Eleanor Hernandez, woman beaten into brain damage by female Garden Grove police cadet, dies.


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Pictures of Eleanor last year, shortly before the beating. Click for larger image.

I met up with Eleanor Hernandez, police beating victim, a week or two ago at Sweetelle Cafe, but before I could write my story about her she up and died – this past Thursday. We’re still trying to determine the exact cause of her death, and whether or not it, along with the severe mental and physical deterioration over the past eleven months, can be attributed to her July 2013 beating. This is how she came across when I met her:

Let me go back a bit.  At the time of her 53rd birthday, less than a year ago, Eleanor Hernandez was bipolar and had HIV and Hep C (with no notable ill health effects) but she was still vivacious, fun-loving and active.  The Santa Ana resident decided to spend her birthday money at the Target in Garden Grove, but when she got home she discovered that she’d bought two identical dresses.  So she went back to return one of them;  when they refused to pay her back cash but only a card, she became angry, cursed at them and left.

When she returned the next day, for another attempt to get her money back, she felt her sleeve grabbed roughly by a female Garden Grove police cadet behind her.  “Are you Eleanor Hernandez?” the cadet asked, and escorted her out into the parking lot, where she was hogtied and beaten by this cadet, who also (according to the witness Randy Howell who was her caretaker and boyfriend) stomped on the cuffs on her back as she laid on her stomach.  Was she resisting before being hogtied?  I imagine so, but the police violence certainly seems excessive.  She was taken off to the jail at the GG police station, and when her daughter Ellen came to pick her up, she was bloody and bruised, with a “lump on her head the size of a tennis ball.” [according to Ellen.]

Ellen and Randy then took Eleanor to Garden Grove hospital, where according to them, the police chief himself was there apologizing for the incident and attempting damage control.  They also say that the hospital refused her admission when they saw that police violence was involved.

So off they went to Fountain Valley Hospital, closer to Ellen’s home, where Eleanor was treated for her head and body trauma and stayed for a couple of days.  [We're still awaiting the hospital records from that stay.]

Since that July 24 attack, Eleanor’s mental and physical condition gradually deteriorated to the state you see above.  As she says in the video, she was having “two or three seizures” a day;  Ellen cared for her as best as she could, along with Ellen’s own children, but sometimes Eleanor would wander off.  Sometimes she would fall.  Often she wouldn’t remember what she did. 

A few months ago, wandering through the aisles of the Santa Ana’s First & Main RiteAid, she picked up some Fix-i-dent for her dentures, opened it up, used a little, absent-mindedly stuck it in her purse, and got a petty theft ticket.  This was something attorney Matt Pappas was attempting to get thrown out for her (read his letter to T-Rack) … but it hardly seems a problem any more.

When Matt asked me to meet with her and Ellen a couple weeks ago, I could see the difficulty she had moving and expressing herself;  according to Matt’s paralegal it was much worse even than when they first met a few months ago.  When she saw the year-old photos I posted above, she marveled slowly, “I was sexy!”  The high point of the visit was playing Tic-Tac-Toe with her on a big wooden board – I let her win – she said she loved anything that made her use her brain.

The paralegal and I sent Ellen off with instructions to get all her medical records from the hospital, and then see if there was parking lot video from the Target, before letting on to the GG police that we were planning anything.  Why did this family wait so long to find a lawyer and seek justice?  Mostly financial difficulty;  it took a while to find someone like Matt who would take this on pro bono.

In any case, I lost touch with Ellen for a week or two – it turns out Eleanor had gotten sick [a bad cold or pneumonia, it's not clear] and went back to Fountain Valley Hospital, and Ellen had not been able to do the investigating we’d asked her to.  Last Wednesday and Thursday it seemed Eleanor was recuperating, and she was about to be discharged, but then, suddenly, Thursday, she died!

At this point there still has not been a thorough autopsy conducted with the knowledge of her beating.  The hospital noted that she had HIV and Hep C, and put her sudden death down to complications from those viruses.  But you don’t just suddenly die from either of those conditions!  We would like to see a serious autopsy, but the small family is divided, between those who want justice and answers, and those who want to sweep it all under the rug, not make any trouble, cremate the body before any serious autopsy can be done, because “no money will bring her back.”

If that happens, this could be a story about the working class’ and Latinos’ fear of the police, and a story about how often do things like this happen that we just never hear about?  It might also be a story of the shame people feel about their mentally ill relatives.

But this is definitely also a story of how we should, as my colleague Diane Goldstein wrote recently, bring the highly successful “Memphis Model” of dealing with the mentally ill to Orange County.  How differently might everything have turned out if, instead of a police cadet eager to prove her tough stuff to her colleagues, the July 24 Target call had been responded to by a “Crisis Intervention Team” trained to deal with mentally ill people like Eleanor Hernandez or Kelly Thomas?

Stay tuned to this blog for any new developments on the tragic case of Eleanor Hernandez.


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist in Orange County. Performs regularly with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem, and at regular concerts at the Huntington Beach Central Library.