- Photo by Kelly Davis
After her husband Richard died, Dorcie Dawson covered the glass-front cabinets in the living room of the couple’s North Park apartment with black paper. She didn’t want to look at the things he’d given her—the little clown dolls, the tiny glass angel in a red velvet box that he brought her when she was in the hospital.
“I feel my grief; I don’t want to see it,” she’d tell people.
Richard Dawson was found dead in his cell in the San Diego Central Jail at close to midnight on March 28, the fifth person to die in county custody this year. The coroner ruled his death a homicide, the result of strangulation. No one was charged, and the main suspect, Brandon Mason, was found hanging in his Central Jail cell on April 25. Though resuscitated, Mason was removed from life support a week later. San Diego Sheriff’s Det. Brian Patterson told CityBeat that charges were going to be filed against Mason, but he died before that could happen.
Dorcie doesn’t know anything about Mason—but she doesn’t believe he killed her husband. She said that doubts have been nagging at her from the moment she learned how Richard died—information it took her awhile to get. She’d received a call from the medical examiner on March 29, telling her Richard was dead, but it was a month before she was able to track down Patterson, the homicide detective assigned to the case. She recalls him saying that Richard’s cellmate had killed him and then killed himself. She remembers telling him she was frustrated that no one from the Sheriff’s Department had contacted her. “A courtesy call would have been nice,” she said. She said Patterson told her he’d let her know if anything developed. This past Tuesday, when CityBeat told Dorcie that the case had been closed, it was the first that she’d heard about it.
Inmate-on-inmate homicide is rare. Of the 78 people who've died in San Diego County jails since 2007—CityBeat's been reporting on the county's high inmate-death rate in an ongoing series of stories—there's only one instance in which an inmate was directly responsible for another's death.
According to Richard Dawson's autopsy report, he was last seen alive at 10:46 a.m. on March 28, per surveillance video. He was in module 7B, which contains 20 cells on two levels. Cell doors are open for part of the day, allowing inmates access to a dayroom on the first level.
According to the medical examiner's report, inmates told sheriff's investigators that Dawson missed lunch. At around 4 p.m., the report says, an inmate went to Dawson's cell to see if he wanted dinner, "but the decedent's cellmate told [the inmate] to leave [Dawson] alone," the report says. The inmate told investigators that Dawson was lying in his bunk, but the report doesn't say whether the inmate gave any details beyond that.
California regulations require deputies to perform hourly safety checks that include "direct visual observation" of each inmate. But it wasn't until 11:30 p.m., 12 hours after he was last seen alive, when Dawson didn't respond during a bed check, that deputies entered his cell and removed a blanket that had been pulled up around his neck. There was blood on the cot's fitted sheet, and Dawson, the report says, "was cold and not breathing." A medical examiner's investigator who arrived several hours later made note of blood spatters under the bunk and on the floor and trauma to Dawson's face and ear. It was obvious that he'd been strangled and had sustained blows to the head. His cellmate "reportedly had a 'swollen' hand," the report says.
None of the inmates in the module reported hearing, or seeing, the two fighting, Patterson said.
Dawson was 48 years old, 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds. He was HIV-positive, but he was strong, Dorcie said.
He'd been to jail before—his rap sheet includes charges for drug possession and, nearly two decades ago, burglary. In early March, Dorcie had bailed him out after he was arrested for assaulting a man who Dorcie said had attacked her. Richard wasn't a violent person, she said, but he was fiercely protective of her.
A week later, on March 12, he was arrested for possession of methamphetamine. Dorcie said Richard was trying to make money to hire a private attorney in the assault case.
Richard always got along with other inmates, Dorcie said. He was a likeable guy—sort of goofy. He wasn't the type of person to pick a fight, but he could hold his own if someone came at him.
"There's no way one guy could get him," she said.
Dorcie last spoke to her husband on March 25 at around 9 p.m., memorialized as a collect call on her phone bill. She remembers asking Richard if he had a cellmate; he told her no. She said this stuck in her mind because it seemed odd.
Detention Services Bureau Commander John Ingrassia said Dawson and Mason shared Cell 10 starting on March 24. Mason was assigned to the top bunk, Dawson to the lower bunk. Module 7B is reserved for inmates in protective custody whose safety would be at risk if they were put in with the jail's general population. Both Dawson and Mason had asked to be placed protective custody, Ingrassia said, though he couldn't disclose why either man made that request.
Dorcie isn't sure why her husband asked for protective custody, but she thinks it had to do with him being HIV-positive. A family member who spoke to CityBeat on the condition that her name and relationship to Mason not be disclosed said the large "SD" tattoos on Mason's neck often led people to assume, wrongly, that he was in a gang. He'd told her that he didn't feel safe in the general population.
