OC Jail Deaths: One Family's Story

Keith Eric Files' family and friends say they know why he died while in county custody

Last month, the Weekly published a story examining the spate of suicides and strange deaths inside Orange County jails in the past year ["Who'll Stop the Pain?" Jan. 21]. As that article reported, the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA), which investigates all prisoner deaths in the county, currently has nine such cases on its books. But a pattern is beginning to emerge that explains at least some of these tragic incidents: drug addicts who die within a day of arriving behind bars.

First, there was Michelle Gee, who died on March 17, 2010. She committed suicide a day after arriving at the jail, apparently after being left alone in a one-person cell; other inmates say her last words, shouted without effect through the halls, were she couldn't "do this alone." And last week, the OCDA released an official report concerning inmate Richard James Wilson, who died of heart disease. But Wilson also had a host of drugs in his system when he expired, and he lay on the floor of his cell for several hours after apparently toppling off a top bunk.

Now, another tragic death of a drug addict is coming into focus, that of Keith Eric Files. Shortly after his death at the Central Men's Jail Complex's Intake and Release Center on Nov. 30 of last year, the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) issued a terse press release saying Files had been found dead in his one-person cell at 7:30 on the morning after his arrest and that there were "no signs of foul play." So how exactly does a healthy-seeming, 28-year-old man die alone in his cell, assuming he didn't commit suicide? Based on interviews with his friends and family, it appears likely Files died of a methadone overdose. Indeed, one source asserts that Files told her of his intention to smuggle the chemical into the jail.

Brooke Files says she spoke to her brother Keith 17 hours before he died
Mary Bell
Brooke Files says she spoke to her brother Keith 17 hours before he died

Like Gee, Files was a drug addict who voluntarily told his probation officer he'd relapsed on drugs, knowing full well he'd be sent to jail, where presumably he'd be able to kick his habit. According to his sister, Brooke Files, Keith was a popular, happy kid who grew up in an upper-middle-class home in Mission Viejo, where he excelled at water polo and received good grades. But at age 14, he shot heroin at a party in Rancho Santa Margarita, and by his senior year in high school, drug and alcohol addictions had taken over his life.

"He went in and out of being sober," says Brooke, 33. "When he was 17 years old, he rolled a car at a party." Following that incident, Keith was arrested for DUI and put into a substance-abuse program. He was later kicked out of the private Catholic high school he attended for refusing to submit to a drug test.

It didn't help matters much that Keith's parents were going through a bitter divorce at the time. "Keith saw a lot and endured a lot," says his mother, Maralyn Files. "It was extremely hard on him." Keith transferred to Dana Hills High School and managed to get into San Diego City College, but Maralyn soon heard from the parents of Keith's friends' that he was doing little more than drinking and partying. "One of his roommates was really concerned about him," she says. "He was deteriorating and not getting up and going to school."

During spring break, Files came home and never returned to school; he rarely left the house. "Brooke and I found a keg in his closet," Maralyn says. "He just started going downhill."

According to Brooke, who says she has also struggled with addiction and has now been sober for four years, her brother continued to try to get clean. "When he first went to rehab in 2001, he was 18," she says. "After a year and a half, he was sober. But he kept relapsing, and then he would turn himself in. He went to jail for violating probation."

Nothing seemed to help Keith stay sober. "I believe he wanted to get better," Maralyn says. "But he just couldn't stop. He was shooting heroin where we were living, and I couldn't take it anymore. I didn't know what else to do but leave him somewhere."

For the past three years of his life, Keith bounced back and forth between various rehab facilities and the streets of Orange County. "Everything he had was in a bag, and he'd go from one place to another," Maralyn says. "I was overwhelmed with sadness. I knew if I gave him money, it would just go to drugs."

Brooke says Keith would call her regularly whenever he needed to check himself into a sober-living home.

The last time this happened was three months before he died. With Brooke's help, Keith checked into the Roque Center in Garden Grove, where, after six weeks, he was sober again. During that time, he befriended another heroin addict, Jessica Christian. "He was so sweet, so approachable," Christian says. "He didn't say much, but he didn't have to. We really hit it off. . . . The second phase of the Roque Center is going outside to look for work or go to school, and he went out and never came back."

As it turned out, instead of looking for a job, Files had immediately gone back to using drugs. He spent the Thanksgiving holiday under a pier in Newport Beach. Brooke happened to be in Texas at the time, visiting her mom. On Nov. 28, Keith called his father, who brought him back to the Roque Center to fetch his belongings. The following day, Keith planned to tell his probation officer he'd relapsed, knowing he'd be sent straight to jail to serve another several-months sentence for violating his probation on a 2009 burglary and identity-theft conviction.

Christian says she was relieved Files was still alive when she saw him that day. "I was so frightened something had happened to him," she says. "He said he was going to jail. He was kind of worried about that."

It was clear to her Files was high. "He wasn't incoherent or anything, but his eyes were pinched," she continued. "He told me he took 25 10-milligram pills of methadone, and that breaks down slowly in your body. He had quite a history of substance abuse, but he had been sober for a few months, and to all of a sudden get loaded like that?"

Christian adds that Files told her that he intended to smuggle more methadone in with him. "He also was planning on packing some . . . when he went in. That's pretty common."

After saying goodbye to Christian, Keith called his sister one last time. "I got a voice mail," she says. "When I heard it, I just had a really bad feeling. He didn't mention jail or anything. He just said, 'Give me a call back. I really want to talk to you.'" When she returned the call, Keith asked her to promise to pick him up when he finished serving his sentence. "He didn't want me to be upset. He told me he'd be fine."

Seventeen hours later, Files was discovered lifeless in his cell. Neither OCSD nor OCDA officials would comment on Files' death specifically. However, OCSD spokesman John McDonald said that inmates in the medical ward are checked either every 15 minutes or every hour, depending upon whether they are under "safety observation."

Brooke says sheriff's officials told her that her brother had been placed in the jail's medical ward. "I don't think he was checked on," she says. "I think it was neglect. I think they found him dead the next morning and tried to resuscitate a dead person to cover their ass. They shouldn't have left him alone."

Despite her pain—she says she almost relapsed after Keith died—Brooke feels compelled to share her brother's story. "This is not an attempt to bring my brother back," she explains. "This is a fight for other addicts who are suffering, so they can get the help they need, and so no other family has to go through this."

This article appeared in print as "Dying Inside: Family and friends of inmate Keith Eric Files say they know why he died in his Orange County jail cell."

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