Was Juan Mendoza Farias beaten to death by Sheriff Joe Arpaios guards?
On December 2, 2007, a 40-year-old man named Juan Mendoza Farias was arrested and booked into the Maricopa County Jail. Like a lot of people who come through Sheriff Joe Arpaio's doors, Farias' offense was DUI-related, a probation violation.
Farias wound up with a death sentence.
After three days, he was clearly going through alcohol withdrawal. According to written accounts from detention officers, Farias became hostile and started resisting their orders.
When that happened, officers cuffed Farias and put his legs in shackles and moved him to an isolated "safe" or "soft" cell, designed to prevent him from hurting himself or others. The officers fired six rounds of crowd-control "pepper balls" at Farias and shocked him with at least two Tasers.
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Later, jail officials moved Farias into the psychiatric ward, according to the reports they wrote after his death.
Eleven officers teamed up to move Farias. They swarmed him, wrapped a blanket over his head, and strapped a leather restraint, known as a "belly belt," around the blanket to hold it in place.
Then they put him in a wheelchair with restraints.
"Get me out of here. They just kidnapped me. They are trying to shoot me. They just [shot] me on my legs. Somebody is trying to kill me," Farias yelled as the officers surrounded him, according to one sergeant's report.
Another officer wrote that Farias was "talking nonsense."
Maybe not. Photos show that he was, indeed, shot in the legs — by Tasers and pepper balls. And he did stop breathing minutes after shouting that he was being killed.
As officers pulled Farias out of the wheelchair, they wrestled a "spit mask" over his mouth. Spit masks are used to cover an inmate's face below the nose; they're supposed to be used only if an inmate is biting or spitting.
Officers then pushed Farias face down on his stomach — a deadly position that can lead to suffocation if guards push down too hard. It's well known in law enforcement that an inmate on his stomach can easily die from "positional asphyxiation." If the inmate is cuffed behind the back and officers apply too much pressure, the lungs simply can't function. A mask over the mouth — limiting airflow — can exacerbate the situation.
Two officers held Farias' legs and other guards pinned down his arms and back while yet another "held his head down" for nearly 10 minutes, according to the reports.
Farias was fighting for his life. The county medical examiner documented "blunt force injuries" on his face, torso, and limbs. His neck muscles hemorrhaged internally from the strain, and a gash was notched out of his nose — either from being struck or from being pressed into something.
As the guards held him face down, one noticed that Farias was no longer moving or breathing. The guards rolled him over and pulled the spit mask off his mouth. It was filled with blood. So were his nostrils.
The guards attempted CPR, but it didn't work. Farias was transported to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Juan Mendoza Farias is not the first inmate to die after a violent exchange with guards in Arpaio's jail. In the past 12 years, at least four other men have died after exchanges with guards. And those are just the ones we know about, the ones whose families sued Arpaio and won hefty payments.
In one case, a jury found officers responsible for killing 33-year old Charles Agster, a mentally retarded man who weighed 125 pounds.
That jury awarded $9 million to Agster's family in 2006. It was one of more than 2,500 inmate lawsuits against Arpaio that have cost the county more than $43 million (see "Inhumanity Has a Price," John Dickerson, December 20, 2007).
This is the first time you're reading about Farias, even though he died in December. That's because Arpaio isn't open-mouthed when it comes to the deaths of his inmates.
If not for an anonymous tip to New Times, Farias' death would still be secret. Even after New Times requested specific records about Farias' death, the sheriff refused to hand them over, citing an "ongoing investigation."
The Maricopa County medical examiner released the records, in response to a public-records request from New Times.
Otherwise, the details of Farias' death would be unknown to all but his family, anyone with unrestricted access to the sheriff's records, and the medical examiner who inspected his corpse.
The examiner concluded that the manner of Farias' death was undetermined. But she reported "complications of chronic alcoholic withdrawal associated with cardiopulmonary arrest during subdual for combative and violent behavior," adding "hypertrophic and dilated cardiomyopathy with coronary artery disease." The "prone restraint on bed," the spit mask, and the altercation with the guards also contributed to Farias' death, she wrote.
In other words, the excitement required more oxygen in Farias' lungs, but the mask over his mouth and the weight on his back restricted his lungs from functioning. An underlying and non-lethal heart disease meant that Farias' heart couldn't handle the combined weight and lack of oxygen.
New Times asked an out-of-state medical examiner to review Farias' records. He concluded that Farias was beaten and then suffocated.
"I certainly would list restraint asphyxiation as a component here," said Dr. Dan Spitz, medical examiner for Macomb County, Michigan. "I wouldn't classify this death as anything to do with alcohol withdrawal."
Spitz said it's difficult to know if and how much the guards could be at fault — because medical examiners have to rely on written testimony from those same guards to determine what happened.
In Farias' case, those written testimonies are suspect. Two of the guards' written testimonies are word-for-word identical in places, a red flag in any death investigation. Two additional reports are exact copies of each other, down to the punctuation and capitalization.
