Investigation Continues Into Teller Jail Death


by Rick Langenberg:

Mental health system in question


Authorities are still investigating a suicide incident at the Teller County Jail, resulting in the death of a 28-year-old man.

According to the Teller County Sheriff’s Office, deputies discovered the body of Robert Vallina, who apparently strangled himself with a bed sheet, shortly after 1 a.m. on Sept. 2. Efforts to revive the victim by deputies and members of the Divide Fire Department failed. He was pronounced dead about 30 minutes later.

Teller County Sheriff Mike Ensminger said the death occurred shortly after the inmate had undergone a competency evaluation by the court. The victim had recently returned from the Colorado state mental hospital in Pueblo, according to sheriff officials. He was being held on two failures to comply with probation warrants.

According to a news release, Vallina was returned with “no restrictions” and “no indications that he was suicidal.” Vallina was in a cell with no roommate when he was discovered unconscious and not breathing. According to the preliminary investigation, the victim was checked on numerous times by jail staff in accordance with the agency’s protocols and procedures.

“It was a very unfortunate incident. “We are very sympathetic to the family and have been working very closely with them,” said the sheriff.

Ensminger wouldn’t release any specific details, such as if the incident would involve more of a review of the jail procedures, citing an ongoing investigation. “It still is an open case,” said Ensminger, who indicated the next key phase of the inquiry involves the completion of an autopsy by the El Paso County Coroner’s Office. No date has been provided when that report, which could include detailed toxicology information, will be released.

Ensminger said the victim had been in their custody for some time, but wouldn’t elaborate. According to family members, he was arrested earlier this summer and then was transported to the Colorado state mental hospital in Pueblo and recently returned to the Teller jail. He died about two days after his return, according to family members.

One immediate family member, Heather Vallina of Woodland Park, the sister of the victim, questioned why Robert Vallina was placed in the general population area of the jail, and why he wasn’t put on a suicide watch. “I understand their (the sheriff office’s) stance, but just feel this shouldn’t have happened. There was a history here,” she said in citing her brother’s bout with schizophrenia and previous suicide attempts.

She believes the mental health system in Colorado needs more scrutiny, so incidents like this don’t occur again. “I don’t think our jails are equipped to handle inmates with serious mental health issues like my brother. This was a real tragedy,” said Heather Vallina.

A close friend of the victim from outside Colorado described Robert Vallina as a fun-loving person and an extremely dedicated worker, who was once employed on a commercial lobster boat operation in New England and held various construction jobs in Colorado. “He was an extremely hard worker. I can tell you that,” said Cathy Smith, who lives in Massachusetts and who tried to assist the victim in previous years. Smith’s son was best friends with Robert Vallina. “He (Robert Vallina) was almost like part of our family. This has been very hard for us,” she added.

“The mental health system really let Robert down. He didn’t have a chance,” added Smith.

According to Smith, Robert Vallina had a strong passion for fishing, dirt biking and ice racing, and even competed in the winter races at Rainbow Falls Park. “He absolutely loved outdoor sports and was very charismatic and funny at times,” added Heather Vallina.

The victim’s sister admitted, though, that her brother had serious mental health issues that developed over the last three years. He also struggled with substance abuse problems at times, according to family members and friends.

The death of Robert Vallina marks the first suicide in the Teller County Jail since the late 1990s, according to most accounts.