It took 14 months for authorities to release their investigation into how Michael Hermon, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, died from injuries he sustained during a fight at Santa Rita Jail in 2019.
Hermon was almost a free man. He had been set to leave Santa Rita for a veterans program the day after the fight that ultimately took his life. Hermon, a 47-year-old academic-turned-traveler with a Ph.D. in philosophy, had been arrested in West Berkeley several weeks earlier after allegedly firing a gun at his unoccupied camper van.
In May, Berkeleyside obtained documents about Hermon’s death from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office through a Public Records Act request that was originally filed last year. The reports were heavily redacted. They address some of the questions Hermon’s family has grappled with since he died but leave others unanswered.
Why did it take more than four days for the sheriff’s department to tell Hermon’s family he had been rushed to the hospital in grave condition? Why weren’t criminal charges filed in the case, which was deemed a homicide? Why did it take more than a year for the county to release any records about the killing?
For his family, the pain of Hermon’s death is still raw.
“That’s all you end up with, one question after another,” Tom Hermon, Michael’s father, told Berkeleyside on Friday. “I just wish Michael and I could have sat down and talked one time before he died.”
Tom Hermon and his wife, Michael’s stepmother Dede, had been in the Bay Area on Wednesday, March 13, 2019 — the day before the fatal fight — handling logistics from Michael’s case. Michael was supposed to go to court that day, but his hearing was canceled because his transfer to the veterans program was imminent. As a result, the Hermons didn’t get to see each other as they had been planning.
Tom and Dede decided to head home to Big Bear Lake, California, for work because the jail had no visiting hours until Friday. Michael would be out by then. Everything seemed to be on track.
The next morning, Thursday, March 14, 2019, Michael called his father from Santa Rita Jail to check in. He was “absolutely upbeat and normal,” and ready to be free. Michael asked about his dog, Eazy-E, and his van, which the two men had painstakingly renovated together the prior year. Michael also brought up the Liverpool Football Club; father and son were huge soccer fans and would watch matches together from afar, screaming and yelling together over the phone for hours during the games.
It would be their last conversation.
A fateful push
Several hours later, according to the 65-page incident report released May 27 by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, Hermon was walking to his bunk in a minimum-security housing unit at Santa Rita Jail at about 4 p.m. when he pushed aside a man he said was in his way. The two men, who had at one point been bunkmates, had been sniping at each other for several days over hygiene issues and conditions in their shared bathroom.
In response to the push, the other man walked up to Hermon, who was sitting on his bunk bed, and punched him in the face multiple times, breaking numerous bones in Hermon’s nose, according to county records. The men grappled on the floor before wordlessly calling it quits. Deputies who saw the altercation from afar said it looked like the men were “possibly horse playing.”
The other man told deputies he punched Hermon in the face repeatedly and said Hermon “never landed a punch.” He bragged to other inmates about winning the fight. He asked a deputy how Hermon was doing and said “he knew he ‘fucked him up badly.’” The man said he had been boxing since he was 4 and “knew how to move and throw punches.” His name was fully redacted from the report provided to Berkeleyside but is listed in the paperwork as the suspect.
The man also said he’d used only “35% of his power because he knew he could kill him if he hit him as hard as he could,” according to the incident report. He said he’d initially figured Hermon, at 6 feet 2 and 210 pounds, would likely win the fight because of his size advantage. The smaller man was 5 feet 8 and closer to 120 pounds.
After those punches, Hermon’s nose would not stop bleeding. He didn’t know it at the time, but he also had two broken ribs. Several of his teeth had been knocked loose. When he spoke with jail staff, he was calm and alert and reported no problems beyond the uncontrollable bleeding.
The other man was afraid he’d fractured his hand. He’d been in other fights at Santa Rita Jail and a doctor had told him “he was not supposed to fight” after he’d broken his hand in a prior brawl. The man had a small cut on his knuckle that required stitches. But his injuries were minor and he was cleared for incarceration shortly after the fight, according to the incident report.
Hermon wasn’t so lucky. Nearly four hours later, jail staff called an ambulance to take him to the hospital, Stanford ValleyCare Health in Pleasanton, about 2 miles away. Four minutes later, his condition worsened and the ambulance was upgraded to a “Code 3” emergency transport with lights and sirens. Paramedics Plus, the ambulance service, got to Santa Rita at 8:07 p.m. and left jail for the hospital at 8:20 p.m., about 30 minutes after the original request.
