Inmate who agreed to stay in Cook County Jail to avoid immigration trouble lost life to COVID-19 instead

Tribune Content Agency

CHICAGO — In early March, Rene Olivo Sangabriel was just one among the thousands of Cook County Jail inmates who would soon find themselves in the devastating path of COVID-19.

Sangabriel, 42, locked up since October 2019 on an 8-year-old outstanding warrant after picking up a second felony DUI charge, appeared in court March 5 for a fairly routine status hearing. His attorney told the judge that Sangabriel had 46 days left in a drug and alcohol treatment program at the jail and that he wanted to finish the program before entering a plea.

“I think let’s go to the end of the program,” Judge Diana Kenworthy agreed, according to a court transcript. “I don’t want them to remove him from the program and have any changes. … What’s a good date?”

“How about Cinco de Mayo,” responded attorney Domingo F. Vargas.

“By agreement May 5 for a plea,” Kenworthy responded.

The plan to delay Sangabriel’s plea two months and keep him at the jail made perfect sense at the time, Vargas said.

Court officials had already indicated Sangabriel, who was living in the United States without legal permission, was likely facing a prison sentence on his new charges. Vargas and Sangabriel determined the risk that immigration officials would find him was higher in the Illinois Department of Corrections so they wanted him to burn time as possible at the jail.

“He was scared like all immigrants,” said his niece, Adriana Sangabriel, who said her uncle felt that leaving the jail would put him in the “arms of immigration.”

“He wanted to wait there,” she said.

In the end, it was COVID-19 that caught Sangabriel.

The virus had made its way into the jail at least by March 23, when the first two cases were reported. The spread would continue until it reached Sangabriel, who on March 30 was transported to St. Anthony Hospital. He died there on April 19.

The coronavirus pandemic made hot zones of prisons and jails all over the country, places where the virus could spread at a deadly pace due to space constrictions. And for critics of the system, it has only underscored the dangers that detainees and inmates are put in because of what they describe as an overreliance on detention in the name of public safety.

And, when the pandemic hit, they said, a push to release detainees failed to address enough people, including Sangabriel, a jovial fun-loving uncle and an important part of an extended group of friends and family living in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood.

“Right now, we’re like, ‘Is it him?’,” Veronica Muros, who is married to one of Sangabriel’s cousins, recalled. The family was so shocked to hear Sangabriel had died that they kept refreshing the jail inmate website to see if his picture popped up, Muros said. “I was telling everybody, it’s hard to believe he passed away.”

Sangabriel’s Chicago family and friends, all from his small town of Monte Verde in Mexico, pooled their money to have his remains flown home to his mother and father.

Rene Olivo Sangabriel, who is known in court records as Rene Olivo, came to the United States almost 16 years ago, his family said.

He had been most recently working at a local recycling plant, and shared an apartment with his cousins.

Adriana Sangabriel said her uncle was single here in Chicago and never had kids. But he took good care of her, she said.

“I didn’t see him as an uncle but as a brother because of how he supported me,” she said.

Muros said Sangabriel was the center of family gatherings. In pictures and videos Muros has, Sangabriel dances at parties and sits with family in a warm dining room brightly decorated with blue balloons and colorful with streamers. He love carnitas.

“He used to dance with my kids,” she said.

Sangabriel picked up his first DUI in August 2010 after he failed to reduce speed and struck another vehicle in the 1400 block of South Pulaski Road, according to Chicago police records. He did not have a valid driver’s license and failed field sobriety tests before being charged with a felony count of driving under the influence.

He pleaded guilty in early 2011 and was sentenced to two years’ probation, which included paying restitution, community service and getting drug and alcohol treatment.

A violation of probation was filed against him the following July after he failed to meet any of those conditions. A court date was set to consider the violations, but he never appeared and a warrant was issued.

Eight years later, in October 2019, Sangabriel was pulled over by police after driving erratically, speeding and failing to stop at a stop sign, Chicago police said. He allegedly failed a field sobriety test and was again cited for felony DUI.

He was issued a $1,000 bond on the new DUI charge and was ordered held without bond on the outstanding warrant.

Vargas, who only represented Sangabriel in his 2019 case, said there were immediate discussions with Kenworthy about a potential plea, and it seemed unlikely that he would get sentenced to probation again.

That set the plan in motion for Sangabriel to remain at the jail as long as possible.