That's one reason why jails have surveillance cameras — for accountability. Video footage could show whether Farias actually was aggressive toward officers. It could also show how much force the officers used on an inmate who was already cuffed, shackled, restrained with a leather corrections belt, and suffering from alcohol withdrawal.
On July 25, New Times requested that video and other records related to Farias' death. The MCSO has refused to produce the footage.
Captain Paul Chagolla did not respond specifically to repeated requests for the video and other investigative materials. Lieutenant Dot Culhane, "legal liaison" for MCSO, told New Times the request would not be granted because the material is part of an ongoing investigation, but she did not give a specific reason why releasing the materials would harm the investigation, as required by Arizona public-records law.
Attorneys who regularly request video and other records from the jail say the sheriff stopped producing such videos after two cases in the late '90s, both of which showed guards beating inmates. One of those inmates died, and the other's neck was broken during a separate incident.
Those videos resulted in two lawsuit settlements that totaled more than $9 million. Since then, attorneys say they see video only when a judge orders it. Even then, the videos are usually ruined or rendered useless.
"We had one case where a magnet was put to the video to ruin it," says Joel Robbins, an attorney who represents inmates and their families against Arpaio.
"The cases I have are regularly missing papers, missing documents. When they kill someone, they don't ever seem to have the report done. They'll hide it until you get a judge order to hand it over."
Robbins says any citizen should have the legal right to review jail footage because about 70 percent of inmates are still considered innocent as they await trial, and because public tax dollars fund the jail and its employees.
"We ought to know what our problems are if we pay taxes to a government agency," Robbins says. "The MCSO hides the problems and puts their little press releases out on whatever they want people to focus on. They want you to sit there and just eat up whatever Arpaio has to say about the topic of the day. They don't want you to know what actually goes into the sausage."
Juan Mendoza Farias' story is still untold, to some extent. Other jail deaths have been described in excruciating detail, though, as the result of years in court proceedings. The judgments and settlements in the following four deaths alone total $20.25 million.
The best-known case of excessive force in Arpaio's jail involves the 1996 death of Scott Norberg. In that case (the first big lawsuit against Arpaio that the county settled, for $8.25 million), attorneys did get video footage of Norberg's beating, but only after a portion of the footage was leaked to the news media.
The video shows one guard dragging Norberg on the ground by his feet. It shows another Tasering him and shows a towel wrapped around Norberg's head as he is slammed into a metal restraint chair ("Murder on Madison: The Norberg Remix," David Holthouse, April 15, 1999).
In that case, jail employees actually destroyed Norberg's medical records, going so far as to throw away an incriminating X-ray that showed his trachea had been broken during the beating, attorneys argued
But more disturbing was the callous and inhuman attitude of some jail officers toward Norberg.
Officer Kimberly Walsh — who was holding the towel around Norberg's face — testified in a recorded court deposition that she'd warned the other guards they were killing Norberg.
"I told him that he was turning blue or purple and he . . . I don't think he was breathing," Walsh testified. "And [the other guard] said, 'Who gives a fuck?'"
Walsh said she then warned a second guard that Norberg was dying. To which he replied, "Who gives a shit?"
Neither of the guards was ever disciplined.
On January 16, 2008, the county paid $2 million to settle with the family of Brian Crenshaw.
Crenshaw, 40, was legally blind and serving a short sentence for shoplifting when he got into a fight with Arpaio's detention officers. It's still not clear who started that fight, but it is clear that Crenshaw was transferred to solitary confinement as a result.
Jail records show that during six days in solitary, Crenshaw was fed only twice. Then he was discovered comatose in his cell with a broken neck, ruptured intestines, broken toes, and severe internal injuries.
Only sheriff's guards had contact with Crenshaw in his cell, but Arpaio still maintains that Crenshaw sustained his life-ending injuries by falling out of his bed.
In 2003, attorneys for Crenshaw's family requested copies of the video surveillance that would have shown the initial fight with guards. The MCSO withheld the footage for three years. After a court order, the sheriff produced a grainy and denigrated analog copy of the digital footage. It proved to be useless, the attorneys said.
"Defendants have already admitted that they destroyed Brian's classification files, as well as the digital video data referenced in your September 26, 2006 order," one court filing from the case reads.
Crenshaw's family was represented by attorney Mike Manning, who also represented the family of Scott Norberg. Manning was not a wrongful-death litigator until the death of Norberg, a family friend. Since then, he has represented the families of six deceased inmates in lawsuits against Arpaio. (Manning also represents New Times in current litigation against Arpaio and Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas.)
"They wanted to ensure that the jury, judge, and public couldn't see what happened. If Crenshaw really started the fight, they wouldn't destroy the evidence," Manning says.
"In every case of incriminating video, they copy and copy the footage until it's indecipherable. We always tell them not to touch the evidence. They always do."
The MCSO has not only withheld evidence of suspicious deaths, its employees have tampered with evidence, according to the testimony of one former employee.
Charles Agster was a mildly retarded 33-year-old. His parents asked police to pick him up when he wouldn't leave a convenience store.
Agster died after eight jail guards roughed him up and slammed him into a restraint chair (In 2006, a jury awarded his family $9 million after a wrongful-death verdict.).
