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3. Superhero | S2: New Folsom

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A man's hands hold a small photo of a young latino man with a black beard wearing a blue patterned shirt.
Valentino Rodriguez Sr. holds a photo of his son Valentino at his home in Sacramento on Nov. 30, 2023. Valentino Rodriquez Jr was a correctional officer at California State Prison, Sacramento, before he died in October 2020 of an accidental fentanyl overdose after complaining of harassment and threats from officers at the prison. (Beth LaBerge)

View the full episode transcript.

Valentino’s unexpected death just days after a confidential meeting with the prison’s warden leaves his grieving father with a tangle of questions and suspicions. When law enforcement and prison leadership fail to act, Val Sr. finds an ally in Sgt. Kevin Steele, a senior officer who’d taken Valentino under his wing. The two men have a shared mission–to find justice for Valentino. 



 

Resources

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The Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism was a key partner in making Season 2 of On Our Watch.

The records obtained for this project are part of the California Reporting Project, a coalition of news organizations in California. If you have tips or feedback about this series please reach out to us at onourwatch@kqed.org.  

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Episode Transcript

 

Producer: Before we start, I just wanted to give you a heads up that this episode references drug use and a violent homicide. If you or someone you know needs support, we’ve got links to resources in the episode description.

Sukey Lewis: Nine days after Valentino Rodriguez died, Valentino’s family held a viewing and then a memorial mass.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: We had mass outside, underneath a big oak tree at the local, uh, grammar Catholic school.

Sukey Lewis: After the mass, Val Sr. and his other son, Gregory, and some of the other guys in the family, carried the casket to the hearse.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: We put him inside and then we took our gloves off and left them on the casket with a flower. I could’ve sat there all day. Even though he was in that box, I knew he was there, I knew he was close, yeah.

Mimy Rodriguez: And then we had, a- a celebration of life after, but we had that celebration of life at the same place where we had our wedding.

Sukey Lewis: Family and friends were there, setting up food and talking to each other.

Mimy Rodriguez: I just remember just sitting there. Like with my arms crossed, just looking into the crowd like… I was dancing right there with him, you know?

Sukey Lewis: It was difficult to wrap her head around.

Mimy Rodriguez: I just- just looked past all of it, just like, what are we celebrating? And I was just so hurt and I went home and just screamed.

Sukey Lewis: Val Sr. tells my colleague Julie Small he was also overwhelmed.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I- I ended up finding my way to a corner, away from people and just a small group of cousins and friends and they opened up a bottle of tequila and I just drank and then, uh, after that I didn’t feel anything, you know. And- and that was helpful.

Julie Small: When did you first see Sergeant Steele?

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: After they closed the casket. Uh, people were sort of lining up to hug us. You know, I noticed I’d seen somebody out of place.

Sukey Lewis: A man, bald, with piercing blue eyes stood a little ways back in the line and Val Sr. had the sense that he was intent on getting to the front.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: As he got- as he got closer, I- I could see his face was sad. Uh, but he just seemed so strong, you know, coming up. I- I still didn’t know his name, but he grabbed my shoulders and- and he said, “If you need me for anything, I can help you.”

[Theme song]

Sukey Lewis: When a death is so unexpected and its timing feels so coincidental, it’s bound to raise questions. Some of them are big and unknowable, but there are others that do have answers. In the days after his son’s funeral, Val Sr. began to look for them and what he didn’t know yet is that he’d find a partner in that pursuit, a man who also wanted justice for Valentino, but whose mission also went far beyond that. I’m Sukey Lewis. This is On Our Watch Season Two: New Folsom.

[Music break]

A couple weeks after the funeral, the results of the coroner’s investigation had come back. It determined that Valentino had accidentally overdosed on fentanyl and notes smoking paraphernalia was found at the scene. But to Val Sr., that just answered the question of what killed him, but not why or where the lethal drug had come from.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: My agenda was to find out the source of the fentanyl, where it came from.

Sukey Lewis: Val Sr., with help from his wife Erma, started going through Valentino’s phone records, tracking where he went on the last day of his life, and all the people he spoke to.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I had her identify every number, whether they were clients of Val’s from our company or friends or whoever. I just wanted his track, uh, what he was doing, uh, 24 hours before that and all the way up to his death.

[Music]

Sukey Lewis: In his living room, Val Sr. shows me the call log from Valentino’s phone provider. It’s got Erma’s handwriting on it, where she’s written people’s names next to the phone numbers they were able to identify.

So, who’s [redacted]?

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: A guy in the neighborhood.

Sukey Lewis: What was his- What was his relationship with-

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He sells- he sells drugs

Sukey Lewis: Oh really?

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: That’s why I went to visit him. Yeah.

Sukey Lewis: This guy I’m asking Val Sr. about was a man who lived nearby who’d known Valentino for a long time. He’d even been invited to the wedding, but according to Val Sr., and according to text messages in Valentino’s phone, he was also someone who could get you pain pills. This man did not agree to go on the record with us, and because these are potentially criminal allegations, we’ll just call him a guy from the neighborhood. On the last day of his life, Valentino made six short calls to this guy’s number.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: You can see they’re all-

Sukey Lewis: Mm-hmm.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: … One minute, one minute like-

Sukey Lewis: Yeah.

Val Sr. thinks maybe he couldn’t get through and he tried someone else.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He calls this number here.

Sukey Lewis: All right.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: It’s a burn phone.

Sukey Lewis: He calls it a burner phone, but we don’t actually know if that’s true. We do know these calls came in from numbers that were not in Valentino’s contacts. We tried calling these numbers too, and one goes to a generic voicemail. We left a message, but no one got back to us. The other was associated with the nearby Air Force base, but we weren’t able to identify why anyone would be calling him from that number. These calls — to the guy from the neighborhood, from unknown numbers — for Val Sr., these were clues that could lead to the source of the fentanyl, but he needed help.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: The West Sacramento Police Department were the first people that I tried to push to find out where this came from. I needed someone to search his phone records, burn phones. Where did this come from?

Sukey Lewis: He thought the police, who had collected evidence the night Valentino died – you know, Ring cameras, his medication, his gun – would be looking on the streets for the source of the fentanyl. But there was another possibility that Val Sr. couldn’t shake.

[Dramatic music]

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: If it didn’t come from the street then where’d it come from?

Sukey Lewis: Had the fentanyl come from someone at the prison? And as Val Sr. went through Valentino phone himself, it was this possibility that seemed to gain more and more weight. He read through his son’s texts and there was the harassment and slurs, but he also found messages between Valentino and other officers that appeared to be about secrets being kept, evidence lockers being left open, an emoji of a red and yellow pill. We still don’t know exactly what these text messages meant, but Val Sr. couldn’t help wondering, was this evidence that other officers knew about Valentino’s drug problem and used it as leverage in some way? And who else knew that Valentino had been in the warden’s office just days before he died? Val Sr. knew at least one person who did, Sergeant Kevin Steele, the man who’d hugged him at his son’s funeral and offered to help, the man who’d also texted Valentino on the last day of his life.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: So, I remember sitting in my office, trying to concentrate on working.

Sukey Lewis: He tells my colleague Julie that he decided to send Steele a text.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: So I asked him, “Are you still running the race?”

Julie Small: What were you thinking when you first sent Steele that text message?

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: It meant that Kevin found out that Val had came forward to turn in some, uh, information of corruption, um, that there’s two sides over there and Val talks about the two sides and he talks about it in that- in that text message, that he doesn’t want anyone on this side or that side to know that he came forward.

Sukey Lewis: That text message goes on. Valentino says, “It took a lot out of me to relive the truth.” In reply, Steele writes, “Dude, you are my superhero. It is bad right now. Stay strong, I got you. Steele.”

Reading these text messages after Valentino’s death, Val Sr. didn’t yet know exactly who was on the other side, but it appeared at least Steele was on the side of his son.

Julie Small: Could you trust Sergeant Steele when you first met him?

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: My feelers came up right away. I just couldn’t find any reason not to. I- I had just realized that whether I trust him or not, this is a way for me to, uh, get my voice over there, you know.

Julie Small: Over where?

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: To that prison. I’m gonna start by talking to somebody ’cause nobody’s talking to me.

Sukey Lewis: Val Sr. says that day in his office, Steele texted him back right away, “Valentino’s voice will never be silenced. I promise.” And Steele again offered his help.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He always said that he would facilitate anything I needed, you know, as far as who to contact.

[Music]

Sukey Lewis: Steele had worked for CDCR for about 20 years when he met Val Sr., and he’d risen to the rank of sergeant and was in the Investigative Services Unit, The Squad at New Folsom. People who worked with him say he was really respected and he had a lot of responsibilities, from drug testing officers to leading annual trainings.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He used to tell me that he would get there, uh, 30 minutes before to start working and wouldn’t even clock in. He said, “Val I just- I just love my job.”

Sukey Lewis: He also had a lot of connections. As part of his role in the ISU prepping criminal cases and evidence, he communicated with the district attorney’s office, the FBI, and the prison’s internal affairs team on big investigations. This world of the prison and law enforcement that Val Sr. was just dipping his toe in, it was the water that Steele swam in every day, and so when someone from CDCR got in touch, Val Sr. turned to Steele to help him decide who to trust.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I asked him who Chris McGraw was.

Sukey Lewis: Over text, Steele told him McGraw is a special agent from CDCR’s office of internal affairs and not just a local guy from New Folsom, but from headquarters.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I asked him, “Are they good guys?” Because I didn’t know who to reach out to or who to turn to.

Sukey Lewis: Steele responded, “Yes, that is the best course to move forward. Steele” Just a note in case you’ve noticed, yes, Steele signs his text messages.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He said they were- they were- they were good guys and I just told him, “I’m- I’m trusting you, Steele.”

Sukey Lewis: With Steele’s assurance, Val Sr. talked to McGraw, who he says told him to file a formal written complaint.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He told me that, “The first thing you have to do is send a complaint, that way you’ll have, uh, rights.”

Sukey Lewis: McGraw did not respond to our request for comment. Val Sr. says he gave McGraw a digital copy of his son’s phone. Internal affairs would focus on the allegation that officers in the ISU discriminated against Valentino and harassed him, which could result in discipline or firing, or even a criminal referral if investigators found officers broke the law. Steele also put Val Sr. in contact with another agency, the FBI.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: Kevin gave me some cards and said, “Hey, you need to talk to this guy Val, he’ll help you.”

Sukey Lewis: If there was a public corruption element to Valentino’s case, if somehow Valentino had been targeted by other officers aiming to silence him, if officers abused their position for their own gain in some other way, the FBI would be the ones to look into it. In December, Val Sr. handed off Valentino’s physical phone to an FBI agent named Sean Lister.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I straight up told him, “I feel that the fentanyl was sent to get rid of him because he knew of a lot of bad things.” And he goes, “That would be interesting.” I says, “Well, it would be interesting, but very hard to prove.”

Sukey Lewis: Val Sr. says he got the sense the FBI weren’t really that interested in his son’s case, but Steele had a lot of faith in both internal affairs and the feds.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He always thought that they were gonna do something right, and in my mind I was thinking, “No, no they’re not.”

Sukey Lewis: But at this point, Val Sr. has communicated with three different agencies about different aspects of the case. He’d spoken to the West Sacramento Police to see if they were looking for the source of the fentanyl on the street, he’d filed a formal written complaint about Valentino’s harassment with the office of internal affairs, and he’d handed the phone to the FBI. If there was a public corruption element, the FBI could investigate.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: One day Kevin told me, “Hey, Val.” I go, “Yeah.” He goes, “You know, this story’s much bigger than your son.” And I says, “I know. I realize that.”

[Music]

Sukey Lewis: And Steele started to share with Val Sr. what he’d been communicating about with the FBI.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: His biggest agenda was that homicide that took place.

Sukey Lewis: The stabbing of Luis Giovanny Aguilar in the day room, that video that Valentino had shown his dad at the Christmas party.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: Kevin told me that he told Sean Lister that that was a perfect murder.

Sukey Lewis: The FBI special agent Sean Lister.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: And I was thinking in my head, “What? My son?” But Kevin told me, no, um, the perfect murder was this homicide that had happened on — the B8 homicide he called it.

Sukey Lewis: Steele called it the B8 homicide because that was the name of the housing unit at New Folsom where it happened. We reached out to Special Agent Lister, but he declined to comment on the case. The FBI says they can’t comment, but an agent did confirm the investigation is still pending.

[Ad break]

Sukey Lewis: To understand some of the reasons why Sergeant Kevin Steele may have thought the homicide of Luis Giovanny Aguilar was worth reporting to the FBI, Julie and I got on a Zoom call with this woman.

Zoom voice: Recording in progress.

Claudia Bohorquez: My name is Claudia Bohorquez and, um, I’m an, an attorney. Luis Giovanny Aguilar is, uh, my, my client’s son.

Sukey Lewis: Aguilar’s mother is pursuing a lawsuit against prison officials, including the officers who were on duty in the unit that day.

Claudia Bohorquez: Either they weren’t there or they were deliberately indifferent, they didn’t care, uh, what was going on, or as we alleged, they, they planned it. They were part of it.

Sukey Lewis: In court filings, prison officials deny these allegations. A CDCR spokesperson said there is an active investigation involving outside law enforcement, and that the agency cannot comment on this case. At the time, B8 was a super high security segregation unit, the type that is often used to hold people who are considered especially violent or dangerous, or as a punishment for people who’ve committed new crimes while in prison. They’re generally held in solitary cells.

Claudia Bohorquez: Anytime they’re out of their cell they’re handcuffed, they’re shackled.

Sukey Lewis: Claudia explains the day of the murder.

Claudia Bohorquez: Basically, on that day, December 12th, 2019…

Sukey Lewis: Three men…

Claudia Bohorquez: Mr. Aguilar and the other two inmates who, who participated in the stabbing, Anthony Rodriguez and Cody Taylor…

Sukey Lewis: …Were brought down the stairs from their cells on the second tier of the unit into the day room, an open area with fixed desks and chairs on the first floor, outside the lower tier cells. All three were shackled by their ankles to metal chairs.

Claudia Bohorquez: Our allegation is that the two inmates, Rodriguez and Taylor, uh, were able to uncuff themselves, free themselves, and that they ran up, uh, or walked up the stairs to, um, another cell that was on the second floor and retrieved weapons.

Sukey Lewis: They got makeshift metal knives from the cell of a man named Dion Green who was a shot caller in the prison. Taylor and Rodriguez then came back down the stairs.

Claudia Bohorquez: And, um, proceeded to stab my client to death fif- more than 55 times.

Sukey Lewis: And no officer used deadly force to stop them.

[Music ends]

Sukey Lewis: The lawsuit that Claudia filed claims Aguilar was targeted by officers in retaliation for attacking a guard about a week before he was killed. And there are three big pieces of evidence or arguments the lawsuit relies on to back up its allegations: what I call the rumor, the practice run, and the Britt case. First off, there was the rumor. The lawsuit claims that officers spread a rumor that Aguilar was a child sex offender.

Claudia Bohorquez: It’s common knowledge that, um, inmates that go in as child molesters and sex offenders get treated [laughs] very badly in prison. They don’t like sex offenders, they especially don’t like child sex offenders.

Sukey Lewis: The lawsuit alleges that officers did this on purpose to put a target on Aguilar’s back.

Claudia Bohorquez: “How do we get some inmates to help us out and get this guy Aguilar? Well, let’s tell them he’s a sex offender, then they’ll go, go along with it.”

Sukey Lewis: Prison officials have denied that officers spread this rumor in court filings. And to be clear, Aguilar was in prison for stealing a vehicle and fleeing police. He also had an earlier conviction for domestic violence. But our review of his criminal record from CDCR found no convictions for child molestation or sexual offenses. Secondly, there was the practice run.

[Dramatic music]

Claudia Bohorquez: One of the inmates who actually, who was one of the inmates that stabbed my client, he, a week earlier, in the same day room, had taken off his restraints from the day room, the chair, and gone upstairs, um, and come back down. And, um…

Sukey Lewis: So basically like, “Okay, I’m gonna try this, see what happens if I take off my restraints and go up and get it.” Or something?

Claudia Bohorquez: Yeah. Uh, yeah, I can’t really explain it other than it was done, and again, no repercussions seem to have come from it.

Sukey Lewis: This was captured by surveillance cameras in the unit according to sources who have seen the video. A man slipping out of his shackles in full view of the control booth. Again, this is in a restricted unit where no one’s allowed to go anywhere without an officer escort and restraints.

The final big anomaly Claudia references in this suit is the Britt Case, an incident that at the very least should’ve put prison officials on notice. Two months before the Aguilar murder, the same three men, Taylor, Rodriguez and Green coordinated a nearly identical attempted murder of a man named Michael Britt. Taylor and Rodriguez slipped their shackles and stabbed him repeatedly in the day room. Dion Green claimed responsibility, saying he ordered the hit. Britt was an enemy of his.

Claudia Bohorquez: Britt was, he wasn’t killed, but he was assaulted very badly.

Sukey Lewis: By the same guys. And so, have you… do you have any idea, like, how they were allowed to remain together at the same facility?

