■ Melissa Diaz Hernandez / Reporter
The death of a retired water department employee inside a local massage parlor has raised more questions that it has answered. The Hemet Police Department has yet to release even a redacted version of the police report to the public – adding to the lengthy list of denied public record requests. The Valley Chronicle has, however, received the Coroner’s Packet from the coroner and the fire incident report from Hemet Fire Department. Why does the city persist in refusing to release even a redacted police report?
The Valley Chronicle requested the police report multiple times for the incident which occurred on Feb. 4, 2016 at 301 E. Florida Ave., only to have it denied. It was one of many requests made through the California Public Records Act (CPRA). The newspaper has filed a lawsuit against the City of Hemet for failing to release public records regarding the expenditure of taxpayer money in the defense of Dep. Chief Charles “Rob” Webb in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Anthony Norman.
Although the newspaper was not able to obtain even a redacted police report, the Hemet Police Department disclosed the existence of a coroner’s report on Oct. 11, 2016 in its response to our Sept 28, 2016 CPRA. The death occurred in February 2016 and the name of the man was not released until this request.
The response states the following: “Please note this current CPRA appears to be a duplicate of a previous request which the department received from you on July 12, 2016. Accordingly, we will provide you with the following information: “On Feb 4 2016 at approximately 2:20 p.m., Hemet P.D. was dispatched to Ai Spa massage parlor at 301 East Florida Ave. with regard to a report of an unresponsive male in a massage room. Upon arrival, Hemet Fire Department personnel were attempting lifesaving measures on the individual. The individual was lying on his back, with his head resting on a pillow. Medical personnel, however, pronounced the individual dead at 2:37 p.m.”
Through various other CPRAs, we found out that the man retired from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) in December 2010 and learned a good portion of the incident timeline from the fire department’s incident report, which the city readily provided through another CPRA.
According to the coroner’s report, a female employee of the massage parlor went to a neighboring business in a panic. The massage parlor employee had only been in the country for three days and did not speak any English, making it difficult for the neighboring business employee to determine what was causing the panic.
The neighboring business employee and the female Ai Spa employee went back to Ai Spa. The neighboring business called 911 and Hemet Fire Engine 2 and AMR were dispatched at 2:10 p.m., only 11 seconds apart. Engine 2, according to the fire incident report, responded from Hemet Fire Station 1, and the fire department arrived on the scene at 2:16 p.m. with a response time of 5 minutes and 42 seconds.
AMR did not arrive on scene until 2:43 p.m., six minutes after the man was pronounced dead. AMR was released 22 seconds after they arrived. The coroner’s report states that the man “failed to respond to resuscitative efforts.” It took AMR 33 minutes to arrive at the scene after being dispatched.
A call to dispatch was made and a Hemet Police Department Investigator Purcell is dispatched at 2:19 p.m. to assist HFD. At 2:37 p.m. paramedic firefighter Chris Baker pronounced the man dead.
The coroner’s report states that the detective on scene, Purcell, had communicated to the coroner that “they [Hemet Police Department] were waiting to get a search warrant before they entered the business to process.”
The coroner called Purcell at 7:06 p.m. to check the status of the warrant. Purcell told the coroner that they needed to locate a translator to interview the female employee and it would still be two to three more hours before the coroner would be allowed to enter the scene.
The Valley Chronicle learned through a CPRA for the search warrant that the department had “no responsive records.” Does that mean the search warrant never existed or was never completed?
In an email dated April 14, The Valley Chronicle asked whether “no responsive records” should be interpreted that a warrant was not issued. Sgt. Rob Gibbs responded on April 17: “During the investigation in question, a search warrant was started, however, as the investigation progressed, it was determined that a search warrant was not needed. Therefore, a search warrant does not exist.”
Investigator Purcell contacted the coroner at 10:32 p.m., stating that the scene was ready for processing. The coroner arrived on scene at 11:10 p.m.
A few sources who had eyes on the building from the time of the incident to approximately 6 p.m. that evening told The Valley Chronicle that about a dozen marked and unmarked police vehicles had been in and out of the parking lot just during that time period. One source stated that items were removed from the massage parlor. We requested a list of items removed from the premises via CPRA and we requested the evidence log from the incident – both documents were denied.
According to the coroner’s report completed Feb. 5, 2016 by Dep. Coroner Denise Ferris, the man died from acute thrombosis of the right coronary artery, caused by hypertensive atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. The report also states: “Det. Purcell told me after interviewing the employee and speaking to [the man’s] daughter, he was less concerned about the circumstances surrounding the death, but still wanted to seal the body bag in case anything out of the ordinary was found in the autopsy.”
The information provided by the city has only led to more questions – questions that remain unanswered – and the refusal to provide further information on behalf of the city is concerning. The massage parlor in question advertised on backpage.com, a known site for sex trafficking. To this date, the massage parlor signage remains, and the shop has never reopened or has been advertised for lease. So…who’s paying the rent? Many other questions remain:
Why was the coroner denied access, ostensibly because there was no search warrant, when the coroner’s presence doesn’t require a warrant? There was obviously a dead body on the premises.
Why was the search warrant abandoned, at what point was it abandoned, or was it ever really requested in the first place? The Valley Chronicle made some phone calls to the Riverside County Superior Court, and there is no record of any search warrant filed.
Why did it take AMR more than 30 minutes to respond to a scene, when dispatched at the same time as the fire department, which arrived on scene in five minutes?
Why weren’t life-saving measures continued until AMR arrived?
What caused the response time lag from AMR?
If AMR responded faster, would the man’s life have been saved?
Why didn’t the man get immediate transport to the hospital, which was three blocks away?
Why was the coroner denied access to the scene when police and fire were there? According to witnesses, HPD was allegedly removing items from the premises.
Why can’t The Valley Chronicle get a police report – a public record?