Such a calculation is one that criminal defense attorneys make often. Defendants often prefer to be the jail, where it is easier for friends and family to visit.

And a wish to avoid immigration authorities is not unusual, either.

Criminal cases can often trigger proceedings in immigration court, where judges look unfavorably on those who are charged, particularly in the get-tough atmosphere promoted by the Trump administration.

Cook County does not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and does not allow ICE to screen detainees. In February, the Illinois Department of Corrections issued a statement to clarify that it would not hold people solely on the basis of an immigration detainer or nonjudicial immigration warrant and that it was continuing to review policies and procedures and “ensure they protect the rights of immigrants entrusted to our custody.”

Still, Vargas said he was acting in the best interest of Sangabriel, who had lived and worked in the United States for more than a decade and was insistent he not go to IDOC.

“I have been doing this 31 years. He is a human being,” said Vargas. “I have to do whatever I have to do. I am there to represent him to the best of my ability.”

As Sangabriel was biding his time in the jail, Cook County court officials had already launched into emergency mode, trying to figure out how they could reduce the jail population, which stood at 5,600 earlier this year. Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli filed a motion for centralized, consolidated bail reviews, in which a judge could potentially approve the mass release of hundreds of detainees at once.

Those Campanelli sought to included those held on low-level nonviolent charges like the DUI case Sangabriel faced.

But Criminal Division Presiding Judge LeRoy Martin Jr. rejected the call for en masse releases, saying that bond should be considered on a case-by-case basis even if prosecutors and public defenders agree that a defendant should be released.

That left private attorneys like Vargas to navigate a totally new and confusing situation at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, where operations had been initially reduced to just two court calls.

When asked why he did not prepare a new motion to get Sangabriel out, Vargas said he made a few phone calls to try to reach Sangabriel to see if the plan should change but failed.

Vargas, who also is the mayor of Blue Island, noted that he never received a call from Sangabriel, who remained inside in his bid to avoid ICE, and said he wasn’t aware that Sangabriel had any preexisting conditions that could put him at greater risk.

Vargas also said he expected it would be an uphill battle getting Sangabriel released, considering the case was moving toward a plea and a prison sentence.

Two weeks after Sangabriel was transferred to the hospital, the Cook County sheriff’s office tracked down Vargas to tell him Sangabriel was ill, according to a statement from Sheriff Tom Dart’s office.

“When we reached the attorney, our staff informed him of his client’s health concerns, and asked him to review the case to see if a bond reduction hearing was appropriate,” the statement read.

Vargas drew up the motion on or about April 15 and was working, with help from the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, to get the case on the court call. Sangabriel died two days later.

The family was aware Sangabriel was ill because he told one of his cousins during a phone call. They encouraged him to seek medical care.

“Mija, I’m sick,” Adriana Sangabriel said he told her. “He was supposedly feeling better. He would say he was still coughing. We never thought he would die like this.”

They never learned he had been diagnosed with COVID-19 or taken to a local hospital until a few days after he died, they said, when the Mexican Consulate in Chicago called them.

In the statement, Dart’s office said Sangabriel did not include a phone number on his contact information.

The last time Muros saw Sangabriel was at his March 5 court date. She recalled that when he walked into court, he looked back, lifted his head and gave her a short wave.

Muros said she knew that her cousin was worried about being deported if he wound up in the Illinois Department of Corrections. Thinking back now, she knows that going to a state prison would have been the better choice.

Some wonder, though, if there wasn’t a way for officials in the Cook County court system to have caught Sangabriel’s case in a more comprehensive review of lower-level nonviolent felonies.

“The risk of loss of life is so high,” said Sarah Staudt, a senior policy analyst and staff attorney at the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, said in arguing for a better effort. “Finding a single person to blame is not the game. That is not what we are trying to do. The question what are we doing as a system to get as many people to safety as possible.”

For now, though, Sangabriel’s family really want people to know this: their cousin was a good man. He had his troubles. But he was funny, he took care of people, and was dedicated to his work.

“He made a mistake. The law is the law but I think we all commit mistakes,” said Adriana Sangabriel. “I know that my uncle was a good person. Everyone from our town put money together to send his ashes back to Mexico. We thank them all for everything. His mom thanks everyone.”

Sangabriel’s mother back in Mexico built an altar for her son as she awaited his ashes, which arrived Friday, the family said. The alter is adorned with candles, fresh flowers, and a crucifix, with Sangabriel’s photo in the center.


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