Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Own Records Raise Serious Questions About Inmate Juan Mendoza Farias' Violent Death

Juan Mendoza Farias was handcuffed and alone in a jail cell when guards opened the hatch on his cell door and fired more than a dozen paintball-like pepper balls at him. Then they fired Taser electrical stun guns — more than a dozen times, by one guard's account — into Farias. Next came "the Devastator," a fire extinguisher-like mace sprayer, then an electronic crowd-control "stun" shield and more Tasers.

Two hours later, during a separate altercation with 11 other guards, Farias stopped breathing and then died.

Those details come from Maricopa County Sheriff's detectives' investigation of the incident. On November 14, the Sheriff's Office released nearly 5,000 pages of jail records — four months after New Times requested them, wrote a story about the sheriff's stonewalling, and filed a lawsuit to secure them.

An autopsy photo of Juan Mendoza Farias
courtesy of the Maricopa County Office of the Medical Examiner
An autopsy photo of Juan Mendoza Farias
An autopsy photo of Juan Mendoza Farias
courtesy of the Maricopa County Office of the Medical Examiner
An autopsy photo of Juan Mendoza Farias

The lawsuit was filed in October. Without a court order or ruling, sheriff's attorney Michelle Iafrate volunteered to release most of the records — about one week after Arpaio won re-election.

New Times first reported on Farias' death in September ("Dead Again," September 11). At that time, the sheriff refused to hand over a single public record regarding Farias. New Times based its story on photos of Farias' beaten body, as well as an autopsy and jail guard reports, secured through a public-records request made to the Maricopa County Office of the Medical Examiner.

The limited records secured in September revealed that Farias stopped breathing on December 5, 2007, when 11 guards pinned him face-down on a concrete "bed" in the Lower Buckeye Jail. When the guards pulled a "spit mask" off Farias' face, they noticed blood coming from his mouth.

The release of additional records reveals a fuller and even more disturbing scene. According to eyewitness reports from guards and inmates inside the jail, guards violently subdued Farias three different times. Jail guards say that Farias was violent, but testimony from inmates contradicts that. It's difficult to even see what Farias is doing in video footage because so many guards piled on him and the video has no sound. The altercations included two different groups of guards on different shifts.

The altercations lasted from approximately 8:30 p.m. to 11:10 p.m., when Farias urinated, stopped breathing, and began bleeding from his mouth and nose. By that time, Farias — naked, with his legs shackled — had been moved through three different isolation cells. Doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital pronounced him dead early the next morning.

The new records contain a sheriff's "criminal investigation" into Farias' death, including detective interviews of more than 50 jail guards and inmates. The detectives produced an investigation summary for the county attorney. The records stop short of naming which guards the investigators thought played a role in Farias' death. The county attorney also issued a grand jury subpoena, the records indicate.

The records do not reveal the ultimate outcome of the criminal investigation or the grand jury proceedings.

In the sheriff's interviews, inmates say that guards "high-fived" and congratulated each other after the first of three brawls with Farias.

The guards repeatedly told detectives that they didn't use excessive force, nor did they see other guards doing so. The second-shift guards also say that they weren't aware how harshly Farias had been handled when they came on shift.

The records also include video, which offers 29 different camera angles of Farias in the jail. The videos are in color and show Farias in focus. That is, until the time when guard reports say that Farias stopped breathing under their weight. At that time — and for the next 40 minutes of CPR — the sheriff's attorney claims no camera angle captured what happened.

The biggest holes in the records are the missing camera footage — of the first Taser and pepper-ball attack and the final dog pile, when Farias stopped breathing. The reports also fail to give a clear conclusion of the detectives' findings.


What follows here is an overview of new information about Farias and the guards who handled him, revealed in the 4,978 pages of documentation compiled by the sheriff's homicide detectives.

Farias, 40, was a legal U.S. resident with a legitimate Social Security number. He spoke Spanish only and was a self-professed alcoholic. Glendale Police arrested him on December 2, 2007 — on an outstanding warrant for violating probation from a DUI.

About 15 minutes before doctors declared Farias dead, the MCSO ordered an immigration specialist to triple-check his immigration status, the records show.

"On 12/06/07 . . . at 7 a.m. I was assigned the task of verifying the immigration status of Juan Mendoza. Even though Mendoza's booking record for this incident states he had been interviewed and no ICE holds were required . . . I was told that Mendoza was legally in the United States, with Legal Permanent Resident status," investigator T. Sullivan wrote.

Farias had been in Arpaio's jail for only two days when he died. But it was evident that Farias needed medical attention from the time he was booked. According to the sheriff's reports, Farias experienced a number of seizures when he first entered the jail and was taken to the jail infirmary.

At least two of the guards told detectives that Farias should not have been released back into the general population.

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