Claudia Bohorquez: No. (laughs)

Sukey Lewis: This was kind of shocking. These three men had clearly conspired to kill someone and proven they could outsmart the security measures, even in a restricted unit like this. But the prison didn’t separate the men or move them to a different area. A CDCR spokesperson told me that they have a robust system to keep enemies apart, and that as a general matter, they do separate people they identify as crime partners. CDCR would not comment on why this did not happen in this case.

Claudia Bohorquez: This was horrific, this was unfair, this should’ve never happened. It just should’ve never happened.

Sukey Lewis: The lawsuit against CDCR is ongoing.

[Music]

From internal records and what he told Val Sr., it seems like Steele had gotten involved in the case as he usually did. It was his job to prep the evidence for criminal charges against Green, Rodriguez and Taylor for the district attorney. The official explanation that was reflected in Valentino’s report was that it was a gang killing. But as Steele looked through the evidence and talked to the suspects, he began to discover these anomalies and have doubts about that as a motive. And it seems like Steele did what he always did, he reported what he was finding to prison leaders and to the FBI. But now, more than a year after the murder, he told Val Sr. he was frustrated. Prison officials weren’t taking his allegations seriously.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: Sometimes he was so, uh, passionate about what was going on, and angry, that he couldn’t bottle it and he would just tell me, and, and I would listen.

Sukey Lewis: Val Sr. listened to him, but he says all these incidents and details of the homicide, that was all Steele’s agenda.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I’ll, I’ll be really honest, I, I just didn’t care. I… Mine was I wanna know why the hell Val wrote this.

Sukey Lewis: It wasn’t unusual for someone in Valentino’s position to be tapped to write a report like this. But Val Sr. still questioned why he was picked on this particular case. There were other officers in the gang unit who’d collected evidence right after Aguilar was killed.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: They had been here for 15 years, they are the ones that write this stuff. They were there that night, but they gave it to him. Why?

Sukey Lewis: As Val Sr. learned more about the homicide from Steele, and the evidence of a potential conspiracy involving officers, he had to wonder if writing that report was connected to his son’s death.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: Who told him to? You know, why did they encourage him to and congratulate him as airtight? I, I… That’s what I wanted to know.

Sukey Lewis: What Val Sr. is referring to are these text messages on Valentino’s phone from two supervisors in the ISU. They appear to be coaching him about how to establish the connection between the homicide and the gang motive. Once he turns the report in, his boss texts again saying gang investigators were happy with this report and had called it, quote, “airtight.”

[Music]

From one angle, these texts could be innocent, just a boss giving their subordinate direction and encouragement. But to Val Sr., everything was beginning to look suspect.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: My son’s passing was very coincidental and it benefited some really bad people.

Sukey Lewis: Because if Valentino had inside knowledge that officers played a role in Aguilar’s homicide, that knowledge died with him.

[Ad break]

After Valentino Rodriguez died, his wife Mimy couldn’t stay in their house. But bit by bit, she did start the hard task of going through their stuff.

Mimy Rodriguez: A friend of mine at the time, she came with me to the house to help just clear things out. I mean, we just found so many empty baggies, and I was just, I was distraught, and she was shocked. It was right in front of me, but I didn’t, I didn’t know what I was looking for, little plastic twisted up baggies that were ripped at the end. There was so many of them, and I just remember being so angry at myself, like, why didn’t I see this before? Why didn’t I notice something? Why didn’t I push more?

Sukey Lewis: Another time, she and Valentino’s sister Monique had a plan to rip out the old carpets in the house.

Mimy Rodriguez: That day I felt like crap, and I texted her, I said, “Monique, I’m so sorry, I, I, I can’t go today. It’s just been hard.” And she texted back like, “It’s okay. It’s hard every day.” But she went and ripped it up, and I remember the carpets were thrown out on the side of the house, and there’s a sliding door there, and I went out there just to look at the carpets. There was a little balloon there, a little black balloon.

And I was like, “What the heck? What is this?” So I grab it and I open it because I’m curious, and there’s just white powder in there, and I got scared. So I call Val Sr. and I go, “I found something.” And he goes, “What is it?” And he immediately came to the house, and I showed him, I was like, “What is this?” He’s like, “Where did you find it?” And I was like, “It was, it was sitting blank- just right there on the floor next to the carpets.”

Sukey Lewis: She gave Val Sr. the balloon along with some white pills she’d found while cleaning out the kitchen.

Mimy Rodriguez: They were slid all the way in the corner in the back of, like, a box of oatmeal that was unopened.

Sukey Lewis: To Val Sr., the pills, the black balloon, it all looked like evidence, evidence from the prison or evidence that might be tied to his son’s death. Thanks to his son’s work as an investigator, Val Sr. knew that in prison, drugs are often wrapped in balloons into little packages called bindles that can be passed from person to person, swallowed and then later fished out of the toilet, hopefully still protected by the plastic balloon.

When he died, Valentino hadn’t worked at the prison for nine months, so what was he doing with this bindle in his house? Val Sr. says he went to the three different agencies he believed were investigating different aspects of his son’s death: CDCR, the West Sacramento Police Department, and the FBI.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I told each one of them that I, I found this, this drug bindle, it’s from the prison. “Well, how do you know?” “Because my son’s… that’s what he did.”

Julie Small: Did anybody take, um, possession of the bindle? No agency that was investigating-

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: They don’t even wanna talk about it.

[Music]

I, I remember it was in, in the a- in the afternoon at work. Erma had run in with her phone and said, “Val, Val, I got him on the phone,” because I, I wasn’t having any luck with anybody.

Sukey Lewis: It was the West Sacramento Police Chief on the phone. Val Sr. asked the chief what they were doing. Had they made any progress finding the source of the fentanyl? But the chief said his department wasn’t investigating.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I began to get emotional on the phone and I told him, “You guys don’t care about him, he was a whistleblower, this is what happened, that was what happened.” And he goes, “Val, we do care about your son.”

