Breakdown: How the System Failed Reny Cabral

Reny Cabral
Reny at Enloe Rehabilitation Center

 by Leslie Layton

Reynaldo “Reny” Cabral looked like he wanted to brush away the tears. But it’s easy to forget that he has little use of his arms, and though a shoulder twitched, the tears ran freely on this recent March afternoon in a hospital lobby.

It’s hard for most people to think of Reny as a quadriplegic, and he too is just getting used to the idea. On Jan. 8, Reny broke his neck in the Glenn County Jail, ending up paralyzed from the chest down.

Surrounded by friends and family, Reny quickly composed himself as 30 people posed with him for pictures. Camera shutters were clicking: Reny in his athletic shorts and jersey and plastic neck brace, his legs wrapped in Ace bandages to help circulation. Reny, a former high-school football lineman, now wheelchair-bound, accused of trying to murder his former girlfriend.

It was a snapshot of a 23-year-old man with soft, dark eyes and thick black hair, the central figure in a tragic drama that has perplexed and stunned those who know him — and a picture of a rural community rallying to support a favorite son.

Reny had no history of violence, nor had he been fighting with girlfriend Victoria “Torrie” Gonzales when he allegedly choked her twice and sliced at her neck with a small paring knife the morning of Jan. 6. She survived with minor injures.

His story isn’t about drugs or cults, though such rumors seemed to spring like mushrooms after his arrest as Orland acquaintances grappled for an explanation. His story, family members say, is a story about acute mental illness, local agencies that failed to intervene when they were needed and inhumanity in a small-town jail.

Reny’s parents, Arturo and Rosa Cabral of Orland, say their son collapsed on the floor of the so-called “safety cell” at the Willows jail after he rammed his head into a wall that is lightly coated with a hard rubber. Though he was immobilized after breaking his neck, they say he didn’t receive medical attention for eight or more hours.

Glenn County Sheriff Larry Jones can’t comment on the case because, he said, of both criminal and civil litigation that is coming, but he said his officers adhered to jail procedure in their treatment of Reny.

At the March 19 hospital arraignment, Reny pled innocent to the charges that could now land him in a state prison or mental hospital. There are three felony counts of attempted murder in connection with his alleged assault on 24-year-old Gonzales.

From a holding cell, he reportedly threw excrement at officers who responded by shooting him with a Taser gun, and finally, pepper-spraying him into compliance. There are misdemeanor counts of resisting arrest during his two-day jail stay.

All of this came on the heels of his birthday, a pivotal day in the drama that family members say was playing out in his head. After his Jan. 4 release from the Butte County mental-health clinic in Chico, he indicated he had been hearing voices, confiding  that he would be required to “sacrifice” a loved one to save mankind on Jan. 6.

His assigned mission would fall on his 23rd birthday.

A family friend, Chico resident Julie Nasr, questioned the discharge decision at the Chico clinic early Jan. 4 and pled with the clinic several times over the next two days to re-admit Reny. When Reny landed in jail, both the Nasr and Cabral families insisted that he receive psychiatric attention and be given prescribed anti-psychotic medication.

No mental-health worker visited him at the jail, his family has said, though a jail nurse may have requested one.

Now, 10 weeks later, he faced a Glenn County judge from his wheelchair in an Enloe Rehabilitation Center conference room, his distraught parents flanking him. Then, he was wheeled into the lobby where he faced relatives, long-time friends, former teachers and school chums. That’s when the tears came.

Reny’s story is about how, in the richest nation on Earth, we can often find no place but a jail cell for a man tormented by mental demons and nothing but a Taser gun to control him when he becomes troublesome. It’s an instructive example of the high cost of the failure to treat mental illness.

Glenn County was billed $750,000 for Reny’s medical costs during the 10-week period he was in custody, said Nasr, who is assisting the Cabral family with legal and medical matters. Reny’s release from custody at his arraignment allowed MediCal to kick in, but it’s not clear whether that coverage will be retroactive, she added.

Richard Molin, a personal injury attorney in Chico who is representing the Cabral family, said he’ll eventually file a civil lawsuit naming Glenn County as a defendant. He said Glenn County officials and employees failed to “follow their obligations under state and federal law and basic common decency.”

“They have an obligation to provide medication and psychiatric treatment as needed” by inmates, Molin said, adding that a civil lawsuit is the only way the Cabral family has of getting compensation for damages. He said he doesn’t yet have an opinion on whether Butte County acted properly.

