Crime and Punishment San Joaquin Valley Style
Home of the “Bakersfield Sound”: Buck Owens, whose song, “The Streets of Bakersfield” gave us our own gritty anthem; Bakersfield’s own Merle “The Hag” Haggard with his prison songs, like “Mama Tried,” and whose ditty, “Okie From Muskogee,” helped define the conservative, middle-class all across America, but most especially in his hometown of Bakersfield where the boxcar he was born in is proudly enshrined in the Bakersfield museum’s, Pioneer Village.
Bakersfield: home to Owens and Haggard, and the others who worked in relative obscurity in the city’s background, like Semie Moseley, guitar-maker for such as The Ventures, in the 50s, The Ramones and Glenn Campbell, in the 60s, and most recently, Kurt Cobain. All combining to help mold the soul of this ah shucks community, known by country music aficionados throughout America as Nashville West.
Bakersfield, the 53rd most populous city in the U.S., 9th in California, and the largest in Kern County, where their miles of oilfields vie for breathing rights with mighty agriculture.
Bakersfield: the birthplace of one of the most brutal and sadistic murderers in our town’s memory ….
More about Jaime Osuna in a moment. I had intended this to be a story about him, but it grew way beyond his personal brand of butchery and shined the spotlight on the most inhumane and brutal prison in the California state prison system.
Combine the two, and the sparks fly.
Kern County is sunk into the deepest part of the southern basin of the San Joaquin Valley. The valley stretches north from Kern, some 260 miles across a full belly of land, spawning endless cotton fields, almond and orange orchards, symmetrical grape fields, and prisons, on its way to the county that bears the valley’s name: San Joaquin.
Generation after generation of farmers, good people, conservative people, politically plodding, slow-to-change people (whose thousands of wells have pumped so much groundwater since the 1920s that sections of the fertile basin have sunk as much as 28 feet) — good, conservative, plodding people who have given the valley the title of the feeders of the world.
And irony of ironies, “Fresno, Modesto, and Bakersfield,” according to the New York Times Magazine article (10/10/ 2012), “are three of the five poorest cities in the United States.”
Poverty can do horrible things to people.
Poverty can suck their souls dry.
Poverty has glutted our streets with the detritus of wasted lives, and not just Bakersfield’s indigenous downtrodden. The Bakersfield Californian newspaper reports, “The Los Angeles area ships more of its discards to Kern County than people here might ever have thought possible.” They go on to explain how L.A’s recently evicted families were given one-way tickets to Lancaster, (roughly midway between L.A. and Bakersfield), on the promise of jobs and low-cost housing. When that fell through, Lancaster practiced “what was once known in the business as Greyhound therapy. A bus ticket” [to Bakersfield], “a sack lunch, problem solved — or at least deferred.”
Once you get past humming the catchy tune of “The Streets of Bakersfield,” you can find yourself left with a sense of desolation in its refrain:
“Hey, you don’t know me, but you don’t like me
You say you care less how I feel
But how many of you that sit and judge me
Ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?”
Many of the valley’s destitute don’t just populate the prison songs of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, but also the prisons, themselves, many of them right here in the San Joaquin Valley — and one of those bearing the reputation as the deadliest in the United States: Corcoran State Prison.
Corcoran becomes, then, the real subject of my article. It is linked, only incidentally to, and upstages, the savagery of the aforementioned Jaime Osuna, a product of Bakersfield.
Jaime Osuna introduces himself
As I watched the video¹ of the jailhouse interview with Jaime Osuna, I was struck with the thought that if you could mentally erase the tattoos that masked his face, you’d see a strikingly handsome young man with large, limpid brown eyes and a full, expressive mouth. You’d hardly imagine that person behind the tattoos as being capable of the atrocities that Osuna committed in 2011 when he tortured and then murdered Yvette Pena, a 37-year old mother of six.
“I don’t have no sympathy,” he told KGET, channel 17's Olivia LaVoice¹ in a 2017 Lerdo jailhouse interview:
“I’m sadistic. I really don’t care. I’ll do it and I’ll do it again, over and over and over.” He called it a rush. “It’s an addiction. I’d rather do that than do drugs. I’d rather do that than have sex with the beautifulest fucking woman in the world.”
The investigative reporter, LaVoice, must have been stunned when Jaime Osuna then admitted to two more unsolved murders, one a 27 and the other a 34-year-old female, both committed when he was 13. He stopped short of disclosing where he disposed of the bodies. He did add, though, “But the orchards I can say. Kern County has a lot of orchards.”
During his trial, cameras in the courtroom caught Osuna smiling and waving at Yvette Pena’s sister, at other times drumming his fingertips together and yawning. At one point during the sentencing phase, Pena’s sister voiced her simple hope that someday he would stop smiling and feel remorse for what he did. At that, Osuna slowly shook his head and mouthed the words over and over, “No, no, no, no.”
In anti-climactic fashion, Jaime Osuna accepted a plea deal, trading the death penalty for life in prison — for which he gave the judge a thumbs up!
Jaime Osuna’s bus ride to Corcoran
Seasoned prisoners would tell you there are things worse than receiving the death penalty.
