Remembering Marty Atencio, the Latest Fatality in Joe Arpaio's Jail

I'm sitting in a restaurant in Peoria on Monday with the family of Ernest "Marty" Atencio, who was laid to rest today with full military honors.

Next to me is his 29-year-old brother, Eric, a solid, muscular guy who works with his elder brother, Mike, in the family real estate business.

Mike's expression is pained. His eyes sometimes meet mine with an intense stare, as if he is looking past me, perhaps imagining his brother somewhere over my shoulder.

We're discussing Marty Atencio's December 20 death, just days after he was brutalized and Tased repeatedly in MCSO custody. There's an open Bible before us, and Mike is trying to decide which psalm to read at his brother's funeral.

"Read it and tell me what you think," he says of the 35th psalm. "This is where my head's at right now."

The psalm is a prayer for divine justice, meted out to those who have wronged a righteous man.

"Let them be confounded and put to shame that seek after my soul," it says, in part. "Let them be as chaff before the wind, and let the angel of the Lord chase them."

Mike, who at 40 was Marty's junior by four years, says the psalm jumped out at him as he leafed through pages of scripture. I read on, and I can see why.

"Let not them that are my enemies wrongfully rejoice over me," it states. "Neither let them wink with the eye that hate me without cause."

By now, just about everyone has seen the video of Marty Atencio in custody at Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Fourth Avenue Jail after his arrest on an assault charge by Phoenix police officers on December 15.

And nearly all but the most fanatic Arpaio supporters can acknowledge Atencio as a victim of what the family's lawyer, Mike Manning, referred to as a "jailer's riot."

In the week leading up to the video's release on the Friday before Christmas, MCSO flacks spun a tale of an out-of-control Marty Atencio, who was "combative" and "abusive" toward detention officers. Even those familiar with the MCSO's tactics expected to see a wild man swinging at cops.

But the video showed none of that. Atencio was passive and apparently confused at times, but he did nothing to merit what happened when he was uncuffed and stood before a crowd of jailers and two Phoenix cops.

Eight uniformed men took Atencio to the ground. Others looked on or joined the scrum. Atencio was Tased and hauled off to another room, ironically called a "safe cell" by the MCSO.

There he was stripped by the men atop him, with one kneeing him in the head more than once. They left Atencio in the cell naked and motionless. His stomach heaves once, then never again. Apparently his death sigh.

Later, uniformed men return to the cell. CPR is performed. And Atencio is shipped off, brain-dead, to Saint Joseph's Hospital — where he remained on life support until the doctors assured the family there was no hope of recovery, and the life support was removed.

Mike Atencio called it at the hospital, before his brother was taken off life support: His brother was "dead" in the jail, his body transported to St. Joe's so that the MCSO could claim it was not an "in-custody" death.

At that time, Mike described his brother as having been "murdered" by Arpaio's jail staff. As you can tell from the psalm, his anger has not subsided.

"We never thought we would be victims of Sheriff Joe," Mike says. "We're a stand-up family, very business-oriented. This has really opened our eyes to the inhumanity of what's really going on."

He explains that his family's successful rental-property company has been in business since 1994, begun after Marty returned from service in the Army, where he was stationed in Hawaii.

His father, Joe, is a Vietnam vet who has been married to their mom, Rosemary, for more than 40 years. They're an all-American family and grew up playing football, which Mike and Eric still coach locally in area little leagues.

They remember their brother as a gregarious and warm person who could relate to people of any social class. He liked to shoot pool, play golf, ride motorcycles, and watch the Dallas Cowboys on TV.

"We liked to hang out together," Mike remembers. "He was a great protector of our family. A good big brother."

They describe Marty as super-patriotic and spiritual, and they show me his Veterans Administration identification card, onto which he had pasted the image of an angel.

A few years ago, Mike says, his brother was diagnosed as bipolar. When off his meds, Marty would have bizarre episodes, sometimes encountering law enforcement as a result. Back on his meds, he was a regular guy again.

The night he was arrested, Phoenix police describe erratic behavior: Marty's kicking a door, then chasing a car.

The brothers allege that the MCSO had Marty's medical history and should have known his condition. Nevertheless, before the release of the video, with the MCSO's spin getting repeated in the media, they steeled themselves for the worst.

"We were like everybody else; we heard [what the cops were alleging]," Eric says. "It broke our hearts even more, and it crushed me to see that my brother did absolutely nothing."

Mike chimes in that it would have "been a little more digestible" if they'd seen a big fight on camera. It wouldn't have excused Marty's death, but at least what transpired would have made some sense.

"Action causes reaction," Mike notes.

But there was none of that.

"All I saw was a pack of hyenas mauling my brother," Eric states. "I can only imagine what was going through his mind: You're Tased. Your heart starts erratically beating . . . You've got an elephant on your chest. Then they're stripping you naked, and you've got a dude kicking you in the head."

Which is why Mike has gravitated, in his grief and his anger, to Psalm 35.

"I know this is what he was seeing, thinking, feeling," Mike says of the passage.

Naturally, their parents, their whole family, have been devastated by the events of the past couple of weeks. They've seen things no family should have to see.

"And right before Christmas," Eric adds.

They acknowledge that there are good men and women in law enforcement. Some of them they even know personally, but they want justice and accountability from the two agencies involved, the MCSO and the Phoenix Police Department.

And they want things to change so this does not have to happen to another Valley family.

"This is the kind of stuff you hear about in Third World countries," Mike observes. "And this is happening in Phoenix, Arizona. That, to me, is unacceptable."

And what of Sheriff Arpaio, in whose jail Marty died and who traveled to Iowa to campaign for GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry rather than address the situation that led to Marty's demise?

Mike believes that his brother's death may help unhinge Arpaio's reign of nearly 20 years, that perhaps Arpaio will be swept from power in the 2012 election.

"The inhumane people," he says, "need to be weeded out of [the MCSO] through a new structure and a new sheriff."

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons