Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Own Records Raise Serious Questions About Inmate Juan Mendoza Farias' Violent Death
by John Dickerson
Juan Mendoza Farias was handcuffed and alone in a jail cell when guards opened the hatch on his cell door and fired more than a dozen paintball-like pepper balls at him. Then they fired Taser electrical stun guns — more than a dozen times, by one guard’s account — into Farias. Next came “the Devastator,” a fire extinguisher-like mace sprayer, then an electronic crowd-control “stun” shield and more Tasers.
Two hours later, during a separate altercation with 11 other guards, Farias stopped breathing and then died.
Those details come from Maricopa County Sheriff’s detectives’ investigation of the incident. On November 14, the Sheriff’s Office released nearly 5,000 pages of jail records — four months after New Times requested them, wrote a story about the sheriff’s stonewalling, and filed a lawsuit to secure them.
The lawsuit was filed in October. Without a court order or ruling, sheriff’s attorney Michelle Iafrate volunteered to release most of the records — about one week after Arpaio won re-election.
New Times first reported on Farias’ death in September (“Dead Again,” September 11). At that time, the sheriff refused to hand over a single public record regarding Farias. New Times based its story on photos of Farias’ beaten body, as well as an autopsy and jail guard reports, secured through a public-records request made to the Maricopa County Office of the Medical Examiner.
The limited records secured in September revealed that Farias stopped breathing on December 5, 2007, when 11 guards pinned him face-down on a concrete “bed” in the Lower Buckeye Jail. When the guards pulled a “spit mask” off Farias’ face, they noticed blood coming from his mouth.
The release of additional records reveals a fuller and even more disturbing scene. According to eyewitness reports from guards and inmates inside the jail, guards violently subdued Farias three different times. Jail guards say that Farias was violent, but testimony from inmates contradicts that. It’s difficult to even see what Farias is doing in video footage because so many guards piled on him and the video has no sound. The altercations included two different groups of guards on different shifts.
The altercations lasted from approximately 8:30 p.m. to 11:10 p.m., when Farias urinated, stopped breathing, and began bleeding from his mouth and nose. By that time, Farias — naked, with his legs shackled — had been moved through three different isolation cells. Doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital pronounced him dead early the next morning.
The new records contain a sheriff’s “criminal investigation” into Farias’ death, including detective interviews of more than 50 jail guards and inmates. The detectives produced an investigation summary for the county attorney. The records stop short of naming which guards the investigators thought played a role in Farias’ death. The county attorney also issued a grand jury subpoena, the records indicate.
The records do not reveal the ultimate outcome of the criminal investigation or the grand jury proceedings.
In the sheriff’s interviews, inmates say that guards “high-fived” and congratulated each other after the first of three brawls with Farias.
The guards repeatedly told detectives that they didn’t use excessive force, nor did they see other guards doing so. The second-shift guards also say that they weren’t aware how harshly Farias had been handled when they came on shift.
The records also include video, which offers 29 different camera angles of Farias in the jail. The videos are in color and show Farias in focus. That is, until the time when guard reports say that Farias stopped breathing under their weight. At that time — and for the next 40 minutes of CPR — the sheriff’s attorney claims no camera angle captured what happened.
The biggest holes in the records are the missing camera footage — of the first Taser and pepper-ball attack and the final dog pile, when Farias stopped breathing. The reports also fail to give a clear conclusion of the detectives’ findings.
What follows here is an overview of new information about Farias and the guards who handled him, revealed in the 4,978 pages of documentation compiled by the sheriff’s homicide detectives.
Farias, 40, was a legal U.S. resident with a legitimate Social Security number. He spoke Spanish only and was a self-professed alcoholic. Glendale Police arrested him on December 2, 2007 — on an outstanding warrant for violating probation from a DUI.
About 15 minutes before doctors declared Farias dead, the MCSO ordered an immigration specialist to triple-check his immigration status, the records show.
“On 12/06/07 ... at 7 a.m. I was assigned the task of verifying the immigration status of Juan Mendoza. Even though Mendoza’s booking record for this incident states he had been interviewed and no ICE holds were required ... I was told that Mendoza was legally in the United States, with Legal Permanent Resident status,” investigator T. Sullivan wrote.
Farias had been in Arpaio’s jail for only two days when he died. But it was evident that Farias needed medical attention from the time he was booked. According to the sheriff’s reports, Farias experienced a number of seizures when he first entered the jail and was taken to the jail infirmary.
At least two of the guards told detectives that Farias should not have been released back into the general population.
On Farias’ first day in the jail, he was “clammy” and in pain, according to inmate Armando Salgado. “Armando described Juan to be calm, but had a very clammy and/or sticky appearance. Armando observed that Juan talked with his eyes almost closed, as if he was in a lot of pain when he spoke,” detectives wrote.
Officer Dallas Uphold was one of many jail guards who saw Farias have a seizure on his first day in the jail. Uphold said Farias “began shaking violently and then fell to the ground. He said that he asked for medical personnel to respond and that they responded and removed Mendoza,” detectives wrote.
