Central Valley

Family of inmate beaten to death in Merced jail files $2 million lawsuit

Aaron Joseph Bonilla, 31
Aaron Joseph Bonilla, 31

The family of a Los Banos man who was beaten to death last year at the Merced County jail has filed a wrongful death lawsuit seeking $2 million.

Aaron Bonilla, 31, was attacked June 11, 2017, while in custody in Merced. Authorities have said at least three other inmates were involved in the attack on Bonilla, which investigators said lasted about 12 minutes.

The suit was filed March 8 in U.S. District Court in Fresno.

Stefano Formica, a Los Angeles-based attorney representing Bonilla's family, said the $2 million figure is a "preliminary" demand and said that number could change once the defense team has examined more evidence in the case.

"We believe Mr. Bonilla's rights were infringed upon due to lackadaisical supervision, neglect and, possibly, willful ignorance of the conditions he was in," Formica said Wednesday. "Just because a citizen is in custody doesn't mean they don't have rights to basic safety and protection."

Merced Sheriff Vern Warnke said he hadn't reviewed the lawsuit and said he couldn't comment on any pending litigation.

The Merced County District Attorney's Office has said Bonilla was attacked by gang members "simply because he didn't smuggle drugs into the jail as he was directed."

Investigators also have said the attackers beat Bonilla for a "long period of time" and then "stopped and caught their breath and kept going."

Bonilla was taken to a Modesto hospital where he died about two weeks later on June 25.

Merced County prosecutors in August indicted three inmates in connection with Bonilla's death. Steven P. Rincon, 27, of Fresno, and Reyes J. Carrillo and Alfonso L. Martinez, both 23-year-old Merced residents, have pleaded not guilty in connection with the death.

All three defendants remain in custody at the Merced County jail without bail. A jury trial has been set for Oct. 16, according to Merced County Superior Court records.

According to jail records, Bonilla was arrested June 8, 2017, three days before the attack, on suspicion of felony car theft and a misdemeanor allegation of possession of burglary tools.

Inmates alerted jail staff to the beating but only once it ended, authorities have said.

Warnke, in an interview last year, said low staffing at the jail has made it more challenging for correctional officers to supervise and respond to situations inside the jail.

"Our staffing levels are low, and don't think for a minute those inmates don't know it," Warnke said in August. "We're very sorry an inmate had to die."

The sheriff also has said changes in California sentencing laws, including the controversial 2011 California Public Safety Realignment Act, have created new challenges for correctional officers.

The jail on 22nd Street in Merced was built in the 1960s and designed to house low-level offenders in general population awaiting court trials. These days, correctional officers have to monitor more serious offenders, including violent gang members.

Carrillo was in custody charged with homicide in connection with the 2015 gang-related slaying of a 43-year-old Los Banos man. He has pleaded not guilty to murder and is scheduled to stand trial Oct. 16, according to court records.

Rincon has been in custody awaiting trial since 2015 in connection with the shooting of a Merced police officer. He's pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and other charges. That trial is set for later this month, according to court records.

Martinez, who authorities believe acted as a lookout during the attack on Bonilla, was behind bars for his alleged role in a robbery and attempted murder of a 7-Eleven clerk in Merced. He has pleaded not guilty. That case has been postponed and is expected to resume once the Bonilla homicide case has concluded, according to court records.

The wrongful death lawsuit, filed by Bonilla's sister, Tamara Bonilla, accuses the Sheriff's Office of "deliberate indifference" to the victim and says authorities failed "to provide reasonable security and/or prevent abuse of inmates by other inmates."

Attorneys involved in the federal suit are scheduled to make their first appearance June 28 before Judge Sheila K. Oberto in U.S. District Court in Fresno.