Inmate Dies at Fourth Avenue Jail — After Officers Fail to Respond to Threats

The Fourth Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix.
The Fourth Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix. Tony Webster
At around 6:40 a.m. on March 30, Michael Schroeder, a man in custody at the Fourth Avenue Jail in Phoenix, called the officer on duty.

According to court documents obtained by Phoenix New Times, Schroeder told that officer that he was angry at his cellmate, a 35-year-old man named Steven Lemus.

Schroeder told the officer, "Get someone over. I'm going to fuck this guy up," court records stated.

According to court records, no officers responded to Schroeder's threats until Schroeder called again, eight minutes later, saying, "Come get the body."

These were the events that preceded the death of Lemus, an inmate who was locked up in county jail on drug possession charges.

Monica Bretado, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, confirmed the incident to Phoenix New Times on March 31, after an anonymous source informed the Times. Lemus, she wrote, "was transported to the hospital with life-threatening injuries" and was in "critical condition."

On Tuesday, another spokesperson for MCSO confirmed that Lemus had died over the weekend, and that a criminal investigation, as well as an internal investigation, was underway.

The new details about Lemus' death were revealed in charging documents filed in Maricopa County Superior Court on Monday. According to a criminal complaint, Schroeder faces one count of aggravated assault, although police accused him of first-degree murder.

Those court records describe that once Schroeder made his second call, the on-duty officer requested a wellness check, and officers arrived to find Lemus covered in blood and unresponsive.

Schroeder quickly confessed, telling officers that he had "killed him," as they put him in a holding cell, MCSO said in court records. "It was going to be me or him," he said, MCSO added. Later on, records state that Schroeder confessed to punching Lemus in the gut, choking him using the jail sink, and stabbing him in one eye with a pencil.

A source at MCSO familiar with the case, who spoke to New Times under the condition of anonymity, said that it was fairly common for inmates to call and claim they were going to fight their cellmates.

"What's unusual would be to ignore it for 10 minutes," the source said. Policy dictates that officers respond immediately to such calls. And, according to the source, shift notes from that day indicate that the officers were not responding to another emergency at the time — though the internal investigation is still ongoing.

Spokespeople for MCSO did not immediately reply to another request for comment Wednesday regarding the actions of officers involved.

For years, both men had been in and out of Arizona's jails and prisons, online Arizona Department of Corrections data and court records show. Schroeder was booked on charges of arson and burglary on March 20, 10 days before the incident.

Lemus had been in and out of custody in the last 15 years on various drug charges, according to ADOC and court records.
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk

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