Sukey Lewis: We spoke to the West Sacramento Police Chief later and he confirmed that he spoke with Val Sr., but they have very different memories of what was said in this conversation. According to what Val Sr. remembers…

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: That’s when he told me, “I was told not to investigate this,” plain and simple. I’m not gonna lie about that. Um, I says, “Well, so there’s not, uh, there’s not an investigation?” He goes, “Not, not with us.”

Sukey Lewis: According to the chief, he never said they were told not to investigate. The police had not found any evidence of a crime at the scene, and their policy at the time was not to do a further investigation of accidental overdose cases.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I says, “So just look for the source of the fentanyl. I can do that. I have everything, you know, I have his phone records.” And that’s when he told me, “Val, they’re not looking on the streets.”

Julie Small: What did it mean to you when the police chief said, “They’re not looking on the streets”?

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: That meant exactly what I was thinking, that they’re looking into the prison to see if it came from there, that’s… that’s the way I took it.

Sukey Lewis: Val Sr. took this to mean that they meant the Feds and Internal Affairs. And this statement from the chief was a signal that while the police investigation was closed, those agencies were still investigating his son’s death, and that those agencies thought the source of the fentanyl was inside New Folsom Prison.

The chief told us Val Sr. misunderstood him, that he meant something much more procedural, that the prison would not be the ones to look on the streets, that just wasn’t their jurisdiction. Without a recording of this call, it’s impossible to know whose version is accurate, but whatever was really said during this call, what Val Sr. took away from it, was an acknowledgement of his suspicions that everything he uncovered pointed back to New Folsom, and a belief that someone was still looking into the source of the fentanyl.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: And I wept and I started talking. I says, “They… I think they killed him.” You know? “I think they sent that shit.”

Sukey Lewis: Val Sr. really had no one to talk to about his suspicions and fears, except for Sergeant Steele. The two men had bonded over their shared grief, and they began to share other aspects of their lives. Steele told Val Sr. about his time in the military.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He served a couple of terms in Iraq.

Sukey Lewis: They shared their faith.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He would send me scripture, I’d send him scripture.

Sukey Lewis: And country music songs.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: Um, He’s… He was like the complete package, and uh, we had, uh, a lot of stuff in common.

Sukey Lewis:They’re around the same age, in their fifties, and both loved antique cars.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He used to call me his kindred spirit all the time.

Sukey Lewis: But, Val Sr. says there was an undercurrent to their relationship. He could feel that Steele was torn.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He was feeling that it was his civil duty to be, uh, on my side, my son’s side. I got the impression. But, at the same time, he was still an officer who- with Folsom Prison.

Sukey Lewis: And that conflict was heating up.

Chris McGraw: Hi there, Sergeant Steele. Special Agent Chris McGraw, calling you again, February the 8th-

Sukey Lewis: Since Valentino’s death, Steele had received multiple direct orders from the warden, and from that internal affairs agent, Chris McGraw.

Chris McGraw: … to immediately seize all forms of communication with all members of the Rodriguez family, unless I am present or if I am participating in the communication along with you, uh-

Sukey Lewis: CDCR did not want Steele talking to Val Sr., or anyone else in his family.

Chris McGraw: … um, please review your email. I will send you a follow-up email.

Sukey Lewis: This was an order that Steele disobeyed. And the reason we have this voicemail, is because he sent it to Val Sr..

Chris McGraw: Uh, thank you so much, and have a good day.

[Music]

Sukey Lewis: That decision to stay in contact with Val Sr. in defiance of his superiors, would have far-reaching implications, for Steele’s job, and his life. And from what we know of Steele, it seems probable that he didn’t make that decision lightly. According to multiple people who knew him well, each of the steps that Steele took were governed by his exacting and deeply held principles, and feeling of duty.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He was an officer. He took an oath and he was just doing what an officer should do. You know, and be just, that was his job.

Sukey Lewis: And as 2020 turned to 2021, that feeling of duty led him to do something radical.

On January 4th, he sent a memo to the warden. Here’s Julie.

Julie Small: The subject line is, “ISU entrenched corruption and uninhibited harassment.”

Sukey Lewis: It’s a document that we requested from CDCR, but so far, the agency has not disclosed it. But we did get a copy from Val Sr.. Steele shared it with him. It’s nine pages long, so we’re not gonna read all of it, but Steele talks about ISU staff claiming false overtime.

Julie Small: “Rodriguez also shared details of how some of the ISU officers would plant drugs and weapons on inmates, in an effort to have to work overtime hours to finish the reports.”

[Driving music]

Sukey Lewis: And he writes that Valentino told him that ISU officers would threaten to plant drugs in places that would get him in trouble.

Julie Small: “This was used as a point of leverage to keep CO Rodriguez from reporting this unscrupulous behaviors.”

Sukey Lewis: He writes a lot about Valentino’s boss, Sergeant David Anderson, and how Steele also felt harassed and intimidated by him.

Julie Small: “Sergeant Anderson called me a snake in front of other ISU IGI officers.”

Sukey Lewis: Anderson did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But while significant, Steele’s allegations go far beyond the dysfunction of the ISU squad. It’s clear, Steele is a person who keeps track. Like a prosecutor building his case, he lays out these bullet points.

Julie Small: “Inmates discovered at the hospital with injuries in consistency with-”

Sukey Lewis: Incarcerated people with broken ribs, head injuries and busted teeth.

Julie Small: “… for example, mental health staff, asphyxiation, carbon monoxide poisoning. Mail room staff, drug overdose and decease, suicidal staff, times two…”

Sukey Lewis: An alarming number of employees in crisis.

Julie Small: “… CSP Sacramento is sending more water instead of urine for testing than any other institution-”

Sukey Lewis: A dangerously inadequate drug testing program.