That’s not the only seizure Farias had. At the jail’s intake, Officer Adrianne Epperson also saw Farias experience a seizure and heard what sounded like vomiting noises.
The jail’s medical personnel saw Farias, but their actions are redacted from the records. What is clear is that within hours, Farias was released back into the general population. Officer Rutherford (no first name listed), a guard who observed Farias firsthand, thinks that decision was fatal, according to her interviews with detectives.
Jail medical staff also put Farias on the anti-seizure drug Dilantin.
That’s notable because Farias’ “fights” with guards reportedly resulted from his acting confused, “crazy,” and failing to obey guards’ commands. Some of the most common side effects of Dilantin are confusion, hallucinations, and unusual thoughts or behavior. The day after Farias saw medical staff, he exhibited unusual behavior — possibly from alcohol detox or, perhaps, from the Dilantin. The fact that Farias couldn’t understand the guard’s commands in English obviously made matters worse.
Inmates report that Farias was acting “crazy” but not violent. They said he talked about having barbecues and missing his family. They also said he tried to eat a bar of soap and constantly talked about food because he was so hungry.
Inmate Gabriel Chavez remembers that Farias “became frightened when they shut the cell door and would bang on it. [Chavez] noticed that [Farias] was shaking and talking ... Mr. Chavez remembered waking up one night and seeing the inmate sitting on the floor of the cell, killing insects with his shoe,” investigators wrote.
Guards told investigators that Farias was acting as though he were on meth, but Farias wasn’t on drugs, the autopsy shows.
When Farias ignored the guards’ English commands, the guards grew frustrated and increasingly violent, inmates told investigators. Farias appeared to be “fighting for his life,” one inmate said.
The guards locked Farias alone in an isolation cell. When they fired pepper balls through the hatch on the door, Farias attempted to block the projectiles with a mattress.
“As soon as he saw the pepper ball coming in, that’s when he pulled one of the mats, the mattress to protect himself. And that’s when Officer Keever saturated the, um, the cell. And that’s when Sergeant Straight had advised or told me ... to go back,” Officer Yazzie told detectives.
Yazzie added that before guards engaged Farias, he was uncooperative but not violent. “He wasn’t kicking or trying to bite nobody, but you know he kept us from securing him,” he said.
Detectives interviewed more than 25 guards in the Farias case. Each told detectives that appropriate force was used, in their opinion, during the altercations with Farias. But their statements are revealing.
Officer Chauntel Dwight said officers sprayed so much pepper spray into Farias’ cell that they “were choking, including herself, and she almost got sick to her stomach because of the smell from the pepper spray,” detectives wrote.
“It should be noted that Chauntel became very emotional toward the end of the interview, and she clarified that she was upset about Sergeant Wardlaw’s decision in regards to putting Mr. Mendoza Farias back into general population [after his seizures],” they added.
Officer Richard Keever, who acknowledged that he fired between eight and 12 pepper balls at Farias, told detectives that Farias was shaking during the incident. Investigator J.G. Edward summarized his interview by writing, “Whatever they threw at him, the inmate would absorb it. As time went by, the inmate started to shake — not like a nervous shake.”
After the pepper balls and after another officer shot Farias with a Taser, Officer Ronald Heino shot Farias with a Taser an additional 11 times, according to his recollection of events.
“And then I pulled out my Taser and I shot, and I must have hit him because he went down, kind of face first and towards the back of the cell,” Heino said in a sheriff’s interview.
Heino then described the next 10 times he shot Farias with a Taser. “I stood at the door while they went in with this gun shield ... There was a lot of pepper spray in there ... And the lieutenant told me to continue to Tase him. And then I let it off and then I Tased him again. And I think it probably went three or four times ... There was a lot of people fighting with him ... And they couldn’t put him in handcuffs. So then I took my Taser and I went in and I Tased him in the, I believe it was the back right cap ... and I Tased him there several times. Nothing happened. And then I moved up, I Tased him once in his, in his butt. And then, ah, and then I looked forward and the officers still couldn’t crank his arm back to get him in handcuffs. And he wasn’t moving, so I, ah, Tased him, I believe. I’m not for sure. I believe it was in the shoulder or, like, in the back of the, ah, triceps area ... And after all this Tasing he just, ah, just didn’t respond to it.”
The Tasers, pepper balls, mace, and “stun shield” were all deployed during the first of Farias’ three brawls with guards.
The jail video given to New Times begins after that incident. It shows Farias’ second altercation with guards, when two guards used their knees to pin him face-down on the floor, while another two held his legs. Those guards cut Farias’ clothes off and left him naked in an isolation cell.
The guards strapped a mask over Farias’ face, cuffed his hands behind his back, and shackled his legs. Farias then rolled around the isolation cell for about an hour and a half — unable to stand, at first, and then bumping up against the walls once he did stand.