Like Richard Dawson, Brandon Mason, who was 29, had been in custody before. A complaint in a recent case shows that at age 16, he was convicted in Sonoma County for assaulting a law-enforcement officer who the family member said was trying to rape Mason's girlfriend. (CityBeat wasn't able to track down details on that case by press time.) He was tried as an adult, she said, and sentenced to five years in prison.
Mason was a good kid who just needed some stability in his life, the family member said. She tried to give him that, but spending most of his teen years in prison had set a foundation that Mason couldn't seem to break free from. He was in and out of prison, usually on a parole violation. In 2012, he was arrested in San Diego for petty theft and breaking into a J.C. Penney. He was homeless at the time, the family member said, and needed food and clothing.
This past January, he was released from prison after serving two years, with no place to go and no personal identification. Mason was told by his parole officer not to leave San Diego County.
"I could wire him money," said the family member, who lives in Northern California, "but he couldn't pick it up because he didn't have a state ID. I couldn't pre-pay a hotel because he didn't have a state ID."
Mason met a woman, Brittany Vinck, and moved into her apartment in Chula Vista. On March 11, according to news reports, he stabbed Vinck while she was taking a shower and fled the scene. Chula Vista police arrested him the following morning. Vinck initially told police that Mason had stabbed her for being unfaithful, but she later recanted. In a May 1 story, NBC 7 San Diego reported that Vinck had written a notarized letter saying she was "high and drunk" that night, had "physically fought" with Mason and stabbed herself in the chest when he told her he was leaving her. He was moving to Northern California, the family member said. He'd gotten the OK from his probation officer. He had a job lined up and a place to stay.
"We wanted him to move to Northern California to get his life together," she said. "He told [Vinck], 'I need to get out of here.'"
Deputy District Attorney Mary Loeb said that despite Vinck's letter, there were no plans to drop the case against Mason.
But the family member said Mason knew he'd be exonerated.
"Brandon knew that this girl was going to eventually tell the truth," she said. "He knew that with an attorney... the truth would come out, and the jury would see that Brandon was not guilty. He knew that when he walked out of that jail, he's getting on a bus and he's coming to Northern California, and his life is going to be a whole lot better.
"A kid that knew his life was in front of him, a kid that has a son, a kid that has family who loves him, is not going to turn around and kill himself."
After Dawson was found dead on March 28, Mason remained on the jail's seventh floor, but he was placed in administrative segregation—solitary confinement—and allowed out of his cell for only one hour every 48 hours.
The family member said she talked to Mason a number of times—she recalled phone conversations on March 28 and March 29. Mason never indicated anything was wrong. She knew he was in administrative segregation, but thought it was for his own safety. The last time they spoke was on April 19.
"He was joking on the phone; he was happy," she said. "I was talking to him about the fishing trip we were going to take with his son. He was perfectly fine. There was no indication that there was anything wrong with him whatsoever."
A friend visited Mason on April 22 and reported to the family member that Mason was fine. Mason met with his public defender, Tim Riley, on April 23 to discuss the Vinck case. Brandon was in a good mood, Riley said. It was a tough case, but Riley gave Mason hope that he'd prevail. Vinck's letter hadn't persuaded the DA, but "it definitely provided me with a defense," Riley said. As for whether Mason ever told Riley that he was being investigated for murdering another inmate: "Nothing," Riley said. "Not ever a reference that something else was going on."
The friend visited Mason the following day, April 24.
"Brandon's whole demeanor had changed," the family member said. The friend told her that Mason "looked like the life was sucked out of him."
"They're trying to accuse me of something I didn't do," Mason told her. "Whatever you do, do not believe what you hear."
The friend was so troubled by Mason's mental state that she alerted a clerk at the jail's front desk and asked that someone check on him.
According to Mason's autopsy report, guards found him in his cell at 4:19 p.m. on April 25 with a bed sheet around his neck, the other end attached to the top bunk. His knees were on the bottom bunk and he was leaning forward, slumped over. He was resuscitated but later pronounced brain dead.
According to a document the family obtained from the Sheriff's Department, when Mason was found hanging, there was blood on his face and on the floor, but it wasn't clear where the injury had come from.
The family member was unaware Mason was a suspect in Dawson's death until CityBeat told her. She'd been struggling to understand why he'd hang himself. Now she's trying to reconcile the news that the person who was like a son to her had allegedly killed a man.
"You take this kid fishing, he can't even take the fish off the hook because he's scared he's going to hurt the fish," she said. "This is not a kid who's going to beat the crap out of somebody and strangle him and kill him."
Dorcie Dawson's phone was turned off a couple of weeks ago. Without her husband's income, she can't pay her bills. She has full-blown AIDS, and it was Richard who made sure she ate properly and took her medication. The two of them met a little over a decade ago in a transitional-housing program for people with HIV / AIDS and married not too long after.
Richard, or Ricky, as she refers to him, hoped he'd be able to serve time for both crimes—the assault and drug possession—simultaneously. He wasn't a bad person, she said; he just made some bad choices.
"He could be done with it, and we could move on," she said. "It was way past time."