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$11.75 Million Settlement for Prisoner Beating in Pheonix Jail

by Casey J. Bastian

On June 7, 2022, the federal court for the District of Arizona granted dismissal to claims made by the mother of an 18-year-old prisoner left permanently disabled in a brutal beating at Maricopa County’s Fourth Avenue Jail. Selene Ortiz stipulated to dismissal after accepting an offer from the county and its insurer to settle the suit for $11.75 million on March 31, 2022.

When he was picked up in May 2020, Brian Ortiz was placed in the jail’s maximum-security unit (MSU). Why? Because he had once gotten into a fight in juvenile detention, hitting a guard with what everyone agreed was a stray punch. Nevertheless, that resulted in a felony charge for assaulting an officer; Ortiz was on probation, which he was accused of violating.

Reserved for the jail’s most serious and violent offenders, MSU was also holding 24-year-old Xavier Fregoso. He was awaiting trial for allegedly attacking a state prison guard in 2018, a year after entering custody of the state Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (DCRR) to serve a sentence for theft and robbery. It isn’t clear why, but at 7:41 a.m. on May 26, 2020, Fregoso called Ortiz into his cell and assaulted him.

Though MSU was supposed to be highly supervised, no staff observed what happened next: Fregoso viciously doled out nearly 50 punches and foot-stomps to Ortiz’s groin, face and head. The attacker then dragged Ortiz back to his own bed, laughing as he went to fetch soap from the showers to clean up his cell, again unobserved.

Two guards conducting a walk-through at 8:00 a.m. saw Ortiz unconscious, but they did nothing. At 8:50 a.m., the same two guards conducted another walk-through and again did nothing. At 9:15 a.m., staff conducting medical rounds observed that Ortiz was “non-responsive and was seizing,” according to the complaint later filed on his behalf. But rather than immediately administering medical care or calling an ambulance, four staffers allegedly stood around contemplating whether Ortiz was actually seizing.

During this time, they observed Ortiz was “non-responsive” and “seizing,” with “blood coming out of his ear,” the complaint continued. Finally, at 9:17 a.m., staff called a “Code 4” alert. Without administering medical care, staffers retrieved a shield and secured Ortiz “with restraints around his hands, a belly belt and leg chains, before placing him on a back board.”

One hour and 45 minutes after being “nearly beaten to death,” Ortiz was finally taken to the jail’s medical clinic. A trip to University Medical Center in Phoenix was ordered to “rule out head trauma.” But first, the ambulance took another 30 minutes to secure Ortiz for transport.

Not only did jail staff allegedly fail to intervene or get medical treatment for 2 hours and 15 minutes; Selene Ortiz said she was never notified by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office that her son was in the hospital. Instead it was hospital staff that called on June 1, 2020, to say Ortiz was in critical condition and on life-support.

On June 3, 2020, the mom was asked for permission to remove life-support. She refused. For the next two months, Ortiz remained comatose. After regaining consciousness, he was declared incompetent due to his severe injures, which will require lifelong care. His mother was appointed guardian.

When she filed suit in the Court on January 7, 2021, her complaint outlined the jail failures that resulted in her son’s injuries. It also offered a disturbing history of neglect and misfeasance at the jail – even predating the notorious 24-year tenure of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio – going back as far as 1977. A class-action lawsuit brought that year noted the county had already paid “millions of dollars in verdicts, settlements and legal fees” for claims of inadequate care. That case persisted until 2019, when current Sheriff Paul Penzone – who replaced Arpaio – convinced the Court that constitutionally sufficient healthcare and mental health care was being offered, and the suit was terminated. [See: PLN, Mar. 2020, p.39.]

Just over a year after Selene Ortiz filed suit, on January 27, 2022, she advised the Court that a settlement had been reached. Under its terms, the county paid $4,948,103.50, with the remaining $6,801,896.50 settlement balance paid by the County’s insurer, Vantapro Specialty Insurance Company. The agreement also included fees and costs for Ortiz’s attorney, Charles A. Piccuta of Scottsdale Injury Lawyers LLC. See: Ortiz v. Cty. of Maricopa, USDC (D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:20-cv-01746.

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

Meanwhile, Fregoso has been charged with aggravated assault for the attack. He also filed suit pro se in the Court on March 10, 2023, alleging his civil rights have been violated by being held in solitary confinement at the jail since assaulting Ortiz. See: Fregoso v. Penzone, USDC (D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:23-cv-00435.

Additional sources: Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times

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