Topping their list would be serving a life sentence at Corcoran State Prison. In fact, you might even say it was the legal system’s highest expression of irony. Kind of like if Jaime Osuna’s judge, with a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth, announced, “Life … without the possibility of parole at … Corcoran State Prison!”
Hardened criminals break down crying when they’re told they are being transferred to Corcoran.² I mean, they had to have heard through the prison grapevine about the “gladiator fights” and the weekly ritual the Corcoran guards looked so forward to, called, “The Greeting of the Bus.”
As the bus pulled inside the gates of Corcoran, the prisoners would be trying to still their trembling lips as they stared through the bus windows at the guards, pulling on their leather gloves, their name-tags covered in black tape. They watched some guards doing pre-game calisthenics; some would be slapping their batons in their open palms.
We won’t know — because there won’t be any record of this part — whether Jaime Osuna might have been one of those whose face was pressed to the window. We do know from one of the former guard’s statements, a subsequent whistleblower with the unlikely name of Roscoe Pondexter, that as soon as the big gate closed and the bus pulled to a stop, the guards characteristically swarmed it.
In Richard Stratton’s Esquire article, The Making of Bonecrusher,² this is how Pondexter said the “greeting of the bus” typically came down:
“There, two guards take you, one on each arm, and they lift you off the steps, and you feel the handcuffs bite deeply into your wrists. A third guard grips your balls and drags you off the bus.
“The rest of the guards have formed a gantlet. They might punch you hard with their gloved fists, take full cuts with their batons at the backs of your legs, kick you with steel-toed boots.”
All the prisoners ended up going through the gauntlet, but the first had probably been pre-identified as the meanest, most bad-assed sonofabitch of the lot, and he got the guards’ extra special treatment. And at the end of the gauntlet stood the burliest, surliest of the guards — at the time it was the six-foot-seven, 270-muscled-pounds of the Bonecrusher, himself— who had his own unique way of welcoming the newcomer.
He would wrap his huge hands around the prisoner’s throat, lifting him off the ground while another guard grabbed him by the balls and yanked hard. Bonecrusher is face-to-face with the prisoner.
Bonecrusher delights in the skill it takes to leave a scumbag just enough breath to remain conscious enough to hear his words.
“Whatever your life in prison was before, it’s over! Welcome to hell!”
By the time Jaime Osuna’s bus arrived, in March of 2017, Roscoe Pondexter was no longer a guard at Corcoran. He had been fired on trumped-up charges seventeen years earlier, shortly after he had been given immunity in exchange for testifying at the forthcoming grand jury trial against eight Corcoran guards.
The Trial of Eight
In what would be promoted as the Trial of Eight, the guards were accused of setting up inmate gladiator fights for their (the guards’) amusement and wagering, over the period from 1989 to 1995 … during the course of which, a total of seven inmates were killed by guards’ gunfire. Another 43 were seriously wounded, with at least one totally paralyzed.
The trial lasted nine weeks, and after only six hours of deliberation, the jury returned the verdict of not guilty. Afterward, the Jury Foreman, William Lee, shook the defense attorney’s hand and told him what a great job he had done.
Los Angeles Times reporter, Mark Arax,³ writes:
“Federal prosecutors conceded months ago that taking on corrections officers in the state’s conservative farm belt, where half a dozen sprawling state prisons light up the night sky and where guards double as Little League coaches, was an uphill climb.”
Then, buffering his argument, he pointed out how Judge Ishii refused to disqualify two of the jurors: Dorene Delt, who “was a corrections officer at the Madera County Jail,” and the other juror who had an application pending for a job as a prison guard. Furthermore, as a final nail in the prosecution’s coffin, Judge Ishii disallowed any testimony about the code of silence so prevalent among guards in the prison system.
“The fear of being blackballed and labeled a “rat,” federal prosecutors said during the trial, “might have helped the jury understand why at least one former guard called as a government witness backed away from her grand jury testimony. The witness then went out of her way to praise the accused officers in open court.”
But that was all the way back in 2000.
One could only expect that the trial, while exonerating the guards, would at least awaken Corcoran to a need for drastic change. You would assume that monumental change had been made from 2000 to the present. Wouldn’t you?
Their look-the-other-way warden, George Smith, quietly retired. It was he who Pondexter nicknamed “Mushroom George, because ‘he liked to be kept in the dark and fed shit.’”
Associate Warden, Bruce Farris was dismissed for his role in organizing one of the “greet the bus” incidents that turned particularly brutal. And you might think, “Hey, that’s movement in the right direction.” But, that dismissal was promptly overturned by Sacramento Superior Court judge, Cecily Bond, and Farris was reinstated with back pay.
So what changes did take place over the last 17 years? Well, it’s part of the public record that there have been no more inmate murders committed by correctional officers, as they prefer to be called.
That’s progress, isn’t it?
But let’s move a little closer to the target.
And the beat goes on …
- January 2001. A California Prison Focus⁴ report describes a Corcoran Prison incident thus: “guards knowingly allowed an armed prisoner into the cell of an inmate who was then stabbed 17 times and staff did not intervene.”