During the Agster trial, lawyers revealed that jail employees created a fake booking ID so they could alter the answers to Agster's intake questions.
Jail staff also changed records so they could claim Agster was suicidal, banging his head against the floor, and acting intoxicated. During the 2006 trial, it was revealed that those records had been created after Agster died.
Nurse Betty Lewis testified that she was instructed by jail healthcare staff to alter Agster's records — so that his death wouldn't look as suspicious.
As with the other deaths mentioned in this story, the guards involved in Agster's death were never disciplined by the sheriff — even after they were found liable for inmates' deaths.
"Eight of the eight detention officers were found liable. Zero were disciplined. Six have been promoted," Manning says.
Clint Yarborough died in Arpaio's jail in December 2005, after a group of officers beat him, according to another inmate.
In April 2007, the county paid $1 million to settle Yarborough's case.
During an interview with KPHO-TV Channel 5, another inmate, Nathaniel Gatlin, described the frenzy that took place when guards started beating Yarborough.
"That's when I was like, 'What are you guys doing? You're beating him to death. You're hurting him.' And he's telling me, they're telling me, 'Shut up. Mind your own business.' I'm like, 'Well, how can I mind my own business when you're sitting there in front of me, beating the hell out of somebody!?'" Gatlin said.
Until video of Farias' final moments surfaces — if it ever does — the guard's written accounts will serve as the only record of his death. One thing is clear about those accounts: All the guards agree about what happened in the jail that night.
They really agree. In fact, some of them wrote the exact same thing, word for word, comma for comma.
Officer Trueman (B0940) wrote that "Mendoza became very agitated and resistant he was not complying with any of our verbal commands."
So did Officer Kush (A8737). Trueman and Kush's accounts of Farias' death are exact duplicates. Every single word, punctuation mark, and grammatical error is identical. The only difference is their names.
Other officers were subtler in making sure that their stories about Farias' death lined up.
Sergeant Owsley (A5025) and Officer M. Horton (A9866) didn't copy their entire accounts, as Kush and Trueman did, but their reports share a handful of identical sentences.
"Inmate was combative and resistive the entire route; kicking at the Officers and resisting being in the wheelchair," wrote Owsley. So did Horton.
The two also share the exact same wording in the crucial paragraph about the moment when Farias stopped breathing.
"Right wrist was removed from hand cuff and Inmate turned on to his side, at which time we discovered inmate was bleeding, it appeared to be from his nose and mouth . . .," wrote both the guards.
The remaining seven reports tell the same tidy tale, but not word for word. None of the accounts is more than a page.
All the officers say that Farias was "combative" and/or "resisting." They all say that they moved him to a psychiatric cell, and then he just stopped breathing.
Without the video, there's no way to know whether the story is true.
When an inmate dies in Arpaio's jail, it's not the Phoenix Police or any other department that investigates the death. It's the sheriff's own Internal Affairs unit.
That unit has yet to publicly discipline any guard involved in an inmate death — even the ones caught beating restrained inmates on video.
In a serious homicide investigation, detectives usually separate suspects, to see if their stories contradict or agree. But that doesn't always happen with the officers in Arpaio's jails — as demonstrated by the guard's copied accounts of Farias' death.
And the Farias death wasn't the first time that Arpaio's guards got together to compare stories. During a February 2006 deposition about the death of Charles Agster, Internal Affairs detective Lieutenant Kristine Mary Kemper acknowledged that the guards in that case had collaborated to tell the same story.
Question: "And you said that it was your instruction that nobody — that the D.O.'s that were involved in that shouldn't talk amongst themselves about any facts or circumstances that occurred with Mr. Agster?"
Q: "But you know from sitting here and from exhibits that you've seen that the detention officers did talk with one another about their stories about what happened."
Q: "And they were not supposed to do that, were they?"
A: "Again, I'm not sure how clear I was on the instruction."
Dr. Dan Spitz, the medical examiner in Michigan, says that knowing the truth about an inmate's final moments is crucial in determining the true cause of death. That's why only video footage could show exactly what happened to Farias, he says.
"It's hard to know what to believe. The story [as reported by guards] on these cases is really a big part of the investigation . . . the stories that you get, especially in a jail, where everybody knows each other and everybody gets together to discuss it ahead of time are very suspect," Spitz says.
"It leaves a big hole in what a forensic pathologist needs to be certain to know what's going on."
The Maricopa County medical examiner agrees that it's hard to know just what happened. "The manner of death was found to be undetermined, because the extent that the decedent's interaction with the jail officers contributed (if at all) to his natural process of a metabolic disorder due to chronic alcohol abuse can not be clarified," she wrote.
But Spitz says that even without the video, it's clear that alcohol abuse alone did not kill Farias. "I don't agree with the cause of death as listed," Spitz says of the county examiner's "undetermined" conclusion. "I think there are components that are accurate, but I wouldn't classify this death as anything to do with alcohol withdrawal. He's a chronic alcoholic, but there's no indication that he's undergoing active withdrawal."
New Times' request for the video is still outstanding.
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