Next, the video shows 11 guards move Farias to the third cell — where he stopped breathing, according to officer accounts. When the guards carried Farias into that cell, they walked off-screen, and the next time Farias appeared onscreen, he was being wheeled out on a stretcher.
In contradiction to a number of other guards, one guard told detectives that Farias was already bleeding from his mouth when he was thrown into the second of the three cells. Officers wiped up the blood with a towel.
Officers also removed a bloodstained mattress from Farias’ first cell, they admit in reports. Inmates additionally reported that trusties were sent to clean the first cell up just 10 minutes after the altercation — before jail investigators could document the scene.
Because the general-population cells were on lockdown during the first altercation with Farias, only two inmates had a view of the incident. The final two altercations happened in isolation units, so no inmates saw what happened to Farias.
In separate interviews, the two inmates who saw Farias’ first altercation echoed what jail guards described. But the inmates added a number of details that guards left out, including descriptions of guards “elbow-striking” Farias and “high-fiving” one another.
Inmate Shawn Kirkpatrick “said the officer shot the man in the cell ‘at least 20 times’ with the pepper-ball gun. He said that a Taser was then used against the inmate, and then a canister of mace was used,” detectives wrote.
“Kirkpatrick said an electric riot shield was brought in ... He said they started hitting the man while he was handcuffed. Kirkpatrick said the officers were then ‘high-fiving’ each other like it was the thing to do. He said a hood was placed on the man’s head and he was carried from the pod.”
Another inmate, in a separate interview, offers the same story. Louis Deangelo told detectives, “The man was brought out and put face-down on the ground in front of the cell door. Deangelo said that several officers hit the Mexican guy with elbow-strikes. He said when the officers got up several of them were giving each other ‘high fives’ and laughing ... Deangelo said while the incident was going on, several of the inmates were yelling at the officers to quit because the Mexican guy was handcuffed.”
Inmate John Michael Reed couldn’t see into Farias’ cell, but he could hear officers “laughing” as they sprayed pepper balls at Farias. Reed could also see the ground in front of Farias’ cell, once guards pulled him outside.
“John stated there were three officers on each side of the inmate and were holding him by his clothes face-down as they took him out of the pod. John stated as the officers were taking him out of the pod that the inmate was not fighting or resisting with the officers,” detectives wrote.
Inmate Jesus Rodriguez said that Farias was shouting that he couldn’t breathe under the officers’ weight. “Upon being taken to the ground, Jesus advised that at least 8-9 officers were pinning the subject down to the ground. At that time, the subject was yelling in Spanish to get off of him and also that he could not breathe,” detectives wrote.
“Jesus also stated that officers were banging the subject’s head into the ground while he was pinned down ... Shortly thereafter, he observed the subject being dragged out of the cell and down the stairs.”
The autopsy photos of Farias’ face make it clear that his nose and lips were slammed into a hard surface at some point during his jail stay.
The records produced by the sheriff include a number of redactions. Some pages are entirely blacked out.
The records also contradict the sheriff’s reasons for initially withholding the records.
In August, Lieutenant Dot Culhane, the sheriff’s legal liaison, told New Times the records couldn’t be released because an “ongoing investigation” was under way. However, the records show that the most recent investigative movement was in March 2008, months before New Times’ July request.
The records do not clarify whether the case was closed.
In September, after New Times filed a lawsuit to obtain the records, the sheriff’s legal liaison claimed that releasing the videos of Farias might alter the memories of guards involved and, thus, compromise the investigation.
However, a review of the records shows that some of those guards watched the videos of Farias less than 24 hours after he died.
By December 6, 2007, at 6:10 p.m., one of the sergeants and her lieutenant had already viewed the jail’s video footage of the altercation with Farias.
“I saw a shot where the safe-cell door opens [and] it looked like the inmate just walked out on his own,” Sergeant Debra Renteria told a detective. “God, this is going to sound awful ... They put a blanket over him. Over his head, body.”
In addition to those contradictions, sheriff’s attorney Michelle Iafrate blacked-out entire portions of the record. Some records — including Farias’ medical records and a grand jury subpoena — are confidential, by law. Other redacted records, however, are not clearly confidential, including:
• The jail log of what cells Farias stayed in,
• Employee logs, which could show a full list of the guards who interacted with Farias,
• A written summary of the jail’s video-surveillance footage of Farias.
Finally, the video footage itself may be redacted, as camera angles during the crucial moments of Farias’ altercations with jail guards supposedly don’t exist.
According to a December 27, 2007 note by sheriff’s investigator C.F. Garcia, 28 camera angles exist “[showing] the incident where inmate Mendoza Farias is escorted from Level One, T13 to Level Three, T-31 on Wednesday, December 5, 2007, after getting into altercation with detention staff.”
Detective Garcia was given another “23 camera angles” in January.
Iafrate gave New Times 29 of the total 51 camera angles.
This article originally appeared in the Phoenix New Times (www.phoenixnewtimes.com) on November 20, 2008, and is reprinted with permission.
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