A man who died at the El Paso County jail in 2017 would still be alive if six sheriff’s deputies hadn’t used “excessive and unreasonable force” while restraining him during a drug-induced crisis, a lawsuit alleges.
Eliezer Tirado-Ortiz’s son sued the Sheriff’s Office and Colorado Springs in Denver’s U.S. District Court late last month, saying deputies “proximately caused” his 40-year-old father’s death when they held him down and dealt blows to his body with their hands and knees.
The Sheriff’s Office and city police declined to comment on pending litigation.
Colorado Springs police investigated Tirado-Ortiz’s death, deeming it “a tragic event precipitated by the use of heroin and methamphetamines.”
The 10th Judicial District Attorney’s Office reviewed the case and cleared the officers involved.
The lawsuit marks the latest of Sheriff Bill Elder’s legal troubles over allegations of excessive use of force by his deputies in the crowded jail.
In January, another man’s family threatened to sue the sheriff. Deramus Lemuel, 38, lost consciousness at the jail while high on drugs and was restrained by jailers in 2018. Deputies “needlessly initiated a use of force that would ultimately result” in the death of Lemuel, who never regained consciousness, the family’s attorney said in a claim letter to the county.
Last year, the county approved a $675,000 payout — the county’s largest on record — to settle a lawsuit brought by a woman over a 2014 takedown in a jail holding cell. Philippa McCully, then a junior at Colorado College, tore her ACL and fractured her knee when jailers pulled her feet from under her and shoved her to the floor, according to that lawsuit.
In the latest case to land in court, Tirado-Ortiz died Sept. 7, 2017, shortly after deputies were called to a disturbance in southeast Colorado Springs and arrested him on suspicion of drug possession.
The lawsuit alleges that deputies and police have not been properly trained to respond to “calls involving persons in crisis or with obvious mental health problems” and to use “de-escalation strategies” before resorting to physical force.
Deputies also did not provide Tirado-Ortiz with “the appropriate medical treatment, and instead forcibly restrained him between six officers,” attorney Edward Lomena wrote in the lawsuit.
“I think he was in the process of having a breakdown because of the drugs,” said Lomena, an associate of the local McDivitt law firm who represents the son, Eliezer Manuel Tirado Velez.
Inside a patrol car, a heavily sweating Tirado-Ortiz banged his head against a window, and “spoke very rapidly” about heroin and methamphetamine, police said in a past news release.
At deputies’ request, a nurse watched as the suspect was taken from the vehicle to the jail’s booking area and a holding cell. There, he screamed at deputies and refused their orders as they tried to conduct a pat-down search, police said earlier.
Jailers put him on his stomach and held down his arms and legs, delivering “hand and knee strikes” as they tried to put a “spit sock” on his face and dress him in a safety gown, the news release said. One garment is to shield staff from bodily fluids; the other is a suicide prevention tool that can’t be fashioned into a noose.
At one point, a nurse checked his pulse.
About 10 minutes after the deputies brought him into the cell, they placed him on his side. But he rolled back onto his stomach, appearing unconscious, the past news release said.
Jail and medical staff tried to revive him with CPR, other life-saving measures and a dose of Narcan, an opioid overdose antidote.
An autopsy by the county Coroner’s Office determined that Tirado-Ortiz “died as a result of heroin and methamphetamine intoxication associated with necessary physical restraint by law enforcement.” The Coroner’s Office ruled the manner of death a homicide because of the deputies’ involvement but noted that the ruling “neither indicates nor implies wrongdoing or criminal intent.”
The lawsuit also names retired police Lt. Howard Black as a defendant who allegedly used “outrageous and shocking” excessive force.
But Black said he wasn’t at the jail when Tirado-Ortiz died, calling the allegations “ludicrous.”
“I wish the law firm would have spent a little more time in understanding what occurred,” Black said.
The city of Pueblo also is a defendant. Lomena said Pueblo might have been involved in the investigation of Tirado-Ortiz’s death. An assistant city attorney declined to comment.
“It was really hard to get information about anything that happened here,” Lomena said. “A lot of the story will play out as we go along.”