Death Behind Bars: After Officials Denied Her Medical Care, Keskea Hernandez Died Handcuffed to a Bed

The photos atop Keskea Hernandez's casket showed a pretty Dominican woman with caramel skin, a brilliant smile, and a cascade of expensively cut hair. As religious hymns drifted across the lavender carpet at Boyd's Funeral Home in Pembroke Pines last month, family members rose one by one to describe Hernandez as a vibrant and energetic go-getter. But the frail body in the box full of white roses told a different, much darker tale.

Seventeen months in federal prison for mortgage fraud had taken a visible toll on Hernandez. Her hair, garlanded with flowers, was now brittle and sparse. Her skin was pale and splotchy. And underneath her white dress, Hernandez's chest was uneven from where doctors had removed an infected breast implant just before she died on January 9, alone and handcuffed to a hospital bed.

"My baby," moaned Elsa Peña Nadal, as she collapsed atop her daughter's corpse. "What have they done to my baby?"

The story of how Hernandez, a 42-year-old real estate agent, ended up dead in federal custody has never before been reported. Officials at the Miami Federal Detention Center where she was imprisoned for mortgage fraud have refused to comment. But interviews and documents obtained by New Times reveal that Hernandez's death was preventable — perhaps even criminally so.

For more than a year, Hernandez had begged for treatment for lupus, an incurable autoimmune disorder that causes pain, swollen joints, and digestive problems. If untreated, it can have deadly effects on the heart, lungs, and kidneys. But doctors, judges, and the warden all ignored Hernandez. Instead of giving her the food and medications she needed, they pumped her full of steroids that ultimately made her condition worse. When she pleaded for an early release or transfer to another facility last June, the FDC's medical director said she was "embellishing" her illness. Six months later, Hernandez was dead.

"They killed my one and only daughter," says Peña Nadal.

The scandal goes deeper than Hernandez's tragic death, however. Of FDC Miami 1,500 inmates, two others passed away last year (one from suicide). Nationwide, 383 out of roughly 218,000 federal prison inmates died in 2012 (five suicides, 25 murders, and the rest from illness or old age). Hernandez's death raises questions about the quality of medical care not only at the FDC in Miami but also in the entire federal penal system. "The quality of care at the FDC is atrocious," says Marc Seitles, Hernandez's lawyer. "They essentially murdered her. They knew of her condition, they knew how badly she was suffering, and they did nothing."

Long before her August 2, 2011, arrest, Hernandez's life tracked the ups and downs of the American immigrant dream. She was born on December 15, 1970, in Santo Domingo. Her father, Hector Homero Hernandez Vargas, opposed the brutal reign of then-President Joaquín Balaguer. On the morning of September 22, 1971, Vargas was gunned down in front of his wife and child.

The Balaguer regime deported Peña Nadal and 9-month-old Keskea to Mexico. The two then moved to Chile, only to have the coup against Salvador Allende force them back to the Dominican Republic. Keskea studied tourism in Madrid before moving to Miami in 1994. She became a citizen, married, and in 1996 gave birth to a daughter, Giulianna Figueroa. "Keskea loved the United States," her mother says. "She believed in its laws."

But Hernandez would later break those laws. For a decade, she struggled to provide for her young daughter. She and her husband had divorced, and Keskea juggled jobs at Holiday Inn and a money transfer store before moving into sales. She eventually got her real estate agent's license and founded her own company, Kasa Mortgage, in 2004. She moved into a $500,000 house in Miramar and put her daughter in private school and gave her piano lessons.

Vivacious and charming, Hernandez proved adept at flipping Brickell apartments and Miami Beach condos for profit. But prosecutors would later show she used straw buyers and bogus documents to do it.

Hernandez's life began to crash at the same time as the housing market. By the time Bear Stearns went belly-up in 2008, she had already closed Kasa Mortgage. Hernandez had also caught wind of a federal investigation targeting her and 16 others for mortgage fraud. Stressed and unemployed, her health also began to fail. She had trouble eating and breathing. Some days, she could hardly get out of bed. In 2010, she was diagnosed with lupus and started receiving disability checks.

On August 2, 2011, the feds raided her Miramar house in the middle of the night. Hernandez was arrested, charged with 38 counts of fraud, and thrown into a frigid cell at the FDC. All but one of her codefendants were quickly released on bond but, bizarrely, Hernandez's attorney, Joel DeFabio, never requested a bond hearing. "We developed a plan to get her the minimum sentence possible," DeFabio says of the decision. "She was in agreement."

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Michael E. Miller