Once-secret trial probing 2015 PG&E explosion at sheriff’s range, now open to public

Once-secret trial probing 2015 PG&E explosion at sheriff’s range, now open to public

The Fresno Bee

By Pablo Lopez

A trial that Fresno County wanted to keep closed to the public began Thursday with a former inmate testifying that he was working without compensation when he was severely injured in the 2015 PG&E pipeline explosion at the Sheriff’s Foundation shooting range.

Efrain Garcia also testified that Sheriff Margaret Mims never visited him in the hospital. Instead, a sheriff’s sergeant visited Garcia and filled out a worker’s compensation form for him without his knowledge.

The trial is in the Hugh Burns State Building in downtown Fresno in front of a worker’s compensation judge because sheriff’s officials contend the inmates were county employees. If the judge rules in the county’s favor, the medical bills of the injured inmates will be paid through the state program, greatly reducing the county’s financial burden.

More importantly for Fresno County, the inmates wouldn’t be able to sue the Sheriff’s Office for negligence which could result in costly damages.

The explosion happened April 17, 2015, when a county worker operating a front loader ruptured an underground gas line at the range near Herndon Avenue and Highway 99, just south of the San Joaquin River. The resulting explosion left one jail inmate dead and 12 others injured.

In February 2016, the state Public Utilities Commission determined Fresno County was responsible for the explosion. The 27-page commission report found no wrongdoing on the part of PG&E. Damage to the gas line and lost gas came to about $1.95 million, the report said.

The trial had a bumpy start. In June, Judge Thomas J. Heslin closed the proceedings after lawyers for the county made a motion to exclude all news organizations and the public.

The Bee challenged the county’s motion on the grounds that the case is of public interest and closing it would be unconstitutional. After a hearing in July, Heslin ruled in favor of The Bee and opened the proceedings.

Mims is on the witness list because soon after the explosion, her staff visited all of the injured inmates in the hospital to collect signatures on worker’s compensation forms, according to the inmates’ lawyers.

The trial is expected to take several days because several inmates are expected to testify.

In the trial, the county’s lawyers, David H. Parker and David Overstreet IV, contend the inmates fall under the state workers’ compensation program because they were compensated with additional family visits. But the inmates’ lawyers – Warren Paboojian, Ara Jabagchourian, Lazaro Salazar, Thomas Tusan and Laura Brown – say their clients were never county employees and were never told about the extra family visits, nor did the inmates take them.

The inmates’ lawyers contend the county’s move to label the inmates as county workers is a sneaky way to avoid liability. In addition, they said the evidence will show that Mims and her staff treated the inmates like “slaves” since they were never compensated with money or early release from prison for their work at the shooting range.

“They were told they would get fresh air and exercise,” Jabagchourian said. “All the things they told slaves.”

Through a Spanish translator, Garcia testified he was in jail for misdemeanor drunken driving. He later pleaded no contest to the charge.

Garcia said jail officials told him and other inmates they were going to the shooting range to pick up spent bullets. “I was there against my will,” he testified.

Parker, however, contended Garcia knew he was an employee. But Garcia said: “I was put to work by the county of Fresno. I was not working for them.”

Garcia said he never signed a written contract to work for the county and was never told he would get extra family visits or get released early from jail. He received no money, he said.

In addition, he testified he had never seen the 44-page inmate handbook that outlines inmates’ rights.

Garcia said he was severely burned in the explosion and was still in pain when a sergeant visited him in the hospital. Garcia testified he never saw the worker’s compensation form, which was in English. Garcia testified he can only read, write and speak Spanish.

The form, entered as evidence, shows that the sergeant noted that Garcia was unable to write his signature because his hands were severely burned.

Parker asked Garcia several times if he was a county employee, but Garcia told the judge: “I was forced to go out that day.”

The questioning got testy when Parker accused the inmates’ lawyers of coaching Garcia and the other inmates who are expected to testify. The accusation prompted Paboojian to shoot out of his chair and tell Parker: “The only one not telling the truth is you, so quit harassing my client.”

Following Garcia’s testimony, former inmate Kao Hang said he was in jail on a domestic violence charge and that jail guards ordered him to pick up bullets at the shooting range. He agreed to go, he said, because if he had said no, the guards would have made his life miserable.

Hang said he recalled witnessing an inmate saying no to a guard. The inmate was taken away to an unknown location, he said. “When he came back, he had bruises,” Hang said.

Hang suffered severe burns to his neck and ears in the explosion.

The explosion severely injured Hang’s neck and ears. Hang recalled going to the hospital where a sheriff’s official showed him a worker’s compensation form that had been filled out. He testified he did not fill out the form or review it before he signed it.

Because of conflicts in the judge’s and lawyers’ schedules, the trial will resume on Dec. 5.