A 47-year-old Gulf War veteran with a Ph.D. in philosophy, who was arrested in Berkeley in February, died one month later after a brief altercation in jail, according to the Alameda County sheriff’s office.
Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly told Berkeleyside that Michael Hermon was punched once in the nose during the fight March 14. When he didn’t stop bleeding, Hermon was taken to Stanford Health Care – ValleyCare in Pleasanton. At some point, Hermon stopped breathing and was placed on life support. He later died.
Hermon was due to be transferred out of jail to a diversion program for veterans, Kelly said. But the transfer had not happened yet due to lack of space. Kelly said Hermon’s cause of death has not been determined, but that authorities will look closely at his medical history, as well as any medical procedures that took place in the hospital, as part of the autopsy report: “It was a very unusual situation and a very unfortunate one for this family,” he told Berkeleyside. “It’s just a very bizarre series of events.”
Meanwhile, friends told Berkeleyside they are struggling to make sense of Hermon’s death.
“He traveled the world, he served our country. He had three beautiful children,” Kat Alexander told Berkeleyside. “I just can’t believe this would happen.”
Alexander met Hermon in Portland last year at a neighborhood pub. Their connection was immediate: Within a week she had sold or given away most of her belongings so the couple could set off, with Hermon’s dog — a Husky-Malamute mix named after the rapper Eazy-E, because Hermon got the dog in Compton — on travels that would take them down the Oregon coast, through the redwoods in Northern California and to Yosemite and Devils Postpile.
The couple went through the Nevada desert and spent time at an oasis called Duckwater Hot Springs. They traveled through Bryce Canyon in Utah and took the historic steam train from Durango to Silverton in Colorado. They visited Alexander’s parents in New Mexico and, later, saw Hermon’s sons in California.
In December and January the couple drove down to the Baja peninsula in Mexico and spent a month exploring. Alexander then returned to Portland to take care of some business. The couple discussed plans to take a ferry from Seattle up to Alaska, among other trips. The journeys were significant for Alexander.
“I spent over 20 years of my life raising children, having marriages,” she said. “I never had the opportunity to travel much, even though I always wanted to.”
She described Hermon as charismatic and authentic. He loved science and he loved to read.
“He had a huge heart. He was fearless,” she said. “He was incredibly intelligent. He spent hours telling me the history of the universe.”
Hermon also struggled with PTSD from his time in the military, she said: “We all struggle with our demons, and I know that Michael had his.”
According to Hermon’s Facebook page, he was a combat engineer in the U.S. Army working in explosive ordnance disposal. These soldiers are described online as “the Army’s preeminent tactical and technical explosives experts.” He served during Operation Desert Storm, according to his family.
Alexander said Hermon’s love of travel was driven in part by a feeling of restlessness. It wasn’t easy to get him to stay in one place for long. She said she, too, has that restlessness. It was one of their many points of connection.
“He just wanted to step away from society and the rat race, the 9-to-5 lifestyle, to be able to come and go at his own pace,” she said.
Hermon had the ability to focus with intensity, however. In 2011, he completed a 122-page dissertation in philosophy at the University of Utah entitled, “Truth is expendable: Foundations for an empirically informed philosophy of testimony.” According to his Facebook page, he got his Ph.D. after attending Riverside Polytechnic High School in Southern California as well as the University of California, Irvine.
His Ph.D. advisor, Mariam Thalos — who now heads the philosophy department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville — said Hermon had been one of her favorite students at Utah: He was responsible and was always prepared for their meetings, “and he had a very good dissertation,” she said. “We were very proud of his achievements in the department.”
Thalos remembered Hermon as self-motivated and intellectually curious, personable, kind and open. She said she had tried to reach him by email in recent years but had been unsuccessful.
Hermon also had been “a great teacher,” she said, with a keen ability to develop rapport with students. When they worked together, she said, he had wanted to become a community college teacher, ideally in California so he could be near his children.
“Michael was one of the highlights of my time as a supervisor of students,” said Thalos, who was at Utah for nearly two decades before moving to Tennessee in 2018. “He was one of my highlights.”
According to Hermon’s Facebook page, he was at one time an adjunct professor at the University of Portland in Oregon. One listing online indicates he may have taught an intro philosophy course at UP as recently as fall 2016. (Berkeleyside was unable to confirm this with the department.)
The Alameda County sheriff’s office has not announced Hermon’s death. It was a friend of Hermon’s named Edward West who alerted Berkeleyside to the news.
West described Hermon as “a peacemaker” who “would actively assert himself when there was conflict and try to pacify it — because he was a doctor of philosophy.”
