Dear San Diego, What Happened To Frederick Jefferson?

September 7, 2018

We are taking a break from reporting on our usual subject matter - San Diego hospitality happenings, events, and food news - to focus on another topic, mainly because of the ineptitude of our local mainstream media, which is failing to diligently investigate and report. What happened to Frederick Jefferson? He was sentenced to 7 years for assaulting an SDPD officer one week ago today and was found dead in his prison cell in the early morning hours. Only one media outlet has published information on his death mentioning him by name. The circumstances surrounding his death remain unknown.

It has been one week since Frederick Jefferson, age 39, was sentenced to seven years in prison for one count of felony assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury and two counts of resisting an officer. The following morning, Jefferson was found dead in his prison cell. At this point, only one media outlet, NBC 7 San Diego, has reported these details.

So let's set the stage for what happened on Saturday, February 3, 2018. What led to Jefferson's arrest and ultimate conviction? There was a scheduled rally of far-right group Patriot Prayer at the historic Chicano Park in San Diego's Barrio Logan community, entitled Patriot Picnic 2.0. The controversial organization, which frequently targets liberal or culturally significant locations for their gatherings, was protesting the park with allegations that it discriminates against non-Latinos and had a "radical political theme." Patriot Prayer meet-ups have been known to include members of white nationalist groups and are usually met with counter-protestors who believe the picnics have racial undertones. Protests and counter-protests occurred on the day in question. As you can imagine, with such a politically-charged event, tensions were high and there was a substantial police presence in the area.

Police had strategically set up barriers to keep the protestors contained and to ensure their safety as they were escorted away. Approximately 200 yards from Patriot Picnic 2.0, Frederick Jefferson - an unarmed, homeless, black man - was jaywalking down a closed off stretch of Logan Avenue toward police barriers near Chicano Park with the aim of reaching a restaurant destination to "eat pancakes with a friend." Information revealed from officer reports, witnesses, and as deduced from watching various videos varies. What we do know from the one released officer body camera and numerous bystander videos is that police requested that Jefferson leave the street and when he continued on his path, two officers, Matthew Ruggiero and Justin Tennebaum, left their police cruiser and approached him.

Although police reports about the incident claim that Jefferson "sucker punched" Ruggiero, civilian video of the confrontation and an officer body camera show third-generation San Diego Police Officer Matthew Ruggiero was the first to hit Jefferson with his baton, at which time Jefferson responded by attempting to block the strike with his forearm and then threw punches at the officer, which reportedly caused Ruggiero's injuries, including a broken nose and jaw. A fight between the officers and Jefferson continued until Jefferson was taken down by a motorcycle patrolman, believed to be Officer James Graves. At that time, no less than 8 police officers can be seen swarming, tazing, and pepper-spraying Jefferson. The below video compilation by The Southwestern College Sun attempts to document the incident. You can see that Jefferson was tazed and pepper sprayed while on the ground, even after he was physically detained by multiple SDPD officers.

"I thought I had a duty to protect myself from what I thought was unjust tyranny," Frederick Jefferson said during his trial.

Witness Octavio Hernandez, who was near the incident, testified that Ruggiero and Tennebaum drove past Jefferson in their police car and yelled at him to get out of the road, and when he kept walking, the officers backed up their police cruiser and threatened to arrest him if he did not leave the street, which was reportedly closed so that SDPD could escort the Patriot Prayer protesters from Chicano Park after their event. Hernandez stated that the officers exited their car, approached Jefferson from behind and each grabbed one of his arms, but Jefferson shook free and begain to walk backwards when Ruggiero clubbed him numerous times and a melee ensued. Another witness, Alexis Del Castillo, described the same timeline of events, which can be confirmed upon review of footage from the body camera that was on Tennenbaum at the time.

Chula Vista resident and Southwestern College Sun reporter Katy Stegall, age 24, was covering the Patriot Picnic that day, and she has been one of the primary journalists reporting on Jefferson's case ever since. Being empassioned by what she believes to be an injustice and abuse of power, she even went so far as sitting down for two 30-minute interviews with Jefferson at the Bailey Detention Facility in Otay Mesa. She reported that Jefferson claimed that officers initiated the confrontation, he was trying to back away, and he was not even aware of the Patriot Picnic event. The Sun, a college newspaper, was also the only media outlet to document and film the entire trial.

"I wanted to put distance in there because I was afraid they were going to Rodney King my ass," Jefferson said in an interview with Stegall.

The Southwestern College Sun also reported that Officer Ruggiero had been outspoken on social media in the past about his dislike of civilians who video tape police encounters. He had also made numerous posts critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“I’m tired of hearing people call these black activists,” started the quote posted by Ruggiero on his  Facebook Page. “They’re not black activists, this is black slime and it needs to be eradicated from the American society and culture.”

After the report was published by Southwestern College Sun about Ruggiero's social media posts, the 38-year-old police officer reportedly deleted his perceivably controversial posts and either deactivated or changed his Facebook account's privacy settings. 
A compilation of screenshots
from Ruggiero's social media
published by The Sun.

Following the February 3rd incident, Jefferson was brought into police custody and charged with four felonies, including assault with a deadly weapon (his forearm block), resisting arrest, and assault on a police officer. He was held at the George F. Bailey Detention Center on $250,000 bond. Jefferson claimed that he was denied medical treatment for more than a month despite severe bruising and wounds to his neck, shoulders and arm. He had allegedly submitted at least five formal written medical requests. SDPD spokesperson, Lt. Scott Wahl, and then-San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman claimed during interviews that Jefferson was not hurt by police, but Judge Majors-Lewis ordered that he be afforded medical treatment. Zimmerman retired on March 1, 2018.

At trial Jefferson pleaded "not guilty" on all counts while prosecution sought a prison-term of nine years. On August 3, 2018, a jury unanimously found him guilty under Penal Code sections: 245(c)- Assault of a peace officer or firefighter with a deadly weapon, 12022.7 (a)- Inflicting Great Bodily Injury, and 69 (a)- Felony Resisting an Officer. On August 31, 2018, Jefferson was sentenced to 7 years in prison. He was also expected to be extradited to Baltimore on charges related to a 2009 rape, after authorities identified him as a suspect when San Diego police entered a sample of Jefferson’s DNA in a national law enforcement database. On Monday, September 3, NBC 7 San Diego reported that Jefferson had died and that "the Medical Examiner's Office confirmed to NBC 7 that Jefferson's body was in their possession but did not confirm how or when he died." Apparently the NBC 7 report stemmed from information contained in a press release issued by the San Diego County Sheriff's Department Homicide Unit, dated September 1, 2018 at 2:17am (see below)
The press release about Jefferson's death issued by the San Diego Sheriff's Department on September 1 at 2:17am.

So, back to the original question. What happened to Frederick Jefferson? And why is it that only a college newspaper is actually looking into this situation? Why is it that only one local media outlet is reporting that Jefferson has been found dead while in custody? We reached out by email to the San Diego Police Chief, the City Attorney's Office, the San Diego Sheriff's Department, the San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Assemblyman Todd Gloria (only because of his perceived trustworthiness) for comment on the death of Frederick Jefferson, but have not received a response by the time of publishing other than a "no comment" by the ACLU. Anyone with more information on this case, please email us at [email protected].