Death by Shopping Cart: the True Anaheim Stories of Jennifer and Lisa.


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It’s remarkable, the similarities between these two recent cases (2016 and 2018), and makes you wonder how many more there are: 

  • two homeless and alcoholic women in Anaheim, ticketed for possession of shopping carts,
  • the tickets they can’t pay going to warrant,
  • the warrants landing them in OC jail,
  • both expressing terror that alcoholic withdrawals could kill them in custody,
  • and that fear coming true for both of them.

Jennifer Anne Aiello (pictured at right) was born and raised near Kansas City Missouri, but by the age of 43 she had somehow come to be homeless and alcoholic on the streets of west Anaheim. 

I chose not to use Jennifer’s full name in the title of this story out of respect to her family, who (probably in consideration of her two young sons Alex and Sam) reported in her obituary and elsewhere that she “passed away peacefully” in Dallas that same day – but Alex and Sam may some day want to know the truth.  Back in Missouri, Jennifer had spent many hours volunteering for Operation Breakthrough, a Kansas City charity that aims to “provide a safe, loving and educational environment for children in poverty and to empower their families through advocacy, emergency aid and education,” and the family asked for contributions to be sent there in lieu of flowers.

Anyway, on May 29, 2016, the next-to-last day of Jennifer’s short life, she was arrested by Beach and Lincoln in West Anaheim – for what?  For warrants – unpaid tickets which the homeless get all the time.  Warrants for three “offenses” in fact: 

  1. “Pedestrian right of way” – i.e. taking up space on a sidewalk; 
  2. “Misappropriation of lost property” – i.e. picking up something that somebody left lying around; and
  3. “Unlawful possession of a shopping cart.”

Tragically, this arrest became a death warrant.  The DA report on her “custodial death,” issued six months after the incident like a tree falling in a forest with nobody around, tells how, around 5:30 pm, 20 minutes after her arrest, she requested APD to take her to a doctor “because she was an alcoholic and would suffer delirium tremens if taken to jail;”  how they took her to an ER where the doctors gave her a clean bill of health, gave her medicine for a UTI, and at 8:41 sent her on her way to OC Women’s Jail;  how she seemed normal enough to the guards while she went through “The Loop;”  how medical staff gave her Oxazepam at 1:26AM and 4:15AM.

“At 5:03 AM Deputies escorted Aiello and nine other inmates from the showers to holding cell PF6.  An inmate that was with her at the shower … stated that Aiello did not take a shower and ‘seemed out of it.’  When she was placed in the holding cell, Aiello began vomiting in the toilet and having diarrhea.  Another inmate described her pacing back and forth in the back of the cell near the toilet.  She forcefully vomited 10 to 12 times and had trouble breathing.  She was pale, ashy in color, and suffering from alcohol withdrawals… She went to sleep and began to snore loudly.  The other inmate moved her and checked on her because she sounded as if she was gasping for air.”

And at 7:05, 14 hours after her arrest for shopping cart warrants, medical staff found her unresponsive, lying on the floor, with “pale and purplish” skin.  For an hour they tried various resuscitating techniques with no success, and she was declared dead at 8:04, “of natural causes.”  We wonder, does this sort of thing happen frequently, to homeless people with shopping cart warrants?  Well, we know of at least one other case last year, this one a close friend and relative of ours:

Lisa Olivares Martinez, 1965-2018

One big difference between Jennifer and Lisa was that Lisa was born in Orange, lived most of her life in Anaheim, and had lots of family and friends here, so people noticed and raised a fuss when she went into jail for a shopping cart warrant June 26 of last year and came out brain-dead a month later.

When we told Deputy Chief Harvey about what happened to Lisa, he shook his head and said, “There’s no way she was in jail just for possession of a shopping cart.”  Well, sure, technically it was a WARRANT for an unpaid TICKET for possession of a shopping cart that got her arrested, and then when she was arrested and searched she had some drugs on her, so she got a couple of months.  Just like Jennifer she expressed fear over how her alcoholic withdrawals would affect her in custody, reporting that she’d wake up at night shaking and sweating and would drink to get back to sleep, and that she had “a seizure disorder.” 

After nine days – late on July 5 – a jail nurse noted that Lisa had told a deputy “Something isn’t right.  I’m retarded or had a stroke or something.  I don’t know why else I stutter now.  I can’t remember things.  They don’t give me that red pill any more?”  They scheduled her to see a doctor the following morning.  WAIT – THE FOLLOWING MORNING?  You don’t wait overnight when a person has stroke-like symptoms.  GRRR, moving on… 

With her mother Teddy

When Lisa finally got to the doctor on the morning of July 6, it turned out she had indeed had a “left parietal lobe stroke,” and had been suffering from unsteady gait and temporary right-side vision loss for “two weeks.”  This is one spot where the DA report evinces confusion – apparently there’d been reports that Lisa had been complaining to jail staff for two weeks (nine days?), but now the DA claims that was all an error, she may have been suffering these symptoms for her entire confinement but hadn’t complained till the day before.  Maybe this suspicious confusion is one reason it took a whole 13 months for the DA to finish this report and get it to us … but I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Hospitalized at Santa Ana Global, but still technically under custody, Lisa continued to suffer worse and worse strokes, and as long as she was in custody, authorities didn’t bother to contact her family.  Finally on July 25 when her sentence was up, the sheriffs went looking for her family and let them know that Lisa was in the hospital nearly brain dead.  Immediately that waiting room was overflowing with all the family and friends who cared about and loved her.  For six days and nights we took turns sitting in the waiting room and watching over her, until July 31 when life support was removed and Lisa Olivares Martinez was pronounced deceased. 

Lisa’s niece Brandy cut off the jail bracelet which was still on her wrist, and told her she was “free.”  And then we waited a full year and a month for the authorities to get their story together, which was redundantly heavy on the “It wasn’t our fault.”

Excuse our Skepticism But…

Correa-endorsed Sheriff Barnes makes it onto a protest sign!

Were the deaths in custody of Jennifer Aiello and Lisa Martinez unavoidable, or preventable?  We know that there have been over 70 inmate deaths in OC jails since 2010, and a recent Grand Jury report found that 44% of those (between 2014-17) could have been prevented by timely medical care. 

Who decided to wait another 12 hours or so to get Lisa to a doctor when she had symptoms of a stroke?  Was this the nurses’ (OCHSA) fault or do they have their hands tied by sheriffs?  We know that the county recently paid out $300K to a former jail nurse, Jennifer Westfield, who was threatened by a guard (Alexander Flynn) not to care for a barely conscious inmate (apparently beaten half to death by Flynn or friends) “or there will be repercussions.” 

“They go off on us,” Westfield told the Register in 2016. “You will get totally disrespected by the deputies after that. Those nurses are then labeled…It’s known that if you speak against the deputies, that you will be labeled as a snitch, and you carry that reputation.”

We’ve also learned long ago to view these OCDA reports skeptically as CYA documents for the authorities, heavy on irrelevant facts and innuendo against the victims, while omitting or distorting important facts … but in these in-custody cases there are generally no other witnesses.  (Especially offensive is the obligatory lifetime list of the victim’s ARRESTS [not even CONVICTIONS!] – as though those somehow justify their being killed or denied medical care – really the point seems to be discouraging any sympathy for them.) 

These reports are created when somebody dies and it looks like it could be the authorities’ fault – but we don’t know how many folks come out of these encounters injured, paralyzed or brain-damaged if they don’t have family or friends speaking out for them.  Nobody in the OC noticed when Jennifer Aiello died in jail, if it weren’t for my wife Donna combing systematically through DA reports.  And the in-custody deaths of homeless people are not included in the coroner’s official annual lists of “those who died without fixed domicile” … because the jail, or even handcuffs, are CONSIDERED their domicile.  (So those coroner’s lists should be even longer!)

And is it appropriate or a good use of public resources to arrest and jail a homeless person for possession of a shopping cart?

And is it actual policy not to contact a critically ill inmate’s family?