Julie Small: “…the 2019 B8 homicide inconsistencies were immediately-”

Sukey Lewis: And the murder of Luis Giovanny Aguilar. The list touches on nearly every aspect of the institution. His language is forceful, he names names and points fingers.

Julie Small: “You should consider the very likely possibility that during your superintendence of CSP Sacramento, more staff will be charged for criminal activity than any other institution within the state.”

Sukey Lewis: CDCR said Warden Jeff Lynch cannot speak to us about personnel matters. A spokesperson said the agency takes all allegations of officer misconduct seriously and has a process to make sure all complaints are, “properly, fairly, and thoroughly reviewed.” They did not respond to specific questions about whether Steele’s allegations in this memo were investigated.

When Julie and I read through this memo, we were pretty stunned.

Sukey Lewis: How startling of a document is this, in comparison, you know, to what you’ve seen over your years of reporting?

Julie Small: I mean, the allegations about ordering murders are- are very shocking. To have an- a correctional officer, a high-ranking sergeant in an investigative unit, releasing this kind of, um, detailed report about misconduct, illegal activity, even murder, I don’t know of another time that that’s happened.

Sukey Lewis: Mm-hmm.

Julie Small: We’d been trying to understand the system from the outside, and it was amazing to discover there’d been someone trying to expose it from the inside, and he’d left behind this memo, like a map for us to follow.

[Music]

Sukey Lewis: The first step was into our own files. We’d built up a database of hundreds of internal records and dozens of recordings, related to violent and even deadly use of force incidents. All the stuff that was supposed to be public record under a new transparency law, but that we’d spent the last four years fighting, and even suing for. When we cross-referenced the names from Steele’s memo with our database, we discovered that we had those cases in our files, and we realized that his memo could help us unlock the meaning of these incidents, the patterns that they showed.

There were three names in particular of incarcerated people who ended up in the hospital with injuries that didn’t make sense. We decided to try and contact them. One of them had died, but it looked like two of them were still in prison, and so I wrote to them.

“Dear Mr. Navaro.

Dear Mr. Uribe.

I’m a reported with the NPR station-

… I received some records from CDCR that detail an incident-

… badly injured on March 31st.-

… On May 2nd, 2017.

… Please give me a call on the number below, or send me a letter.”

I put these letters in the mail and hoped someone would call me back.

Julie Small: Did Kevin know that handing him that memo would probably end his career?

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He didn’t seem concerned when he sent that, he didn’t say, “Oh, man, this is gonna end my career.” He just felt that he was doing the right thing and there wasn’t a problem with it, to be really honest. So, he didn’t see beyond that.

Julie Small: Mm-hmm.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: And it was weird because I did. I definitely knew he was en- he was ending his- his career with CDCR. He had other priorities. He had other obligations, and that was to tell the truth. He just had tunnel vision for that.

Sukey Lewis: Val Sr. remembers Steele reading the memo to him over the phone.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I says, “Holy smokes, this is very powerful. The walls are gonna fall, you know,” and it didn’t.

[Dramatic music]

Sukey Lewis: We don’t know exactly how the warden reacted when he got Steele’s memo in his inbox, but we do know Steele decided he was done with the institution, and it was time for him to leave. So he put together a plan, he was gonna move across the country, to Miller County in Missouri, a place he’d visited as a reserve officer for the Air Force. A place where he hoped no one could find him. But he wasn’t quitting, he’d accrued a ton of leave that he’d never taken. He’d use that up and then retire.

Before he left town, Val Sr. and his wife, Erma, invited Steele to come over to the house for a barbecue.

Erma Rodriguez: We made tri-tip and we had our kids there, we gave him a little gift. He was there with his wife, Lily, and his dad. So, my parents were there, my mother-in-law and my kids, and we just sat around and talked and he was talking to everybody, and his wife was hugging everyone.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He just glowed, man. This is how he was, he was so polite and respectable and considerate. And he just moved around and I just, “Ah, I don’t have to talk to him,” ’cause he was just, like, just talking to everybody, so that was cool for me ’cause I was cooking, I was busy.

Sukey Lewis: After they ate, Val Sr. presented him with a plaque that he’d had made. A clear pyramid with a photo of his son Valentino inside, and a brass name plate. Steele had always called Valentino a superhero.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: So I put on here, “From your superhero, to my kindred spirit,” picture, and he cried, and then, uh, he had a hard time taking. (laughs) Uh, so then, he got in the- in the car and left after that.

Sukey Lewis: Steele and his wife and their dogs made their way across the country to Miller County. The two men were now nearly 2000 miles away from each other, but in their talks on the phone, they grew even closer.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He would even tell me, “I love you,” you know, which was kind of odd for me, as a man. We just- I didn’t grow up- you know, throwing that word around. (laughs) I don’t think he did either, you know, but, uh, I remember one day I walked in and I had him on speakerphone and he goes, “I love you man,” and I go, “Oh, okay.” (laughs) And I hung up.

Sukey Lewis: Erma overhead the whole thing.

Erma Rodriguez: Like, “Why don’t you say, ‘I love you’ back?”

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: (laughs)

Erma Rodriguez: “Uh, I’m just not that kind of person,” (laughs) and I just- he feels- yeah, he just feels weird. (laughs) I think you end up did saying it one time, didn’t you?

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: Yeah. I told him, um, and that felt funny, but I told him, “I love you buddy.” (laughs)

Erma Rodriguez: (laughs)

[Music]

Sukey Lewis: In fact, Val Sr. was one of the few people who knew where Steele was living. Steele didn’t feel safe. He told people he was close to that after he’d confronted prison leaders with evidence he’d collected about officer misconduct, he’d been getting weird text messages, and vaguely threatening voicemails from unknown numbers.

