E’ville Archive: A Fiery 1982 Halloween Death at the Emeryville Police Station
If you happen to be arrested or detained in Emeryville, you’ll likely be transported to an Oakland or County jail. The reasons are that the Emeryville Police Station no longer has a holding facility. They haven’t since shortly after 1982 when a 20-year-old women was burned alive in a cell.
On Halloween evening in 1982 just before midnight, Mercedes Banks was arrested by the Emeryville Police for public intoxication. According to a 1982 SF Examiner Newspaper archive, a patrol officer spotted her walking on traffic lanes at the intersection of Yerba Buena Street & San Pablo Avenue. The officer arrested Banks and transported her to the station on a charge of public drunkenness.
According to the police report, while Banks was being booked at the station, she became argumentative and attacked the matron causing bruises to her legs and the arresting officer. Banks was placed in one of the stations four holding cells “to calm down.” Officers confiscated 13 loose wooden matches they found on her prior to placing her in the cell alone.
At 1:47 a.m., the A/V system used to monitor the cells alerted officers to smoke coming from under Banks’ solid cell door. Two officers responded by attempting to contain the flames with a dry chemical extinguisher, but they were overcome by smoke and unsuccessful. Firefighters arrived shortly after, but Banks had already succumbed to smoke inhalation and burns.
It was later determined that the fire originated from the mattress in Banks’ cell. The source of ignition was originally thought to be a concealed match, but a small disposable lighter was later found near the door. The mattress had been pushed against the cell door before it was set aflame.
“All we can say is that it [the fire] was deliberately set,” said then Sergeant Joe Maltby, who performed the investigation. “We don’t know why.”
Police Lieutenant Dave Reno noted that the monitoring cameras cover the hallway, but not the inside of the cells. Only one of the cells was equipped with a smoke detector, a padded cell next to where Banks’ was being held. Emeryville’s facility, built in 1972, was exempt from new regulations that required each cell to be equipped with its own smoke detector.
A Troubled Past
Mercy was born in the Philippines but grew up in neighboring Berkeley. According to interviews with relatives, alcohol was a recurring problem throughout her youth and she began drinking as early as ten years old. She had been hospitalized throughout her youth for drug treatment and at one point served time in a juvenile hall. She dropped out of high school as a teen and was unemployed at the time of her death.
Banks was living with her boyfriend in Oakland at the time but frequently visited her parents who lived nearby. Police said she bad been arrested in Oakland at least twice for public drunkenness. Her relatives acknowledged other arrests for the same offense. “If she was drinking, she was a handful,” her father conceded. “It would take two cops to handle her.”
“I can Imagine her being drunk. but not to do that to herself,” said Jeanie Mazariegos, the oldest of her three sisters.
Internal Affairs Investigation
An Internal Affairs investigation followed and The City was found to be deficient in their Standards & Training for Corrections (STC). One factor was that only one female officer was on duty to both subdue Banks and perform a proper body search.
Instead of bringing the jail up to these standards and hiring additional personnel, Emeryville opted to contract detention services with Oakland. Oakland in turn closed their Glenn E. Dyer jail for seismic and budgetary reasons in 2004. Emeryville now contracts with North County (Downtown Oakland) and Santa Rita (Dublin).
The incident happened amidst a shakeup within our local government as notorious Police Chief John Lacoste was ousted shortly after. Lacoste resigned in 1983 after being accused of a variety of indiscretions including drinking on the job.
City Loses Lawsuit
A lawsuit for Mercy’s death ensued where the Banks family argued that their daughter’s death was the result of inadequate supervision and the presence of dangerous materials. The City argued that her Death was a suicide and that the fire was the result of a defective, flammable mattress.
The City filed a third-party complaint seeking indemnification from the various parties who were responsible for manufacturing, distributing, and selling the mattress involved in Banks’ death. The third-party defendants in-turn filed a motion to dismiss this complaint.
A six-member jury found that poor supervision and training of jail staff indeed contributed to Mercy’s death. They jury ruled that the Banks family were entitled to $230,000 from the city and $435,000 from Lacoste.