“Perhaps he got in the middle of something,” West hypothesized.
West met Hermon in 2017 when they were both in a Veterans Affairs (VA) program in Vancouver, Washington, right across the Columbia River from Portland. West said, when they first met, Hermon made no mention of his extensive academic training. But, when they exchanged Facebook information, West saw Hermon’s degrees on his friend’s profile page and was impressed.
The two would have long conversations about science and philosophy. West recalled talking with Hermon about everything from climate change and particle accelerators to theoretical ion propulsion systems.
Sometimes the topics were “so far over my head,” West recalled, “but he would just keep breaking it down and breaking it down — to stick figures! He was a natural teacher and he loved to teach.”
West also described Hermon as a “war hero” who was “given medals for his actions in the war.” He said there were many parallels between his friend’s life and the story depicted in The Hurt Locker, about a U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in the Iraq War and the stress combat has on soldiers.
The men stayed in touch by phone and online, and recently talked about where they might one day be able to settle down, where they could have access to VA programs but be somewhat off the grid. They talked about the possibilities of Mexico, Puerto Rico or Costa Rica. West said he had been surprised when Hermon told him in late October that he’d bought a pistol.
It was out of character, West said: “He’s a peace-loving pacifist doctor of philosophy. He’s a flower child and a hippie.” West said he thought perhaps it was Hermon’s military background surfacing: “When we’re soldiers, that’s what driven into you: That gun is your life.”
In February, Hermon was arrested in Berkeley after he reportedly shot a gun into his van, according to the Berkeley Police Department. No injuries were reported. There was no indication anyone but Hermon had been in the area, at Heinz and Seventh streets, when the weapon was fired Feb. 21. BPD took Hermon into custody without incident. He was ultimately taken to Santa Rita Jail in Dublin.
By March, according to sheriff’s office spokesman Sgt. Kelly, Hermon was in the process of being moved to an Alameda County diversion program for veterans. He had been approved for the transfer but was waiting for space to open up.
On March 14, Kelly said, Hermon was involved in a minor altercation. Kelly described it as a “simple assault”: Someone punched Hermon in the nose. After the punch, he was conscious and talking, Kelly said. But jail staff noticed he had a nosebleed that would not stop. So they decided to transfer Hermon to the hospital in Pleasanton for assessment.
“While he’s there and being treated for this excessive bloody nose,” Kelly said, “we’re not exactly sure what happens. At some point, he stops breathing, and we’re not exactly sure how that occurred.”
Kelly said the hospital had been using gauze to try to control Hermon’s bleeding, but he did not have much additional detail. At some point, he said, the sheriff’s office got in touch with Hermon’s family members and they came to the hospital. Hermon was ultimately placed on life support, and the sheriff’s office released him from custody. The family eventually decided to take Hermon off life support and he passed away, Kelly said. The sheriff’s office is not classifying the case as an in-custody death, he said.
According to public Facebook posts from Hermon’s father, Tom, Michael was on life support as of Friday, March 22. Hermon was an organ donor and, two days later, his organs were collected, his father wrote.
“It has ended,” he wrote March 24 at about 1:15 p.m., “they harvested from him.”
“A series of unfortunate events”
Kelly said the sheriff’s office is still waiting for the completion of the autopsy report to have a better understanding of what took place. Cause of death has not been determined. Kelly said there would be an extensive review of Hermon’s medical files and treatment, any prior medical conditions, the coroner’s exam, the autopsy and the pathologist’s report.
Kelly described Hermon as cooperative and said the sheriff’s office had been able to speak to him directly about the altercation.
“He was never in any distress or showed signs of serious bodily injury from the punch,” Kelly said, adding, “I’m not trying to explain this away. We don’t have answers.”
He said preliminary indications showed Hermon had instigated the fight and that it sounded like the other inmate was defending himself: “If that was the case, I don’t think we’re looking at a homicide situation here. I think we’re looking at a series of unfortunate events where someone dies.”
He said the sheriff’s office had met with Hermon’s family and had, in the end, tried to offer the support it could: “Our heart does go out to that family,” Kelly said.
Stanford Health Care – ValleyCare did not respond to a request for information.
West and Alexander both said they hold Alameda County, and Santa Rita Jail, responsible for Hermon’s death.
“The job of every institution is for the safety of everybody who’s incarcerated,” said Alexander. She said jail staff should have acted faster to get Hermon to the hospital. (Kelly did not say when that transfer took place.)
“There was so much failure on the part of the justice system,” Alexander said. “This ultimately is a tragic and horrific thing that never should have occurred.”
The Hermons have retained an attorney and said they could not speak with the media as a result.