In his calls with Val Sr., Steele talked about how easy it would be for his enemies to hire someone to kill him. But if they came, he was prepared. He had guns and two doberman pinschers. So those fears didn’t stop him, he’d left California, but he hadn’t abandoned his friend or their mission.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: He assured me that he would be able to work laterally and do more outside the prison.

Sukey Lewis: Mm.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: And I didn’t understand what he meant by that.

Sukey Lewis: In February 2021, Steele fired off another memo. This one addressed to the head of the entire state agency: Secretary Kathleen Allison. It’s about what he calls the corruption and failed leadership at New Folsom. This memo has fewer details, but the focus is on the inaction of higher-ups. How multiple supervisors were aware of the harassment Valentino received, and failed to do anything about it.

Julie Small: “No staff member or person should have been the victim of what correctional officer Rodriguez endured at the hands of CSP Sacramento ISU office supervisors and staff members.”

Sukey Lewis: And in his writing, you can really feel Steele’s frustration, and even more than that, the betrayal. He’d been a true believer.

Julie Small: “I’m not a disgruntled employee seeking vengeance. Instead, I was a witness to an ISU which became engulfed in corruption and watched as integrity was forced to cower in terror and fear of retaliation.”

[Music]

Sukey Lewis: Around the same time this memo was sent, a notice was posted at the entrance gate of New Folsom prison. Beneath a photograph of Steele’s face, it states, “Effective immediately, Kevin Steele is not to be permitted on institution grounds.” CDCR did not respond to questions about why Steele was banned from the prison. Steele himself would come to find out he was under investigation by internal affairs. He felt he had no choice but to work outside the system he’d been a part of for 20 years.

[Ad break]

The two men, Val Sr. and Kevin Steele, with their twin agendas, started working to expose the prison and put pressure on those supposedly ongoing investigations in another way, this time through the press.

Julie Small: How did you come to that decision?

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: That was hard decision to make.

Sukey Lewis: Val Sr. tells Julie, at first he wanted to give prison officials and law enforcement the chance to investigate.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: So I waited, and then finally I just- I just got tired of waiting. So, I made the call.

[Music]

Sukey Lewis: He spoke to a newspaper reporter named Wes Venteicher, who worked at the local paper, The Sacramento Bee. He now writes for Politico. Wes says he’d covered prisons before, but this story was different.

Wes Venteicher: It was certainly kind of one of the darkest places I’ve (laughs) gone as a reporter.

Sukey Lewis: When you were going through this process and talking to people, you talked to correctional officers, you know, was it difficult to get people to go on the record for it because of fears, or…

Wes Venteicher: Yes, of course. Uh, everybody’s really scared of retaliation, and that’s part of the whole story with Val. You know, some people described it as like a high-school-like atmosphere, where everybody knows everybody, and then, um, it’s really easy for someone to be shunned, and then that makes them, makes their work more dangerous and their job more dangerous. So, nobody who was s- an employed correctional officer, and even a couple of the retired ones I talked to were not willing to go on the record.

Sukey Lewis: Wes says something that really stuck out to him, and that there just isn’t enough research on, is the long-term impact of doing this work.

Wes Venteicher: One thing I had wanted to look into was just the pattern of the mental health treatment, and the medications that people are prescribed, and does anyone actually end up healing or getting better after suffering through some of this stuff? Or is there just this trail of broken former correctional officers out there?

Sukey Lewis: We tell him this is something we are looking into. Wes’s article, titled Correctional Officer’s Death Exposes Hazing, Toxic Culture at California Prison, published in April of 2021. It’s how we first heard about Valentino’s death, and it goes into the discrimination that Valentino faced.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: Once that article hit, Garland was walked off, and a lot of stuff started to happen over there.

Sukey Lewis: Daniel Garland, the guy who’d called Valentino homophobic slurs, Marcus Jordan, the one who’d used the N-word, were both under investigation, along with other officers in the ISU. Steele texted, “Justice is beginning to simmer, Steele.” But Val Sr.’s response was a lot more measured.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I thought that, “Okay, that’s, uh, that’s nu- step one. That’s good. Everything else from here on out is going to be systematic. They’re doing something,” but they didn’t do shit after that. It was just like, “Here’s a piece of raw meat,” and that’s it.

Sukey Lewis: That internal affairs investigation that had started with Chris McGraw, resulted in the dismissal of Marcus Jordan and Daniel Garland. Among other things, the department found their treatment of Valentino violated state employee laws and the department’s code of conduct. Two other guys on the squad got a 10% pay cut. One of them had called Valentino Half-Patch, and they’d both chimed in with derogatory texts in the group thread. But these four officers appealed their discipline. Like all correctional officers, they’d have access to an extensive appeals process and representation by union lawyers. The lawyer for those four officers declined to let us speak to her clients for this podcast.

She wrote in an email, “CDCR imposed excessive and unreasonable discipline against my clients for personal communications between work friends on their personal cell phones that took place almost entirely off duty.” And she said her clients are still fighting to overturn this discipline.

There was a big shakeup in the squad, and the institution reassigned basically all the officers who’d worked with Valentino. But the people who were really in charge, like Warden Jeff Lynch, remained in charge.

Julie Small: What were you hoping would happen when the Sacramento Bee article came out?

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I was hoping for what I’m hoping for now, closure, and everyone throws that J-word around, but just justice.

[Upbeat music]

Sukey Lewis: The article did get some important attention, though. A guy in the district attorney’s office for Yolo County, where West Sacramento is located and where Valentino died, saw his death by fentanyl as part of a pattern. Overdoses from the lethal drug were skyrocketing in the state.

Newscast: Mostly from fentanyl overdoses, last year in California alone.

Sukey Lewis: And in the county.

Newscast: We’ve seen over a dozen people die of fentanyl-related overdoses in the last year-and-a-half.

Sukey Lewis: In June, this is two months after the article came out in the paper, the DA’s office issued a press release.