Reny’s supporters say it’s unnecessary — and perhaps cruel — to pursue a criminal case against him now, that he poses no danger to society and his mental illness is treatable. Even ex-girlfriend Gonzales said she doesn’t want to see him jailed and notes that he revived her with CPR after the first choking incident.

“It wasn’t him that did it, it was the sickness,” said Gonzales in a telephone interview from her parents’ home in Riverside. “He didn’t hurt me because of domestic abuse… he’s not a mean guy.”

Reny’s attorney, Denny Latimer of Chico, said his client didn’t intend to kill Gonzales. He said he suspects Reny succumbed to a “late onset schizophrenia,” an illness that causes a rapid deterioration.

Glenn County District Attorney Robert Holzapfel has pursued the case in spite of what could be a high cost to a small, rural county. After the arraignment, the DA, wearing his trademark Stetson cowboy hat, rushed past a throng of Reny’s supporters in the hospital lobby, snapping “no comment” when this reporter made several persistent efforts to engage him.

But Reny’s story is about more than a case that pits a tough DA against a passionate defense attorney. It’s also about a community’s struggle to understand the mystery of mental illness and a family’s resilience in the aftermath of catastrophe. The chain of events that ruined lives took less than 72 hours – the period of time that Reny could possibly have been held in a mental-health facility for evaluation.

 

Many friends remember Reny as a former Orland High School prom king, a guy who was fun, kind, popular and athletic. His parents believed he would be the first of their three sons to graduate college. In the words of Nasr, he was a “shining star.”

Nasr had employed the Cabral family’s landscaping service at her Chico home, and had worked in her yard with Reny since he had been 14. She and other friends said Reny had a quality that made him special – an unusual ability to relate to people in spite of class and ethnic differences.

The Nasr and Cabral families became close, but Nasr said that despite the closeness, Reny’s Mexico-born parents maintained a respectful distance. But Reny, she said, with his 200-plus-pound-frame, always greeted her affectionately, often lifting her off the ground with a hearty bear hug.

At school in the small farming town of Orland, Reny was unusual in his ability to make friends with both Latino and white kids, said one of his closest childhood friends, 22-year-old Vicente Jimenez.

Reny and Vicente eventually became part of a group of six boys who ran track and fantasized about leaving home and attending college together, Jimenez said. “We were inseparable. We were big jokesters. We went to movies and bowling and miniature golfing on Friday nights.”

Reny and Vicente both began classes at Butte College after graduating Orland High in 2002.

Until his behavior turned erratic late last year, Reny shared a Chico apartment with sweetheart Gonzales. He had talked of pursuing a career in sports medicine or athletic training, but at Butte found himself excitedly exploring anthropology, political science and Buddhism. With a passion that surprised his family, he helped register voters prior to the last presidential election.

But something went wrong. Reny’s family noticed his out-of-character behavior in fall 2006. Gonzales said it began earlier — around Thanksgiving 2005. He was moodier and sometimes talked about things that she now recognizes as delusional. She didn’t mention it to anyone, but asked him to get psychological help, she said. He didn’t get help, and she didn’t press the issue.

“Sometimes he would get catatonic, sit on the sofa and just stare and not do anything,” Gonzales said. “He wouldn’t respond. Now I can see [these episodes] for what they were — little glimpses of the sickness showing, of what was to come. But you don’t see it because you don’t want to see it.”

His family suspected nothing until late last year. That was when his mother, Rosa Cabral, noticed her son becoming increasingly anxious and impatient. “His eyes were sad,” she recalled. “His look had changed. I kept asking him if he was using drugs, and he always said no.”

(Reny tested negative for hallucinogens and methamphetamine after his Jan. 6 arrest.)

By Dec. 18, the Cabrals’ lives were beginning an out-of-control spin. Reny was charged with driving under the influence of marijuana after witnesses said he sped recklessly down Highway 32. The Cabrals were shocked to learn that Reny had smoked marijuana; he had often “preached” against drugs, said his older brother, 25-year-old Arturo Jr.

But the family soon realized that marijuana couldn’t explain his behavior that evening, and certainly not in the days that followed when they maintained almost constant contact with him.

 

Reny and Torrie moved in with the Cabrals in Orland, and Rosa said Reny had frequent panic attacks. He had trouble sleeping. He paced the house. He perspired profusely and drank enormous amounts of water. He wouldn’t explain what was wrong.

