‘I called for help, I didn’t call for an enemy’: Dad recalls day son died in custody

Jorge Vicente said he had never seen his son, Rudy Santillan, behave that way before. He was acting frantic, making paranoid statements to his father, before he ran out of the house into their south Modesto neighborhood.

“He kept saying ‘They’re going to kill me,’” Vicente said in Spanish in a phone interview with The Bee. “Like he was really scared. He would grab onto me tight, telling me ‘Don’t let me go. Don’t let me go.’”

Vicente went chasing after his son, but lost sight of him. He was worried his son could find himself in a violent situation if continued to run around in the neighborhood in such a frenzied condition. So, he called 911.

“I called for help, I didn’t call for an enemy,” Vicente said about the response from the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department.

Santillan, 36, died after his July 16 encounter with 10 sheriff’s deputies and a sergeant. Sheriff’s officials said Santillan resisted being handcuffed, so a canine and three Tasers were used to subdue him. Santillan died at a Modesto hospital a few hours later, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

Stanislaus County Sheriff’ Jeff Dirkse on Friday provided an update on the investigation into the deputies’ encounter with Santillan.

The sheriff also discussed how his department trains to intervene with people who appear to be suffering from mental illness or an an altered state due to drugs. He also suggested that families should seek help for their loved ones, before law enforcement has to be called to confront them.

“Don’t wait for this type of episode to occur, be proactive,” Dirkse told The Bee.

Son wasn’t feeling well

Santillan’s father said his son certainly wasn’t behaving odd earlier that morning. They worked together at an industrial cleaning services company. Vicente said his son wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t go to work that day.

Later that day, Vicente was informed that his son called for an ambulance to the home the two shared on Lassen Avenue in south Modesto. Vicente said he was told that his son was suffering from severe body aches, and ambulance took him to a Modesto hospital.

That same day, Santillan was sent home from the hospital, according to his father. He didn’t know what his son’s prognosis was or why he was sent home.

The Bee made repeated attempt to confirm this with American Medical Response, the ambulance service that presumably would have responded, but the business did not return calls.

Rudy Santilla_fitted.jpeg
Rudy Santillan Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department

Vicente said his son didn’t have any mental health problems before. He said he did not know whether his son had used drugs, or if that had anything to do with his erratic behavior.

“I don’t know what happened to him that day,” Vicente said.

But the mother of Santillan’s two children, Jessica, said Santillan did suffer from mental illness.

“Sometimes he would get into an altered mental state; it was like a switch, he was not himself,” she said.

She said Santillan had a great sense of humor and would always try to make her and their children laugh.

“He always said our son is his pride and our daughter and is his joy,” she said. “Our pride and joy.”

Dirkse said a toxicology report shows Santillan tested positive for at least one illegal drug. He would not say which drug but said it was not marijuana. A cause of death has not yet been released.

After Santillan’s father arrived home from work that afternoon, he was told that his son walked away from the house shortly after arriving home from the hospital, according to Vicente. He said he got in his car and drove around the neighborhood looking for his son.

Erratic behavior at home

Vicente said he spotted his son walking along Lassen Avenue. He picked him up and took him home. That’s when Santillan started hugging his father tightly, telling him that others were trying to kill him. The erratic behavior continued at home.

The Sheriff’s Department has released recorded audio from 911 calls for help from Vicente. The father told the dispatcher “Uh, one of my sons is turning crazy. He’s breaking everything. Rudy, stop. I need it like right away, because he’s turning way crazy.”

A 911 call from a neighbor reported Santillan was walking on roofs of nearby homes, before climbing down and walking in an alley, according to sheriff’s officials. They said Vicente called 911 again to tell the dispatcher that his son was a Sureño street gang member and rival gang members were out looking for him.

Vicente told The Bee that his son had been involved with gangs several years before, and he was simply scared that gang members in the neighborhood would attack his son.

“They weren’t chasing him,” Vicente said. “I never said the Norteños were chasing him.”

The sheriff said deputies were responding to reports of Santillan breaking things and running on rooftops, along with reports of gang members looking for him.

“We are not sure if that was ever true, but given the area it is not out of the realm of possibility,” Dirkse said.

The vacant lot

Vicente spotted his son in a vacant lot in the 2000 block of Frazier Street, about two blocks west of his home. Vicente was about 75 feet away from his son. He could see his son was foaming at the mouth, and he didn’t want to scare him off so he called 911 again.

About a month after Santillan’s death, the Sheriff’s Department released an edited video of the man’s encounter with deputies. Vicente said the department did inform him the video was completed and offered his family to view the video a few days before it was released. Vicente declined the offer, but he watched the video after it was released.

Sheriff’s officials said Santillan, who was sweating profusely, appeared to initially follow the deputies’ commands. But he then dove at the pavement in front of him. Deputies tried to handcuff Santillan, but he pulled his hands away.

Dirkse said while deputies were trying to get Santillan in handcuffs he struggled against their efforts, and that one of the handcuffs broke, which prolonged the process.

Santillan continued to resist, and a sheriff’s canine and Tasers were used to subdue Santillan, according to sheriff’s officials. After Santillan was handcuffed, the sheriff’s officials noticed he was unresponsive.

Dirkse said during the struggle with Santillan about four minutes elapsed from the time deputies got the handcuffs behind his back to the time he was found to be unresponsive.

The deputies immediately began performing CPR on Santillan. Paramedics, who had been called to wait nearby, arrived two minutes later and took over life-saving procedures. About 7:50 p.m., Santillan was taken by ambulance to a Doctors Medical Center, where he died abut five hours later, according to sheriff’s officials.

“He wasn’t running from them. He was coming toward them as ordered,” Vicente told The Bee. “They had dogs and guns on him. How is he not going to resist?”

Watching the video

This was the second video released by the Sheriff’s Department, since deputies started using body cameras in April. The sheriff said in the video that his department released this footage, so the public can have as much information as possible about a situation the department takes seriously.

The mother of Santillan’s two children said she became physically ill when she first saw the video of the deputies subduing Santillan.

“I understand that law enforcement has to protect themselves; I just don’t understand why it happened the way it happened,” she said. “Anybody that saw that video — you don’t have to play it on the big screen and in slow motion, like I did — anyone can see that when he came out of that field he needed major medical assistance.

She said the video she saw was worse than she’d imagined.

“I don’t even know what he was being arrested for,” she said. “This was a medical call, he needed medical assistance, not to be taken down.”

Crisis intervention training

Dirkse said deputies encounter someone with mental illness nearly every day. The deputies undergo crisis intervention training in the academy, and most of his deputies have also been through an advanced 40-hour training.

But it is unreasonable, he said, to expect deputies to be able to diagnose a person within seconds of encountering them.

Speaking in general about law enforcement encounters with those suffering from mental illness, Dirkse said a common frustration is that the person’s illness or addiction has been festering for years and family have done nothing to get the person help until they are in the middle of a crisis.

“They call us and expect us to resolve it in a couple of minutes, with a potentially combative subject,” the sheriff said. “If family members have concerns about addiction or a mental health issue, than I would encourage them to seek — through the medical system, the justice system, a nonprofit — seek the help in advance.”

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Rosalio Ahumada writes news stories about criminal court cases in Stanislaus County for The Modesto Bee, issues related to immigration and immigrant communities and breaking news related to crime and public safety. From time to time, he covers the Modesto City Council meetings. He has worked as a news reporter in the Northern San Joaquin Valley since 2004.
Erin has been covering breaking news and crime at The Modesto Bee since 2010. She is a Humboldt State graduate and resides in Oakdale.