The next night at 7:50, about 24 hours after Hermon was rushed to the hospital, he began to have seizures and became incoherent, according to the incident report. His heart stopped suddenly. Medical staff prepared a crash cart and managed to revive him. Hermon was moved to the ICU.
Two paragraphs in the narrative about what happened next in the hospital are redacted. Shortly before 10 p.m., a deputy wrote, he notified his supervisor of “the incident.” It’s unclear whether he was referencing the original fight, the medical emergency above or something else described in the redacted paragraphs. At 11:40 p.m., he wrote, a lieutenant arrived at the hospital “to assume control of the investigation.” Detectives in the Crimes Against Persons Unit of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) were also notified.
It would be two more days before Hermon’s family learned he was in critical condition.
“Robbed of an opportunity to tell his side of the story”
According to the incident report, Hermon’s condition continued to worsen Monday, March 18, 2019. Notes from that day indicate that, by then, a sergeant — listed in the report as D. Taylor — had called Tom Hermon to tell him his son “had a medical emergency/seizures while in-custody and was hospitalized.”
Tom Hermon said he got that call on Sunday night. As it was described to him, he said, his son’s medical issue “did not sound very serious at the time. I asked if I should come up, but Sgt Taylor said I would not be allowed to see him.” Hermon was told to call the warden of Santa Rita Jail on Monday for more information.
Hermon made the call but did not hear back from the warden until Monday afternoon, he said. The warden made it clear Michael was in bad shape. Tom Hermon got on the next flight to Oakland. By 3 p.m., relatives were converging on the hospital from cities up and down the West Coast, from Los Angeles up to Portland, Oregon. But it was too late to do anything but say goodbye.
“He was essentially brain dead before we were ever notified,” the family said in a prepared statement. “Although his face was smashed in, he did not have a scratch or bruise on his hands and we took pictures to show this fact.”
Michael’s son Alek Hermon, who lives in Portland, said the sheriff’s office initially gave the family minimal information about Michael Hermon’s condition. The 27-year-old described being in the hospital with his younger brother and sister, looking for their father and thinking they would be able to talk to him when they found him.
“I’ll never forget just walking into that room, seeing his bludgeoned face. He was non-responsive in a comatose state. We hadn’t been told he’d been in a fight or attacked at all,” Alek said. “We hadn’t been told anything that in any way prepared us for what we were about to walk into.”
At about 4:15 p.m. that day, the sheriff’s office released Hermon — who was still unresponsive in the ICU in a medically-induced coma — from custody: “No deputies were assigned to supervise him at the hospital,” according to the incident report.
But, as Tom and Dede Hermon recall it, deputies continued to lurk around. One detective “aggressively insisted” on Monday afternoon that they alert him if Michael regained consciousness. Another deputy tried to confiscate a bag of Michael’s belongings as “evidence,” they said. Yet another officer showed up Tuesday and “was quite intimidating to the attending physician and neurologist, so much so that Michael’s ex-wife Michelle asked him to leave us all alone.”
The Hermon family still wonders why deputies lingered so long after Michael was no longer in their custody. It’s just one of many questions they have that remain unanswered.
On March 24, 2019, after friends came from New York City and Southern California to say their own goodbyes, Michael Hermon was removed from life support. His kidneys were harvested for donation as per his wishes.
Tom Hermon said the warden had apologized for taking so long to call the family. The warden told Hermon it had taken two detectives to track down his phone number, he said. Hermon said he found that hard to believe because the public defender’s office had his number on file all along.
Alek Hermon said the family absolutely should have been notified sooner, when his father was still alert and talking to nursing staff at the hospital Thursday night.
“I was robbed of the opportunity to say goodbye to my father,” he told Berkeleyside. “He was robbed of an opportunity to tell his side of the story.”
Alek said his father had always been a confidante for him, even when they didn’t live in the same city. His parents had split up when he was 7 but, when he moved to Oregon in 2014, his dad moved there too.
Michael Hermon had embraced a mobile lifestyle, and had outfitted his van with a solar shower and other cool features. He had graduated from UC Irvine — in three years with high honors — then got his Ph.D. from the University of Utah after being waitlisted for graduate studies at Princeton. In Oregon, Hermon taught college classes remotely from his computer.
Michael and Alek spent a lot of time together over the next 4-5 years, camping and hiking, meeting for lunch. They had shared interests dating back to Alek’s childhood, from the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons to an abiding love of travel and exploration, particularly to destinations off the beaten path.
