By John Dickerson
Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s staff continues to withhold the video of jail inmate Juan Mendoza Farias’ final minutes – even as a New Times’ lawsuit seeking the footage moves forward. Arpaio’s staff is also refusing to release the video to Farias' widow, after telling the dead inmate's family that he died of "natural causes," public records obtained by New Times reveal.
Farias died last December after a violent altercation with 11 jail guards that left him covered in bruises, jail records and a county autopsy show. In July, New Times secured photos of Farias’ maimed body and then requested to see jail video and records related to his death.
Arpaio’s staff refused to produce a single record about Farias, claiming that an investigation was ongoing. New Times found an alternate way of securing incident reports from Farias’ death, but was not able to secure video footage – which could show exactly what happened to him.
The incident reports raised a number of red flags. First, they confirmed that Farias’ fight was not with other inmates. Jail guards handled Farias during the violent final minutes before his bruised body arrived at a hospital and then the morgue. Secondly, a handful of written guard reports were copied from each other – a problem in any homicide investigation. Third, an independent medical examiner told New Times that Farias was beaten and suffocated before his death.
After publishing a story about Farias’ death, New Times filed a lawsuit to compel Arpaio’s staff to hand over the video. With the November election approaching, there has been no shortage of excuses for withholding the video.
The sheriff’s legal liaison first replied by again stating that the footage was not public record – because an investigation into Farias’ death is ongoing. Even if such an investigation actually exists, law enforcement agencies routinely hand over footage of crimes – often as investigations are just beginning.
Most recently, private attorney Michelle Iafrate (who is paid county dollars to defend Arpaio in his lawsuits) wrote that the July records request was ineligible to be processed because of a technicality. Iafrate's argument is an obvious attempt to delay release of the video out of fear it would damage his candidacy.
And the lawyer's claim is contradictory because the Sheriff’s Office already did acknowledge the request as legitimate — when it produced the reply that an investigation was ongoing and the records could not be produced. Also, the MCSO later acknowledged the request as legitimate when it produced Farias' booking photo (above left) as a result.
Another New Times records request now reveals that Arpaio has been withholding the same video from Farias’ family, too. The family’s attorney, Luis Guerra will not speak to reporters – for fear of compromising his litigation. But notices he filed with the county’s Office of Risk Management show that Guerra first requested the video of Farias’ death on December 20, 2007. The county has refused since then to give Farias’ family records about the death, according to the filing.
“After the family was told that [Farias] had died of natural causes they asked to see the body. The MCSO denied such access. The family was only allowed to see the body a few days later. The familiy was completely shocked when they finally saw their father’s body because it was covered with bruises, abrasions and contusions,” Guerra writes.
In December, Farias’ widow and sons hired an independent medical examiner, who documented the injuries covering Farias body. Since then, the family has been asking the county for records about Farias’ jailing and death. The county has not handed those records over.
On May 30, the family notified the county that it intends to sue Arpaio for $6 million – not only for the wrongful death, but also because the Sheriff’s Office lied to them and still refuses to let them see records about the death.
“There has been a pattern of fraudulent concealment of the facts, circumstances, evidence and of the truth concerning the death,” Guerra writes. “The MCSO absolutely refuses to produce Mr. Farias Mendoza’s file and the requested documents/videotapes/audiotapes.”
At one point, the Sheriff’s Office (as it did to New Times) told Farias’ family that the records were off-limits because of an investigation.
“This alleged ‘criminal investigation’ was a total shock and was completely contrary to what the MCSO officially told the family, i.e. that the death was from ‘natural causes,’” Guerra adds.
“Despite having a videotape of the acts of its officers and being the employer of the involved perpetrators, the MCSO has concealed the evidence, the facts and the truth about the death of Mr. Farias Mendoza.”
On September 16, Guerra filed a supplement to the family’s notice. He cited New Times September 11 article about Farias death and referenced the jail incident reports that were printed in the story – reports that the sheriff had not even given to Farias’ family.
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“This proves without a doubt that the reports exist, that they are ready and that they have been shamefully concealed from Mr. Farias Mendoza’s family, depriving them of the facts and circumstances of his death as well as the identities of the officers involved.”
Apparently, the Sheriff’s Office then allowed Guerra to view some of the paper files it holds on Farias, according to an October 9 supplemental filing. But he was not allowed to make any copies or even any notes about the files, he writes:
“In reality,[I] found no evidence of any ongoing investigation. Quite the contrary, the evidence shows that the investigation was completed a long time ago. As such, the secreting of these documents amounts to nothing more than illegal obstruction of justice to prevent the family from knowing what happened to their beloved father.”
It also amounts to keeping this video out of the public eye -- at least until after the election.