Angie Velasquez looks a photo of her son Victor Ray Cruz that was displayed at his funeral service. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

At first glance, Victor Ray Cruz may have seemed intimidating. He was a large man, covered in tattoos. He had a criminal record.

But those who knew him remember him as a funny guy, who wanted the best for those around him, including his family, his friends and even the staff and other men being held with him at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown San Diego. That was where he died, in September, after contracting the coronavirus. So far Cruz has been the sole death in the facility, though hundreds of people being held there have tested positive in the past few months. His is one of 127 COVID-19 deaths that have happened in federal jails and one of more than a thousand COVID-19 deaths of incarcerated people across the country, according to data from UCLA’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project.

We wanted to tell Cruz’s story.

Advocates and family members hold a vigil in honor of Victor Ray Cruz outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Even as an adult, when Cruz went to SeaWorld, he would get off a ride just to run back to the line to get on it again.

“He would take the shirt off his back for anyone,” Angie Velasquez, Cruz’s mother said. “He was always laughing and making the best of things.”

Velasquez raised Cruz and his other siblings in Linda Vista. Every time he came to her house, he would give Velasquez a hug and tell her, “I love you, Mom.”

“Everybody loved him.” Velasquez said.

Cruz was really just a big “softie,” said Sandra Lechman, his attorney.

Before the pandemic began, Lechman could meet with him at the federal jail downtown. Attorneys met with their clients in that facility in an area that has more of an open floor plan, so people would constantly be coming and going. Cruz had nicknames for everyone, and every time someone came in, Lechman and Cruz’s conversation would pause while he would chit-chat with them, she said.

“He just wanted everybody to be OK,” Lechman said. “He wanted me to be OK, and I wasn’t the one in custody.”

Cruz died in September after contracting COVID-19 in the facility. He was 47 years old, serving time for methamphetamine possession.

“It shouldn’t have happened,” Velasquez said. “I don’t know what else to say.”

Advocates and family members hold a vigil in honor of Victor Ray Cruz outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Cruz had been in and out of the criminal justice system since he was 17. His life and his death exemplified the failures of that system, Lechman said.

His younger sister, Tanya Ruiz, remembers talking to him while he was in custody, before he got the coronavirus.

“He would tell me he wanted to turn his life around,” Ruiz said.

Cruz had turned his life around once before. Though he had long struggled with addiction, he had gotten sober while in custody previously. When he was released in 2013, he moved to North County to get a fresh start and put some physical distance between himself and his past life in Linda Vista.

He hadn’t had interaction with law enforcement.

But then his daughter Raeann died in a car accident in 2017. She was 21.

Raeann was close to her father. They were both outgoing with a similar sense of humor. She would often visit him when he was out of prison.

Cruz stayed sober for a while, but when Raeann’s first birthday after the accident passed, he relapsed. The following year, he was arrested.

Victor Ray Cruz and his daughter, Raeann / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Police arrested Cruz with an amount of drugs that is typically small enough to be handled in state court. But he and the other man with whom he was arrested were caught up in a wiretap case, Lechman said, so the case was transferred to federal court. Cruz was not a target of the wiretap, but had texted a person who was.

Lechman got to know Cruz well. His case took a while for a couple reasons. Wiretap cases tend to have a lot of evidence, and the pandemic caused delays, too. Cruz pleaded guilty to a five-year mandatory minimum deal. He ended up with an eight-year sentence, at the recommendation of probation officers. He was arrested in May 2019, and wasn’t sentenced until July 2020.

“Mr. Cruz, unlike a lot of clients, was pretty much who he was from the jump,” Lechman said. “Many people are mistrustful of lawyers at first. Sometimes clients are going through withdrawal so their personalities change. Mr. Cruz was just who he was. That’s not to say he trusted me completely from the offset, but he was smart, direct, talkative, aware, funny.”

Lechman said that Cruz, because of his experience with criminal cases, knew what he had gotten himself into and understood his options moving forward. He wanted to have copies of the discovery in his case to review and had his own ideas of how to handle his case.

At every court hearing – no matter how small a matter – at least one member of his family would be present. That was a rare thing to see among her clients.

“It just spoke to me about how important he was to them,” she said.

When Lechman visited Cruz, everyone knew his name. Cruz had a job assignment at the jail and his supervisor gave him stellar reviews. Normally, once people are sentenced, they leave Metropolitan Correctional Center and serve their time at federal prisons. But Lechman said the warden asked if Cruz could stay at the facility for his actual sentence.

“I think he kept the peace,” she said. “He was a respected dude.”

Lechman and Velasquez said they both have received calls after Cruz’s death from other people incarcerated at MCC and their family members expressing condolences.

Inmates at the Metropolitan Correctional Center bang their windows and shine their room lights as dozens of people hold a vigil outside the facility in honor of Victor Ray Cruz. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

As Lechman got to know him, she began to talk to him more about the loss of his daughter.

He would “get teary-eyed and sometimes really cry,” Lechman said. “He was a soft family guy on the inside, who had a life of tragedy.”

Cruz had a difficult childhood. He had suffered abuse as a child, and though he had a loving family, they struggled to make ends meet and put food on the table every day.

Velasquez said Cruz only finished sixth grade before dropping out of school to work and help his family. He worked in gardening and would go to swap meets to sell things.

“He was such a wonderful kid,” Velasquez said.

A young Victor Ray Cruz / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Lechman said a life like Cruz’s isn’t unusual in her caseload.

“We talk a lot in our country about helping the most vulnerable, but we don’t,” she said. “We let them fester until we arrest them and call them a criminal. So many people in this system were victims until they’re not anymore. Then we don’t care when they die because they’re criminals now.”

She wonders what Cruz’s life might have been like if he had access to more support and services when he was younger. Cruz died because he ended up in the prison system that couldn’t take care of him and others during the pandemic, she said, and it was an unnecessary death.

Ruiz, Cruz’s sister, said his last phone call with their family before he died still haunts her.

“He said they wanted to put him on a ventilator and the people who get put on ventilators don’t get out of it,” Ruiz said. “That’s what breaks my heart the most: that he was scared at the end.”

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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