBPD was for a medical emergency, after Huerta contacted a neighbor and "expressed that he had difficulty breathing," police Sgt. Riley Harwood said. 

While fire and paramedics crews were responding, dispatchers apparently heard a disturbance taking place, and the call was reclassified to a domestic disturbance, Harwood said. 

Police responded and the fire and paramedics crews staged nearby, waiting for the OK before entering the area, which Harwood said is standard practice for a disturbance call. 

"In their contact with him he did initially ask for paramedics to respond, however, when paramedics arrived, he refused to be treated by them," Harwood said. 

Officers believed Huerta was under the influence and arrested him on suspicion of public intoxication, then transporting him to the County Jail, according to Harwood. 

It's too soon to say whether the SBPD's investigation into the case will be forwarded to the District Attorney's Office, he said.

"I can just tell you that we have a protocol for this type of thing and it's the same degree of thoroughness as an officer-involved shooting," Harwood said. 

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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