- September 2002. According to a prisoner-advocacy group report,⁵ Corcoran State Prison officials were guilty of “staff misconduct, medical neglect and health and safety violations.” Guards were accused of baiting prisoners into committing acts that were then punishable according to prison rules.
- February 2004. A Sikh priest, and inmate of Corcoran prison since August of 2001 (where he had been staging hunger strikes off and on since his incarceration), starved to death, under the noses of the correction officers. His weight had plummeted to 80 pounds, and according to officials with the state Department of Corrections,⁶ “He was not being monitored at the time for weight or fluid loss.”
- February 2004. A 58-year-old inmate was allowed to bleed to death during the Superbowl.⁷ He was on dialysis and had pulled the shunt from his arm causing the hemorrhage. The correctional officers ignored his cries for help owing to their involvement in the televised Superbowl game. Kings County prosecutors investigated the incident. Results are not available.
- February 2004. Linda Brock, a 43-year-old Corcoran Correctional Officer was arrested for a murder-for-hire plot⁸ with an inmate she was having sex with. The hitman was to be the inmate’s contact outside the prison. The target was Brock’s husband.
Added Incident of March 8, 2017
One can only wonder what the lights-out conversation was between the two prisoners on the evening of March 8, 2017. Had they been reminiscing the details of their crimes?
Luis Romero was serving a life sentence for 2nd-degree murder in Los Angeles County, but he was eligible for parole review. Jaime Osuna was the new kid on the prison block at Corcoran, serving life without parole, for the torture-murder of that Bakersfield mother of six.
Jaime may have shared his excitement about the other murders he wasn’t charged with. If they got to the point of sharing childhood memories, Jaime would find it hard to resist telling Luis how, when his mom was away (which was often), he would put one of their household cats in the freezer for 15 minutes, then take it out and put it in the oven for another 15 minutes. Things like that.
Reputation was important among prisoners. Jaime’s rep was pretty well established early on at Corcoran when he threw a carton of blood in a guard’s face. Prison reports didn’t explain where he got the blood. The prison was always frugal in the details they disclosed to the press.
It left a lot to the press’s imagination. It raised questions, later on, like, “Why would Corcoran put two convicted murderers in the same cell?” Or this — especially this: “How did it happen that a razor, affixed to a crude wooden handle by string wound around it, was found in Osuna’s cell on the morning of March 9th, when Romero’s mutilated body was discovered by the correctional officers during their morning rounds?”
The coroner later suggested that Romero’s death came slowly. So, why did no one hear his cries? Was the prison once more asleep at the wheel? Why was no one reviewing the cell monitor?
What the correctional officers reportedly discovered at 7:30 on the morning of March 9th was Luis Romero’s head severed from his torso. One of his eyes had been carved out. Also, a finger removed. And an ear. Could these last three mentioned acts have been the torture before the murder that gave Osuna his rush? Removing Romero’s head must have been a test of Osuna’s patience. It couldn’t have been easy. Probably his final ritualistic procedure was to remove one of Romero’s lungs.
Osuna was quietly waiting for the Correctional Officers’ arrival. He probably wondered what took them so long. Perhaps dozed off a time or two during the early morning hours.
Jaime Osuna awaits his trial scheduled for sometime in September. Of course, you would hope he will not share a cell with another prisoner. More than likely, he will be housed in the SHU, a structure built specifically to segregate the more notable prisoners from the general prison population: Sirhan Sirhan, Charles Manson (until his recent death paroled him), the serial killer, Juan Corona, and another serial killer, who’d even appeared on “The Dating Game,”⁹ Rodney Alcala.
It is almost a sure thing that Osuna will get the death penalty this time around.
Meanwhile, Roscoe “Bonecrusher” Pondexter is a 60-year-old, living in Fresno, California; he’s a regular churchgoer and holds a bachelor’s degree in Sociology.
Former Corcoran Warden, George Smith is retired. When subpoenaed to testify about his involvement in the “gladiator games” he pled the 5th.
After Associate Warden, Bruce Farris was reinstated, he accepted an Associate Warden position at the Susanville State Prison, in California.
Ken Clark has been warden of Corcoran since 2018.
And right here in Bakersfield — my hometown — as I put this post to bed, I hear on the KGET Channel 17 News that Charles “Fuzzy” Owen, the founder of the original Bakersfield Sound has slipped peacefully, uneventfully, into the eternal night. He was 91.
¹Video excerpt from Olivia LaVoice’s jailhouse interview with Osuna.
²The Making of Bonecrusher, by Richard Stratton, Esquire Magazine, 1/29/2007.
³Eight Prison Guards are Acquitted in Corcoran Battles, by Mark Arax, Los Angeles Times Reporter.
⁴Inmate Stabbed 17 Times, By Cindy Carcamo, The Fresno Bee, 9/27/2002.
⁵Prisoner-Advocacy Group Report, Ibid.
⁶Prisoner Allowed to Starve to Death, By Mark Arax, Los Angeles Times Staff Reporter.
⁷Man Allowed to Bleed to Death, Associated Press.
⁹Serial Killer on Dating Game, YouTube video.