Newscast: DA Reisig compares it to DUI offenders who break the law again and kill someone in the process. They’ll be looking at…

Sukey Lewis: They were changing their policy. Fentanyl deaths were now going to be investigated as potential homicides.

Newscast: If you’re selling that drug knowing that it may be laced with fentanyl, and somebody dies, you should pay the price.

Newscast: …a few grains of salt of fentanyl can kill you.

Newscast: DA Jeff Reisig is confident the policy will hold up if challenged.

Sukey Lewis: And these cases would be investigated by a special regional task force called Safe Streets, that involved the FBI, Sacramento County Law Enforcement, and a representative from the Yolo County DA’s Office. At the bottom of their release, the DA’s office included a photo of one of the victims of the recent uptick in fentanyl poisoning. It was Valentino Rodriguez, in his CDCR uniform, on the day he graduated from the academy.

The new FBI agent on the case, part of that Safe Streets task force, got in touch with Val Sr. via email. Quote-

Julie Small: “We are looking into/investigating the death of your son with several groups inside the FBI, as well as our local agency partners. Being as there are several complications to your son’s passing, the investigation is going to be more complex and time-consuming.”

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: Initially, I was told, “This is a very complicated case. It’s going to take time. You need to be patient for several reasons.”

Sukey Lewis: But just a little while later, Val Sr. says the agent called back and said he was closing his investigation.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I asked him why, he goes, “There’s nothing on the phone.” I says, “There’s all kinds of stuff on the phone.” He’s got phone records, he’s got two burn calls, I mean there’s all kinds of stuff.

Sukey Lewis: In an email, the FBI said they could not comment on the Safe Streets task force or any potential investigation into Valentino’s death. Val Sr. felt like he was stuck in a game of hot potato, being passed from one agency to another.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: This, all this is like, like overwhelming.

Sukey Lewis: And this long journey of disappointments he’s been on, it’s part of why he’s agreed to talk to Julie and me, and share all the evidence he’s gathered, so we can try to figure out what’s going on here, and if there’s something law enforcement missed.

Julie Small: Did you find the bindle ever?

Sukey Lewis: On one of our trips to Val Sr.’s home in West Sacramento he goes to a bookshelf in his living room and he pulls out a plastic pill bottle. He hands it to Julie, who holds it up to the light.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: So in there is, um, a balloon, small balloon-

Sukey Lewis: Inside the bottle there’s a zip-lock baggie with a white pill and two capsules in it, and a small round package about the size of a nickel, wrapped in black plastic, which Val Sr. believes came from New Folsom.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: … and then these baggies, which on Val’s phone, shows these are the way he, you would log into evidence.

Sukey Lewis: Mm-hmm.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I don’t know what’s inside the capsules.

Sukey Lewis: Mm-hmm.

Julie Small: Okay, well s- we’ll try to figure out what we can do to have this analyzed.

Valentino Rodriguez, Sr: I’m curious what’s in the balloon.

Sukey Lewis: We want to find out if what’s in the bindle or the pills matches the drugs in Valentino’s system when he died, so Julie and our producer, Steven Rascón, ship it off to a place that does forensic drug testing for law enforcement, and then we jump on a call.

[Sound FX – Zoom chime]

So do you have to, um, like package this a certain way?

Julie Small: Yeah. It gets a special packaging, double plastic zip-lock bags, and also the canister that you dropped it into, and twisted, and closed, and, um, yeah, and then bubble wrap around that.

Sukey Lewis: All right, cool. So it’s on its way? It’s like literally in the mail on its way to the-

Julie Small: Yes.

Steven Rascón: Yeah, so that’s like you, we can cross that off, which is great.

Sukey Lewis: That’s awesome.

The company says it’ll take 30 to 60 days to get the results back.

[Outro Music]

Coming up next time, we start to get a sense of what it was like to be incarcerated at New Folsom.

Incarcerated Man: They would cuff us, you know, handcuff us and beat us, you know? And, um, wasn’t a whole lot we could do.

Sukey Lewis: And one of the guys I wrote to from Steele’s memo calls me back.

Incarcerated man: You got to be strong, man. Come on, Sukey. If you let shit like this get to you, then, man, all this shit’s for nothing, man. You got to stay strong. Don’t worry about me. I can handle my own. You got to stay strong. You got to f- do this til the end, how they say like ’til the wheels fall off.

Sukey Lewis: Finally, we get a deeper sense of Steele’s mission.

Woman: The only good thing that kept me going, there was this, uh, officer. His name is Mr. Steele. If it wasn’t for him, my son wouldn’t be alive today.

[Credits Music]

Sukey Lewis: You’re listening to On Our Watch Season 2, New Folsom, from KQED. If you have any tips or feedback about the series, you can email us at onourwatch@kqed.org. You can also leave us a review on Apple Podcasts.

This series is reported by me, Sukey Lewis, and Julie Small. It’s edited by Victoria Mauleón. It’s produced and scored by Steven Rascón and Chris Egusa. Sound design and mixing by Tarek Fouda. Jen Chien is KQED’s director of podcasts, and she executive produced the series. Meticulous fact-checking by Mark Betancourt.

Additional research for this episode by Kathleen Quinn and Laura Fitzgerald, students in the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, whose chair, David Barstow, provided valuable support for the whole series.

Special thanks to Rahsaan Thomas of Ear Hustle, Sandhya Dirks of NPR, and KQED health correspondent April Dembosky. Original music by Ramtin Arablouei, including our theme song. Additional music from APM Music and Audio Network.

Funding for On Our Watch is provided in part by Arnold Ventures and the California Endowment. And thanks to KQED’s Otis R. Taylor Jr., Managing Editor of News and Enterprise, Ethan Toven-Lindsey, our vice president of news, and Chief Content Officer Holly Kernan.

Thanks for listening.

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