On Christmas Eve day, at the family’s insistence, Reny was seen at Immediate Care in Chico. The Cabrals say he was prescribed an anti-depressant and a sleep-aid medication, though there was some confusion and only one prescription was filled. Then, they went to Tinseltown and watched Charlotte’s Web.

On Christmas, they enjoyed a traditional turkey dinner with the Nasrs in Chico. For a short time, Reny seemed like his old self, chatting happily about his plans. But later, he seemed oddly sentimental, recalled Nasr.

After returning home that night, Reny called the Nasrs. He asked to speak to each member of the family, telling each of them something he appreciated with an emphasis that seemed overdone. “In retrospect, it was like he was saying goodbye,” Nasr said.

Vicente Jimenez also received what he thought was an oddly sentimental telephone call from Reny about that time. “He said he just wanted to say, ‘I love you,'” recalled Jimenez. “It was out of context, it was weird. I thought it was a joke.”

But Reny’s days as a “big jokester” were mostly over. Several weeks later he would take a drive through Bidwell Park, his shaved, nude body wrapped in cellophane and doused in kerosene. There was concern that he intended to set himself on fire, but Nasr said that point is still being looked into.

After knocking over a fence near the park, Reny was detained by police and referred for a mental-health evaluation on what’s called a 72-hour hold.

Arturo Jr. is angry that his brother was released after less than 10 hours at the Butte County mental-health clinic. He said the family was given no information at the time of discharge that would prepare them to deal with his brother’s psychosis.  “You want to think that when you live in the greatest country in the world you’ll get help when you need it,” he said.

The director of Butte County Department of Behavioral Health, Brad Luz, said he wasn’t familiar with Reny’s case, but agreed to discuss the 16-bed mental-health clinic that admitted Reny. It’s a crisis service, he said, for “acute psychiatric episodes.”

Patients who are admitted involuntarily on 72-hour holds are often released sooner, Luz said, and in fact can only be held if they continue to pose an immediate danger to themselves or others. Mental-health workers make this judgment based on a patient’s behavior, history and the family support that will be available.

“Can they make a wrong call? Sure, anybody can,” Luz said. “We tend to err on the side of the patient’s right to not be held. The largest part of the time, I’d say 90 percent of the time, they make the call the right way.”

Mental-health workers, he said, generally release detailed information when families indicate an interest. “In a public setting you have to be much more assertive,” Luz said. “It’s a question of learning how to be a consumer in the medical system.”

But Nasr said she and the Cabrals were assertive at the time of Reny’s discharge and afterward. Nasr said mental-health workers prescribed anti-psychotic medication for Reny and scheduled him for an outpatient visit a week later.

But about 48 hours after his discharge, he was under arrest in connection with the assault on Gonzales (see sidebar).

Rosa Cabral is angry that her son didn’t receive psychiatric treatment at the jail and may have laid on a cell floor for many hours in pain. “Don’t they have children themselves?” she said of Glenn County correctional officers. “I don’t think they cared if my son lived.”

At the time of Reny’s arrest, Arturo Jr. told sheriff’s deputies that his brother had been suffering psychosis and was recently released from the Chico clinic. Nevertheless, an incident report defined the attack on Gonzales as part of a “lovers quarrel,” Nasr said.

Julie Nasr’s husband, Chico pathologist Tony Nasr, called the jail shortly after Reny was booked. He wanted jailers to know that Reny needed medication prescribed by the mental health clinic. Sgt. Todd James took his call. “Basically, I told him that this is a case of acute psychosis, a guy who urgently needs his medication,” Tony Nasr recalled.

James’s response shocked Tony Nasr. “He blew me off,” Tony Nasr said. “He said, ‘This is no psychosis, this is a case of attempted murder.’ He dismissed the suggestion that [Reny] needed medication. I remember putting down the phone and thinking, ‘Wow, there’s no penetrating that.'”

James, contacted for a response, said he doesn’t remember the conversation that way. “I don’t have a medical background in psychology, so I would never come to that conclusion,” James said.

But James apparently perceived Reny as rational at the time of the arrest. James said Reny asked for an attorney after being read his Miranda rights, and “did not display any type of mental issues.”

Meantime, Julie Nasr helped Rosa Cabral deliver Reny’s medications to the jail, and the women were assured he’d be put on suicide watch.

From there, of course, things took a nosedive. Reny was combative. When he refused to cooperate with guards, they responded as they would to an out-of-control inmate — they called in a Willows police officer who fired off Taser darts, hoping for what the sheriff’s department calls “pain compliance.” They moved him to the jail’s safety cell.