“He had a lot of sage advice,” Alek said. “He always wanted to be in our lives.”
But there were challenges. Michael struggled with intense anxiety after his time in the war, and it got worse toward the end of his life. The only way for him to manage the troubles was with a nomadic lifestyle that allowed him to move from place to place.
“He just wanted to be as free as he could be,” Alek said.
Inmate told deputies Hermon “had it coming”
When Hermon’s condition declined on Friday night, the sheriff’s office quickly stepped up its investigation into the circumstances around the fight. Over the weekend, deputies attempted to interview all 31 inmates in the housing unit “pod” where the fight happened. Four of them provided statements. These statements were redacted from the incident report provided to Berkeleyside.
At some point on or before April 18, 2019, the man who fought with Hermon provided a Mirandized statement to an ACSO detective. That statement, which spanned nearly six pages, was completely blacked out in the document provided to Berkeleyside.
Hermon himself gave only a brief statement to the ACSO about the fight, in its immediate aftermath. His version of events spans approximately three sentences. According to the incident report, Hermon admitted he pushed the other man, who walked up moments later and punched him in the face. Hermon said the men fought on the ground in the bunk bed area and in the bathroom. Hermon “had no further comments,” according to the report.
On June 24, 2019, a detective filed a supplemental report with a 3-page summary of the case. It noted that the two men had problems when they were bunkmates, then continued to “antagonize each other” after being moved to different beds. The other man from the fight claimed Hermon had bullied him. He said the fight near the bunk beds had ended quickly, but that Hermon then challenged him to fight again. The man said he only remembered part of that second fight and “believed his actions were self-defense.”
“He had it coming,” the man told deputies after the fight. In the report, the detective described the altercation as “mutual combat.”
Michael Hermon never had the chance to provide a detailed accounting of events, his family said, or to challenge the lengthy narrative provided by the other inmate. Several of the descriptions he did give to deputies about the fight were inexplicably redacted from the report released to Berkeleyside.
In June 2019, the lead detective on the case wrote that he planned to refer the matter to the Alameda County district attorney’s office, which would decide whether to file criminal charges the detective listed as involuntary manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon causing great bodily injury.
Teresa Drenick, DA’s office spokeswoman, told Berkeleyside in May that her office had reviewed the case in June 2019 and declined to file criminal charges. Drenick said she could not comment further about that decision but said all reports and evidence had been “thoroughly reviewed.”
Under the law, a homicide determination in the case does not necessarily translate into criminal charges because homicides can result from self-defense, mutual combat or other circumstances, she said.
Tom Hermon said he never heard from Alameda County authorities at any point during the investigation: not during the three months when detectives were compiling their reports or during the period in June when the DA’s office was deciding whether to file charges. No one contacted the family later either, about the testing being done on Michael’s brain or the completion of his autopsy. The family was left completely out of the loop, knowing only that Michael had been killed.
Berkeleyside first requested Hermon’s autopsy from the ACSO in May 2019, then asked for updates on a near-monthly basis when authorities said it had not been completed. In January, after Berkeleyside asked for the report again, the ACSO said “there was further advanced testing that needed to be done from an outside lab. Those results are not in yet.”
In March, the ACSO said the Hermon matter “was still an open case pending toxicology, vitreous and histology.” On April 16, after yet another inquiry from Berkeleyside, the ACSO said the report was complete — but unavailable due to a “press hold.” Berkeleyside checked with Sgt. Ray Kelly of the sheriff’s office and Drenick at the district attorney’s office — they handle all media inquiries for their agencies — and neither was aware of any reason for a press hold.
After 14 months, finally some answers
Finally, on May 6 after repeated telephone, text and email inquiries from Berkeleyside, the ACSO released the redacted 17-page coroner’s report with Hermon’s autopsy and other medical reports. No one was able to provide any explanation for the press hold.
The document was also missing a crucial attachment: the 65-page incident report from the sheriff’s office that outlined its investigation into Hermon’s death. Berkeleyside requested that report May 7. It was released May 27 after it had been redacted by county attorneys.
The two reports are generally released together but that was not done in this case. The coroner’s report itself had no information about the circumstances of the fight or anything beyond the medical findings. Still, it was the first time the family saw Hermon’s death classified as a homicide. His cause of death had previously been listed as “undetermined.”
