MARTINEZ -- The circumstances surrounding a Pleasanton man's hanging death at the Martinez jail in March were laid out in a coroner's inquest Thursday, leading jurors to affirm that the man committed suicide but doing little to reveal why he was left unsupervised despite authorities' knowledge of his mental-health history.
While an inquest serves only to classify a death and doesn't assign fault or blame, Thursday's three-hour hearing left the family of Joseph Behiel, 21, short on answers on how their son and brother was left alone to take his life. Behiel's family was present at the inquest but did not respond to a request for comment.
A deputy sheriff discovered Behiel hanging from a doorknob in the bathroom of the intake area of the jail about 2:55 p.m. March 21, 14 hours after his arrest on weapons charges in San Ramon, officials said. Behiel was rushed to the hospital, where he died the next day.
Authorities told jurors that the man used his sweatshirt to hang himself from the door of the single-occupancy bathroom, which has walls and a door that does not lock. Behiel was still in his street clothes, as inmates are only given county-issued clothing once assigned to housing units.
The incident was not the first time the man posed a danger to himself, said San Ramon police Officer Matt Malone, who on March 20 went looking for Behiel after Pleasanton police told San Ramon authorities they thought he was a suicide risk and would try to get police to shoot and kill him if confronted. Malone also learned of a previous suicide attempt after talking with the man's father, who found his son trying to hang himself just weeks before.
Witnesses said Behiel had displayed and made threatening comments about a loaded semi-automatic pistol, which Malone found inside a friend's home, where he was staying. Also inside the woman's home was a handwritten, fictional story titled "Country Boy," in which Behiel writes about being pulled over by police while driving with a friend, who convinces him to surrender to police and not shoot them.
Behiel and his friend were booked and placed in a patrol car, where Malone said a camera captured video of the woman deleting texts and photos from Behiel's phone, hands cuffed behind her back, as he demanded, "Delete them, delete them all."
A patrol officer approached the car and took the phone from the young woman, Malone said, at which point Behiel slumped in his seat and said, "(Expletive). There's a video in there of me with the gun, and it's dated."
Behiel was arrested on a weapons violation, suspicion of a probation violation and resisting arrest, and his friend was arrested on suspicion of interfering with the investigation, Malone said. Additional charges were later added for threatening police, which resulted in higher bail and would ultimately prohibit the man from being released.
Behiel was booked into the general population of the Martinez jail after an initial mental-health screening indicated he was depressed but not suicidal, said Dr. Dennis McBride, medical director for Contra Costa County Detention Health Department. An evaluating nurse received information about his mental-health history but said he did not appear to be a danger to himself.
Sheriff's detective Becky Chestnut told jurors that the most revealing evidence about Behiel's state of mind in the hours leading up to his death were the eight to 10 phone calls made to a bail bondsman from the intake area, most of which depict the man in a positive state of mind. Behiel's demeanor changed significantly during a 1:15 p.m. call, Chestnut said, when the bail bondsman told him that the new charges filed would keep him from fulfilling their arrangement.
"In most of the calls, Mr. Behiel is very certain he will be bailed out," Chestnut testified. "During that 1:15 p.m. phone call, it became very obvious he would not be able to complete the bail."
Behiel made two more increasingly agitated calls to the bail bondsman, the last of which was at 2:10 p.m., Chestnut said. By the latter half of that hour, a deputy sheriff began looking for Behiel to undergo a second mental health evaluation at Malone's request.
Deputy Sheriff Dan Transoe said other inmates told him Behiel was in the bathroom; when he did not come out after about five minutes, Transoe and another employee called his name through the door and tried the handle when there was no response. The door pushed open only inches, but enough so Transoe could see Behiel suspended from the doorknob. The man was rushed to the hospital just before 3 p.m.
All authorities present at the time of Behiel's discovery were immediately taken off their work duties, sequestered and interviewed separately, and a district attorney investigator jointly interviewed all deputies involved to ensure neutrality. A forensic pathologist ruled the cause of death as asphyxiation, and said the man had no drugs in his system aside from therapeutic levels of an antidepressant and a mild painkiller.
When asked whether the jail will begin taking additional measures regarding intake security and mental health screenings in light of Behiel's suicide, officials at the Sheriff Department's Custody Services Bureau declined to comment.
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