Was Juan Mendoza Farias beaten to death by Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s 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.

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.

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John Dickerson
Contact: John Dickerson