The coroner’s report said Hermon died of cerebral insufficiency — a lack of blood flow to the brain — and “medical complications following blunt injuries to the head.” There were multiple fractures to his nasal bone, which caused uncontrolled bleeding.
That bleeding led to seizures and cardiac arrest, the coroner wrote. Fluids built up in Hermon’s brain, which led to a form of traumatic brain injury (TBI) described on Wikipedia as “one of the most common and devastating types” of TBI. The coroner described the injuries to Hermon’s nose as a comminuting fracture, meaning the bone broke into several pieces. The coroner said there were “a moderate number of fractured bones” in the area.
The autopsy was performed March 25, 2019, at the coroner’s office in Oakland. The coroner’s office later sent Hermon’s brain to the Stanford University Medical Center for further analysis. According to that report, which confirmed the original findings of blunt force trauma, the brain was received in November 2019 and Stanford sent back its assessment to the sheriff’s office on March 10, 2020.
Last year in April, when the sheriff’s office provided preliminary information about Hermon’s death to Berkeleyside, ACSO spokesman Kelly described it as “a very bizarre series of events.” He said Hermon had been punched just once in the nose and that “it sounded like the other inmate was defending himself.”
At the time, Kelly also said authorities were investigating whether a prior medical condition may have contributed to Hermon’s death. That did not turn out to be a factor, according to the autopsy report. Kelly told Berkeleyside the coroner’s report may have taken so long because this was such a “complex case.”
In 2019, Kelly said Hermon was technically not in custody at the time of his death because he died in the hospital after being granted a compassionate release. Kelly told Berkeleyside in May that, despite this, Hermon’s death was ultimately reported to the county Board of Supervisors and the district attorney’s office.
He expressed sympathy for the Hermon family and told Berkeleyside he had never seen circumstances like this in his career.
“I have been around for 24 years and I have worked every possible case you can imagine,” Kelly said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, people get in altercations and they’re fine.”
As for why deputies were still in the hospital after Hermon’s compassionate release, Kelly said they had been hopeful he would recover. Kelly also said he would be more than willing to talk with Hermon’s family and answer their questions. He said he was sorry that hadn’t happened sooner.
“If we missed an opportunity to do that with Michael’s family, I would like to do that,” Kelly said. “Michael’s death was just a very unfortunate situation that nobody could have imagined.”
Inmate deaths have been an issue at Santa Rita Jail
Hermon was one of 10 inmates who died in 2019 after sustaining injuries at Santa Rita Jail, many of which were suicides, according to an investigation by KTVU that was published last year in October. Berkeleyside has focused on Hermon’s death because it was the only homicide among them that involved a Berkeley arrest.
In its investigation, KTVU found that Santa Rita Jail “has an even higher jail death rate than Los Angeles County, which has the largest jail system in the country.”
Attorney Michael Haddad, of the Oakalnd-based Haddad & Sherwin law firm, said Santa Rita is one of the largest jails in the country and is rife with failings related to inmate health care and the adequate supervision of inmates.
“There are just a lot of problems there,” Haddad told Berkeleyside.
The firm has sued the jail repeatedly over the years and won a $5 million settlement from Alameda County in 2019, Haddad said, after a mentally ill inmate died when another inmate attacked him in 2016.
Families who wish to file lawsuits against government institutions can be at a disadvantage, Haddad said, because they are dependant on documents from those very agencies to prove their cases. Some of those suits must be filed within six months to meet the statute of limitations. And government agencies are well aware of that.
“They will intentionally hold back information from the family, making it harder to bring a lawsuit,” Haddad said. Wrongful death cases have a high “pleading standard” to succeed, he added: “When they fail to turn over any information, it can be hard to meet that high standard.”
Haddad said it’s possible to file these claims within six months if you know something about the circumstances of how someone died. But it’s not easy without key records.
“They don’t have to turn over anything,” he said, of government agencies. “It’s a problem in many situations for inmate families.”
Haddad said it was also not uncommon for jails to grant inmates a compassionate release so their deaths are not counted among official inmate fatality statistics.
“He made everybody around him look at things very differently”
The Hermon family considered filing a lawsuit against the jail but tabled the matter in late 2019 because they could not get any records, they said.
Alek Hermon said Santa Rita Jail would have been a particularly dangerous place for his father, who suffered from severe claustrophobia, alcoholism and other problems caused by his time in the military going into bunkers and disarming bombs.
“He would be erratic in a crowded, loud, bright holding facility,” he said. “There’s a reason that he was arrested in the first place. This is about mental health. My dad’s been failed by a number of American systems his entire life. It’s the military, the prison, the lack of access to treatment for his PTSD. He’s just been let down by a lot of systems along the way.”
Chip Fertig, a close friend of Michael Hermon’s from high school, said being in the Persian Gulf had changed Hermon.
“He was a demolition expert,” Fertig said. “Before we even knew what IEDs were, he was over there blowing them up.”
In the army, Hermon spent time on the Highway of Death between Kuwait and Iraq as a combat engineer handling explosives, Fertig said.
“He saw a lot of deaths,” Fertig said. “By the time he came back, that had left its mark.”
Fertig described his friend as “one of the more cerebral people” he’d ever met, a man who sought out rich experiences over money. Hermon was an optimist who didn’t judge other people and was “heavy into philosophy.”
“You could ask Mike, how do you feel? and he might answer you for two-and-a-half hours. He could really go deep, strap your seatbelt in,” Fertig said. “He made everybody around him look at things very differently.”
Tom Hermon said his son had stayed with him for a chunk of time in 2018. They bought the van Michael would later travel to Berkeley in and fixed it up together. They sat around the table at length, talking about anthropology, politics and the state of the world. They pored over family photos.
“Michael took the intellectual side of me, that I was proud of,” Tom said. “He took that side of me and went further than I ever did.”
In 2011, Michael had completed a 122-page dissertation in philosophy at the University of Utah entitled, “Truth is expendable: Foundations for an empirically informed philosophy of testimony.” His father said the themes he addressed would be particularly relevant for current times.
Hermon described his son as fearless, someone who learned to ski from a book, then tackled a black-diamond run — the steepest run in the area — on his first day out. In his 20s, he’d ride bikes with his brother Derek, a professional racer, and have no trouble keeping up. Then there was the time he went freediving through caves that spanned a half-mile — a dangerous undertaking — because he didn’t have the money for gear or a guide.
When Michael signed up for the military, in part to pay for college, he scored in the 99th percentile on every test he took, his father said. He went to jump school, excelled in marksmanship and got his “dream assignment”: to be stationed in Vicenza, Italy, attached to special forces. He’d fly in, parachute out over the Alps, then ski out on missions. But then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and everything changed. Michael was sent to Saudi Arabia.
Tom Hermon told Berkeleyside on Friday that the extensive redactions and the many months it took for authorities to release their reports about what had happened to his son were deeply troubling. He described the reports as “extremely difficult to read” and said, even if Michael did initially push the other man, the failure to file criminal charges in the homicide case was still hard to fathom given the extent of his son’s injuries.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, he said, may have been trying to avoid a manslaughter case linked to inmates at Santa Rita Jail.
“It would be unrealistic for us to think that they weren’t trying to justify what they did,” Hermon said. That may also be why they tried to explain the death away as a freak accident tied to Hermon’s medical history from the beginning, he added.
“They want it to disappear,” Hermon said. “It seems very strange. There are more questions than answers here.”
Hermon said he wished he’d been able to do more to track down those answers in the year after his son’s death. But it had been too much for him to handle emotionally.
“Every time I began to work on it, it would just drive me into a hole in the ground,” Hermon said. “Even though I’ve come to grips with him being gone, it’s going to be the tragedy of my life forever.”
Hermon said he believed Santa Rita Jail should take more responsibility for his son’s death. According to the official reports, the jail was aware that Michael and the unnamed inmate were having problems: It had ended their bunkmate arrangement as a result of the tension but did not transfer either man to another housing unit. And why was a man linked to numerous jail fights, one of which had broken his hand, being held in a minimum-security area?
“I’d still say it’s a wrongful death. Michael was in jail where he was supposed to be kind of protected. He was struck in the face and he died,” Hermon said. “In the end, I just mourn my son.”
Alek Hermon said it is still hard not to know the name of the man who killed his father. And he wonders whether his father’s life might have been saved had he received medical intervention for his injuries sooner, or had other tests been done.
Alek also said he feared, from the way the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office handled his father’s death, for others who died there who may not have had families to advocate for them or seek answers on their behalf.
“But he does,” he said. “They can’t just sweep this under the rug. The only real recourse is to try to generate public awareness. Which feels like it’s not really enough.”