Daughter seeks answers in dad’s death: Father died of COVID-19 complications in jail

Cresenciano Oliva was 77 years old when he passed away on Aug. 11. His daughter reported that staff at the Carrizales-Rucker detention center transported Oliva to the hospital three weeks prior to be treated for chest pain, weakness, and shortness of breath.

His cause of death —complications of COVID-19 — was confirmed in the custodial death report. A preliminary autopsy report signed by Cameron County Justice of the Peace Mary Esther Sorola on Aug.13, also confirmed Oliva died of complications of the coronavirus.

Oliva, a former maintenance worker at the City of Harlingen, had been incarcerated for five years. He was one of few inmates at the facility who tested negative for COVID-19 after the Cameron County Sheriff’s Office requested its first round of mass testing from the state in early July, said daughter Lina Garcia.

But in the following weeks, her father — who had been transferred to Carrizales from another county in preparation for a new trial — began getting sicker and sicker while awaiting postponed proceedings, according to both his daughter and two fellow inmates.

Oliva tested positive after his transfer to the hospital on July 24. His cause of death and the date he was transported to the hospital were confirmed in a custodial death report published by Attorney General Ken Paxton’s Office on Aug. 28.

According to Garcia, staff at the jail did not contact her family about the hospitalization and could not provide answers as to how he became infected. She said infirmary staff suggested that he contracted the virus not at Carrizales, but upon transfer to the emergency room.

Sheriff Omar Lucio said that the jail has adhered to all protocol as mandated by the State of Texas. He explained that staff transported Oliva to the hospital after assessing his condition and that the physicians who treated him would be responsible for providing more information about the complications leading to his death to authorized family members, he explained.

Jail records confirmed that Oliva was booked on Jan. 29. No bond amount was listed in the booking information.

After her father was hospitalized, Garcia said two of his former cell mates took it upon themselves to contact her and family members.

“ My dad would call me maybe once or twice a week. The jail didn’t contact any of the family. His girlfriend had power of attorney at that time. They didn’t contact her,” said Garcia.

Oliva’s hospitalization came as a surprise to his daughter. According to Garcia, Oliva’s girlfriend had spoken to him several days before he was hospitalized. He hadn’t complained of symptoms.

“ My father was one that would never complain of anything. That’s just the way he was,” said Garcia.

Out of concern, Garcia called the jail. Staff allegedly would not give her information, citing HIIPA concerns, even when asked by her father’s girlfriend, Garcia alleged. “She had the papers [proving power of attorney]. She offered to take them to the jail personally,” she said.

The jail’s medical staff allegedly sent Oliva to the hospital with chest pain and shortness of breath on a Friday night. According to Garcia, the family found out on a Saturday. She recalled sending emails to the jail’s commander and allegedly got in contact with the infirmary director the following Monday.

Through the director, Garcia reported getting updates. She said the physician assured her that the outbreak was under control. At the hospital, her dad’s health deteriorated. Three days after he passed away, Garcia said she got a call from a second cell mate’s sister.

“ He told his sister to contact me and let me know everything that happened. He thought that my father’s death could have been avoided — that he wouldn’t have gotten sick if they took the proper precautions,” said Garcia.

Garcia said the inmate then called her directly. According to Garcia, the inmate said her father began displaying symptoms two-and-a-half weeks prior to his hospitalization, after the first round of testing was completed. The inmate described her father getting “sicker and sicker,” she said.

Oliva’s cell mate allegedly tested positive for the virus, Garcia said the inmates said. According to Garcia, jail staff kept her father inside the same cell despite his negative result.

Cohorting — an infection control technique where inmates potentially exposed to a virus are quarantined together — is a practice common in jails and detention centers that has been used locally by various agencies during the pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges on its website that the ability to socially distance while incarcerated is “limited.”

“ The day they took him — I guess the inmates made a big fuss to the guards saying this man doesn’t look good, call the nurse over, he needs to be taken to the hospital. He said my father wasn’t getting out of bed. He was still breathing but he was weak and very short of breath,” Garcia said.

“ Finally, the nurse assessed him and said he doesn’t have a fever. My father’s cell mate said he told the nurse he didn’t have a fever either but has COVID — that it shouldn’t make a difference. That’s when they took him.”

According to Garcia, the nurse told inmates she hadn’t received requests for medical attention from Oliva in recent weeks, an allegation Oliva’s cell mate contested, telling Garcia that requests had been submitted. Any requests filed by Oliva between July 1 and July 24 have been requested from Cameron County.

Roughly three days after her father’s death, Garcia said she learned from the inmate that her father’s blanket and pillow — which were infected with COVID — had not been removed from the cell.

Garcia said Oliva’s cell mate told her, “They should have done better as far as keeping us separated, listening to us, taking every request and checking us out just in case. Because your father died and he wasn’t supposed to die. Your dad was a good man,” she recalled.

Garcia added, “My father was a very gentle man. He would give you his shirt if you needed a shirt. If you needed a coat, he would take his off and give it to you. He would never say no to anybody that was in need of money, food, anything. He loved his family. He cared for his family.”

“ These people are still loved ones. They’re human beings; they’re not animals — regardless of what they did, officials have a job to do. It was very disturbing for this gentleman to call me and tell me the conditions surrounding my father’s death.”