Ex-wife: Man who died in deputy-involved shooting struggled with mental illness

Alvaro Duran Venegas with his son Alex. Photo courtesy, the Venegas family
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In the month before he died in a deputy-involved shooting Sept. 12, Alvaro Venegas struggled with schizophrenia, his ex-wife said.

Alvaro Duran Venegas, 35, who was the father of a young boy and lived in Vacaville doing seasonal farm work, was pronounced dead Thursday, Sept. 12, after an encounter on Rye Canyon Road with Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station deputies.

Venegas was diagnosed in 2012 as having schizophrenia, said Mireya Segura, the deceased man’s ex-wife, who lives in Rochester, Minnesota, about 60 miles south of Minneapolis, with their 6-year-old son, Alvaro “Alex” Alejandro.

Most pressing of her many concerns about the fatal shooting is how to tell her son about his father’s death, she said.

Segura learned of the shooting a little over a week ago from a niece in California, she said in a phone interview.

Mental health challenges

Responding effectively and appropriately to mental health calls remains a priority for local law enforcement.

In March, when the Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission came to the Santa Clarita Valley, commissioners listened to a request from residents for more resources allocated for mental health needs in the SCV.

Addressing those needs remains a front-burner issue for county civic leaders.

In 2015, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors created a specialty team of mental health professionals — called the Mental Evaluation Team — mandated to respond with deputies to emergency calls involving mental health patients.

When the MET unit rolls, a licensed social worker from the Department of Mental Health joins a deputy on the call, with the hope of lowering the risk of violent interactions that have historically ended in jail time rather than treatment. 

Two weeks ago, supervisors made 10 mental health vans available across the county to each of the five districts, with two of those vans earmarked for the 5th District, which includes the SCV.

The vans are to be staffed with a trained clinician and a peer specialist to provide therapeutic support and de-escalation tactics to reduce the stress of the passenger — and enough space for a loved one to ride along.

Despite these and other efforts dealing with what supervisors see as a burgeoning problem, the on-the-street challenges deputies face when dealing with mental health calls are constant.

‘Peaceful resolution’

“As deputy sheriffs, we come into contact with people from all walks of life, facing all sorts of challenges,” James Wheeler, vice president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said Monday.

Speaking in general terms and not about the Venegas case, Wheeler issued a prepared statement about the challenges local deputies face:

“Deputies are always looking towards a peaceful resolution for the safety of the mentally ill person, the public and the deputies involved,” he said. “This may mean just simply trying to talk the mentally ill person into getting the help they need or trying to get them off the street where they may have committed a crime or are a danger to the public.

“It is always tragic for everyone involved when the quickly changing circumstances of an incident evolve into one where the outcome is a loss of life,” he said.

In accordance with department policy, Sheriff’s Department officials would not answer questions regarding the potential involvement of a MET team, or the potential for any availability of body-camera footage regarding the Venegas case. 

Homicide Bureau

When asked about the details of the Venegas shooting since it happened, Lt. Brandon Dean of the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s Homicide Bureau has said all questions will be answered once all the internal probes are complete.

Investigators with the LASD’s Internal Affairs unit and the Justice Integrity Division of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office are expected, according to policy and procedure, to investigate all aspects of the shooting. Every fatal officer-involved shooting results in a lengthy report released sometimes months or years after a shooting.

The District Attorney’s Office released the results of their investigation into the August 2016 fatal shooting of Castaic resident Bill Bowers in June.

Dean gave an account of what transpired on the day of the shooting, and that account has not changed.

Yelling, screaming

On Sept. 12, a deputy with the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, who was responding to a call about a man “yelling and screaming,” radioed for assistance after the man attacked him, taking his radio and taser, Dean said.

Other deputies responding to the call for help also got into a fight with the man, and one of the deputies suffered a facial injury, he said.

That deputy fired two shots into the upper torso of the suspect, killing him, Dean said.

Paramedics with the Los Angeles County Fire Department also responded to the emergency call.

“We received the call as a psych rescue,” Austin Bennett, spokesman for the Fire Department, said on the day of the shooting. The call of a “psych rescue with ALS”  was placed by a deputy, Bennett said, referring to advanced life support.

Paramedics got to the scene of the psychological rescue at 12:53 p.m., Bennett said, adding no one was transported from the scene by paramedics. 

Medication

Venegas married Segura in 2012 and stayed married for six years. When the couple split up in 2018, Venegas grew increasingly paranoid, Segura said.

Since March, Venegas’ schizophrenia worsened, she said. “After we split up, he took it pretty hard, and didn’t fully recover.”

He refused to take medicine prescribed to him to control his schizophrenia, she said.

“He didn’t like it because he said, ‘(The medication) just put (him) to sleep,’” she said, noting alcohol only worsened his situation.

The couple lived in California until August 2018, then moved to Texas for a short time.

Once they were apart, episodes of heightened paranoia intensified, Segura said.

“In April, he started texting me, saying, ‘There are cameras in my room,’ and that there were videos on YouTube of me being at home with everybody watching them and that there were a million views.’ Of course, none of this is true,” she said.

Mental facility

Segura said she was told by family members that they tried to get him into an appropriate mental facility. Venegas spent at least one week in a facility, Segura said. “He was fired from one or two jobs in the last six months. Obviously, he was falling apart.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, schizophrenia is a serious mental disorder in which people interpret reality abnormally. Schizophrenia may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions, and extremely disordered thinking and behavior that impairs daily functioning, and can be disabling.

People with schizophrenia, according to the Mayo Clinic, require lifelong treatment. Early treatment may help get symptoms under control before serious complications develop and may help improve the long-term outlook.

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On Twitter @jamesarthurholt

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