Prison

Maricopa County Pays Nearly $12 Million in Lawsuit Over Jail Assault

Brian Ortiz is pictured before being sent to Fourth Avenue Jail, where he was attacked in May 2020.
Brian Ortiz is pictured before being sent to Fourth Avenue Jail, where he was attacked in May 2020. Scottsdale Injury Lawyers
Brian Ortiz had just turned 18 years old when he was sent to Maricopa County's Fourth Avenue Jail.

Ortiz was locked up in May 2020 for a probation violation. But because he had once gotten into a fight in juvenile detention, he was placed in the jail's maximum security unit that is typically reserved for people with the most serious, violent records.

It was there, in the "closed custody" unit, that another inmate brutally beat Ortiz, who suffered a brain injury so severe that he remained comatose for weeks. He will likely never fully recover.

This week, Maricopa County settled a lawsuit over Ortiz's injuries for a towering $11.75 million. The suit was filed in September 2020 in federal court, on behalf of Ortiz's mother, Selene. It was the county's negligence, attorneys for the family alleged, that allowed Ortiz to be beaten and left convulsing, undiscovered for hours.

Selene Ortiz remembers her son as a happy child, she said, though sometimes mischievous. He grew up in Phoenix, where his mother and siblings still live, she told Phoenix New Times on Friday. He loved basketball.

As a teenager, though, her son began to get into trouble. Court documents reference a "significant juvenile history" beginning in Brian Ortiz's early teens. A series of charges — theft, fleeing law enforcement, criminal damage — sent him to a juvenile detention hall until January 2020.

During that time, Ortiz got in a fight with another teen. When a guard intervened to break up the fight, the officer was hit by a stray punch. It was an accident, Ortiz claimed, and no one, according to court records, disputed that. But Ortiz was charged with felony assault on a law enforcement officer — a serious crime that could carry a sentence of several years in prison, depending on the case. When Ortiz arrived at Fourth Avenue, he was put in the maximum security unit.

Nonetheless, there were few people paying attention on the day that Ortiz was beaten.

"What became clear to us was they weren't watching him," said Tony Piccuta, the family's attorney. "And it wasn't that they weren't watching for two seconds, and it happened, and they couldn't have stopped it. They weren't watching for hours."

In a statement, Maricopa County spokesperson Fields Moseley wrote that employees at the jails "come to work every day to help people who are often experiencing some of the worst moments of their lives" and that none of them "wants to see a detainee injured or die while in their care."

"[County] board members hope the family of Brian Ortiz can find some closure by settling this case," Moseley added.

The entire beating and the aftermath were captured on security footage. Here is what that footage shows, according to a detailed account in court records:

Another man in the unit, Xavier Fregoso, coaxed Ortiz into his cell at around 7:40 a.m. on May 26, 2020, records say. Fregoso was 24 at the time, and already had a lengthy record. He was in jail awaiting trial on charges of attacking a detention officer who he had punched and thrown to the ground in 2018, according to documents from that case.

When Ortiz entered his cell, Fregoso slammed the teen against the wall, then to the ground, punching him and stomping on his face until he lay bleeding and unconscious, court records stated. If Fregoso had some reason for the beating, it's not clear from records of the incident. He and several others appeared to mock Ortiz, then walk away.

An attorney representing Fregoso, who has since been charged with aggravated assault for the attack, did not immediately respond to an inquiry from New Times. Fregoso is awaiting trial.

Ortiz began convulsing on the floor of Fregoso's cell. He lay there, unattended, for about 10 minutes. Then, Fregoso returned, saw that Ortiz was still unconscious, dragged him back to his own cell, and put him on his bunk. Then, Fregoso went to the showers, got cleaning solution, and cleaned out the blood from his cell, records indicate. All this went completely undetected by the guards, which the county admitted in legal pleadings.

It was not until 9:15 a.m., more than an hour and a half later, that staff realized Ortiz was in need of medical care, even though officers had conducted security walks that morning. Several medical staff passed by to do a routine check, and found Ortiz still unconscious and convulsing. They called for aid. Yet it was not until 9:55 a.m. that an ambulance arrived for Ortiz.

According to records in the case, the county did not conduct an investigation into any employee for potential misconduct over what occurred.

For days, no one notified Ortiz's family of what happened. When the hospital finally did call his mother, five days later, she was horrified. Ortiz was in a vegetative state, hospital staff informed her. He had suffered serious brain trauma, Selene Ortiz was told, and might never come out of the coma.
click to enlarge Brian Ortiz was hospitalized and comatose for weeks after the attack. - SCOTTSDALE INJURY LAWYERS
Brian Ortiz was hospitalized and comatose for weeks after the attack.
Scottsdale Injury Lawyers

Despite initial predictions by his doctors, Ortiz is now conscious and regained some normal function. But, Piccuta said, "he has trouble with all aspects of daily living." He likely always will. "The extent of his injuries were so extreme," Piccuta said. This was partly, Piccuta said, why he believed the county felt pressure to settle for such a large amount.

Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone issued a rare and lengthy statement in response to questions about the case.

"I offer my heartfelt apology to the Ortiz family as we conclude the litigation regarding the violent attack against Mr. Ortiz that occurred while in our custody in 2020," the statement began. Penzone went on to say that he did not blame the officers involved. Ortiz's injuries were due to "operational failures," he said, calling Fregoso a "violent criminal." Penzone added, "This is not an excuse, yet it is a reality in the complex environment that exists within the jail setting. The cost to our taxpayers due to this incident is considerable and I am disappointed. The cost to Mr. Ortiz’s health and future cannot be measured."

Selene Ortiz told New Times that while she's grateful for the outcome in the case, she's not satisfied with just a settlement.

"All I want is for this to serve as justice — and a lesson to the sheriff's department," she said on Friday, in Spanish. She also said what happened had changed her life, and that her son had made mistakes. But he had been a "young man with most of his life ahead of him."

"There have to be consequences," she said. "Not for the money. For the safety of others in jails. Because what happened to my son could happen to them."

It has.

Most recently, this April, a man died in Fourth Avenue Jail after being beaten and stabbed in the eye by his cellmate. In that case, New Times reported, the attacker phoned the on-duty officer, informing him that he planned to "fuck this guy up." No one responded to the threat.

These beatings are just some of numerous issues in Maricopa County's jails. Multiple people have died or suffered serious injuries in the past several years due to inadequate medical treatment. And understaffing, both of jail guards and of nurses, has worsened since the pandemic, adding to the jails' woes.
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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