Meanwhile, as the Board of Supervisors continues to leech money from Social Services to give to Don Barnes’ insatiable OCSD, many OC citizens who didn’t know Lisa or Jennifer will read their list of arrests (NOT CONVICTIONS) and sneer that the world is better off without them.  Well, let’s learn…

More about Lisa Olivares Martinez

Miss Harris’ pet around 1973.

The “meanest teacher” at Paul Revere School on Guinida Lane was allegedly 5th-grade teacher Miss Harris.  The only kid who didn’t think so was Lisa, who used to stay after school and help her clean up the classroom because Lisa lived so close to the school.  Miss Harris and Lisa stayed friends for years.

Lisa’s mother Teddy describes her as always kind, caring, someone who would try to help everybody she met.  “She loved everybody, but she was so funny, she was always playing pranks on them too.”

With longtime husband Ruben Martinez, and daughter Destiny who would later eulogize her mother at 2018’s “Longest Night.”

My wife Donna was just a couple years younger than “Cousin Lisa,” but remembers constantly being impressed with how clean her house always was, and how she always had enough food to feed anyone who’d come by.  “She was like a housewife from the 1950’s – she’d put on her makeup just to clean the house.”  Donna especially remembers her pork chops.

Lisa’s niece Brandy says, “My aunt Lisa was always the joker in our family. She always brought out the kid in everyone she met. When we would go to hug her she would lick our face. Also she always found a way to make fun of you. Once I wore a striped shirt and she said “Hi Freddy Krueger” lol, or I got my star tattoo and she said it reminded her of a Carl’s Jr. Famous Star…

With her niece Tiffany. Another niece, Brandy, says “She was like a second mom to all of us.”

“Aunt Lisa also took care of me when I had surgery a few years back. She and her kids stood with me. Aunt Lisa was so good, she would cook for me and my dogs. She even was kind enough to bathe and brush my teeth 😭 nothing made her uncomfortable.”

When Donna’s grandson turned 1, Donna was out of practice giving birthday parties so “Cousin Lisa” enthusiastically volunteered to lead the party.  She organized everything and led the kids in games, refusing to stop even when it started raining.  She’d call over kids whose names she didn’t know: “Hey you, little girl in the funny dress, let’s put you in charge!”  Or “Hey little boy with the nerdy glasses!  Can you bring me that ball?” 

Hearing that, Brandy agrees, “Yeah, she always called my glasses nerdy.”  And this author remembers her teasing him about his bright white blazer when he met her and Ruben at La Palma Park a few years ago.

In the last few years of her life it seemed like the Anaheim Police were targeting her, they’d give her tickets so frequently for such petty things.  Possession of shopping carts.  “Unauthorized garage sale,” i.e. selling some of her few possessions on the sidewalk, as folks do all over Anaheim without consequence.  Impeding pedestrian traffic, which pretty much means existing.  These were all tickets she could not afford to pay, so they went to warrant, and she’d occasionally go to jail for a few days and be released – the day-to-day story of many OC homeless folks.

During all this time, her prized possession was her green van, in which she lived with her “OG.”  During the day it would be parked in the big parking lot of the closed-down JAX market on East and Sycamore, but at night – with the permission of the owners who liked her – she parked the van in the lot of the muffler shop across the street.

With nephew Jacob, Brandy’s brother.

After a while, though, the police decided they didn’t care if she had the muffler shop’s permission – they went ahead and impounded the green van anyway, leaving Cousin Lisa and her OG with nowhere to live.  They eventually ended up in an abandoned pot shop, those last few months before her final arrest and death.

I’ll go so far as to say that neither Lisa Martinez nor Jennifer Aiello should have been thrown in jail for shopping cart warrants.  I’ll go so far as to say that Lisa should have got medical treatment as soon as she reported her stroke symptoms to jail medical personnel.  I’ll go so far as to say that Lisa Olivares Martinez should still be alive.

Destiny finds her mother’s name on the plaque of “Those Who Died Without Fixed Domicile” at 2018’s “Longest Night,” Anaheim Cemetery.


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.