 

The safety cell in the Willows jail is about 5X8 feet. The only window is a narrow glass slit next to the door. The only toilet is a small grated hole in the floor. There’s no bed, chair, mattress, toilet paper. It’s an isolation cell, used to protect the vulnerable and control the violent.

When Reny was there, the cell had no camera surveillance. That means officers probably monitored the cell by peeking through a window only about 3 or 4 inches wide. The cell has since been equipped with a camera and can now be viewed clearly on computer monitors.

Jail logs suggest Reny might indeed have spent hours on the floor after ramming his head. The Jan. 8 log shows he was last seen standing at 4:31 a.m.; he was “laying on stomach/yelling” at 10:11 a.m.

At 1:09 p.m., a jail nurse pricked his right calf with a needle and noted there was no response, according to the log. Reny was taken by ambulance to Glenn Medical Center.

The Cabrals believe, based on an interview Reny gave after arriving at Enloe Medical Center, that he rammed his head shortly after 4:30 a.m. and informed officers of his paralysis when he was served breakfast at 5:45 a.m. They say he was told that he wasn’t paralyzed and should get himself up.

But Sheriff Larry Jones said officers became aware of Reny’s paralysis when he complained at 11:10 a.m., and they requested medical assistance. Because of litigation, he said he couldn’t comment on whether Reny was given his medication.

Why Reny was never visited by a county mental-health worker is reportedly under review by the Glenn County Grand Jury, according to a source.

Attorney Molin visited Reny soon after he was taken to Enloe Medical Center, and left the ICU room shaken. “I think it was the realization that here was a 23-year-old man trapped in his body,” Molin said. “And he still had demons, he was still being tortured by his mental illness. There was a ventilator pumping air into him and with each breath his body quivered and shook.

“All he could do was lie there. I don’t know how any human being can take that.”

Since then, of course, Reny has been weaned from the ventilator and given psychiatric care. At Enloe Rehabilitation, Reny is assisted by therapists and staffers and moved with a hydraulic lift. He will be released from Enloe April 27, perhaps to the care of a convalescent home. His family has come to the realization that they can’t take him home any time soon, Nasr said.

Reny will need almost 24-hour care from a pair of assistants for the rest of his life. The Cabrals don’t have money for home remodeling or hydraulic lifts or electric wheelchairs.

It’s hard to say who, besides Reny, has suffered most. It might be Reny’s father, Arturo Cabral, who for years depended on his son’s considerable strength when they planted orchards and landscaped yards. Cabral is a slight, shy man who Arturo Jr. said was once reserved with his emotions, but now breaks down unpredictably.

Or it might be Rosa Cabral, warm and outgoing, who wept through interviews with this reporter. She sleeps most nights at the hospital with Reny and now rarely helps her husband with their business.

Arturo Cabral came to the United States from Mexico when he was 17, and settled with Rosa in Orland in 1980. They worked first in the Sacramento Valley fields, and eventually set up a landscaping business that helped them keep a close eye on their three sons. It was Reny who helped most with the family business, even when it meant sacrificing basketball season.

Perhaps what makes this story unusual is the Cabrals’ outspoken advocate, Julie Nasr, and the community support the family has garnered. Or it might be the family’s willingness to share details of their son’s mental illness, something families are often reluctant to do. About 60 friends have written character references for Reny and some have asked the DA to drop charges.

Some of his friends say Reny’s case harks back to a time in America when the mentally ill were misunderstood and locked away.

Pamela Rudy, a former Orland resident who now lives in Chico, attended Reny’s Enloe arraignment in hopes the DA would consider community support for her son’s former classmate. “In Orland we all knew each other’s kids,” Rudy said. “This is heartbreaking for all of us. There are lots of criminals out there and they need to be spending their time on them.”

Reny’s pal Jimenez remembers what he thought when he was told that Reny had attempted suicide in Bidwell Park. “I was shocked. I wondered what could have gone so wrong that he’d call it quits on life,” Jimenez said. “He had everything going for him.”

Jimenez said Reny had always encouraged him to be open-minded, to think for himself, to form opinions based on experience and research. He’s finally taken that lesson to heart, educating himself about mental illness and, he said, turning his back on the small-town gossip that followed Reny’s arrest.

Jimenez said he’s learned that mental illness can just happen. “Sometimes it happens to the best people,” he said.

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