Orange County

OC District Attorney Defends Officers After In-Custody Death of Man, Releases Body Cam Footage

An attorney for the family of Fermin Vincent Valenzuela Jr., whose autopsy showed he died of asphyxiation while under the influence of meth, says the officers used excessive force on him

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas Wednesday defended his office's clearing of officers in an in-custody death of a man in Anaheim last year as an attorney for the suspect's family saying the officers used excessive force.

Rackauckas today released an 11-minute video from surveillance and the officers' body-worn cameras to further explain why prosecutors declined to press charges against the officers involved in the choking death of 32-year-old Fermin Vincent Valenzuela Jr. on July 2, 2016.

Prosecutors issued a report in September clearing the officers of any criminal wrongdoing, but were prohibited from releasing the video until this month when a federal judge in the civil suit allowed its public release.

Rackauckas said the release of in-custody death videos is a new policy of his office to "build public trust" in law enforcement.

Police responded about 9:15 a.m., July 2, 2016, to a report of a man following a caller's mother to her home and pacing in front of the residence at Broadway and Magnolia Avenue, according to prosecutors.

Valenzuela hurriedly ducked into Coin Laundry at 221 S. Magnolia Ave. when he saw the officers, prosecutors said. He was shoving clothes from a duffel bag into a laundry machine as they questioned him.

The officers heard breaking glass and then saw blood, so they suspected Valenzuela smashed a drug pipe, prosecutors said.

Valenzuela then got into a protracted struggle with officers as they attempted to subdue him with a Taser, baton strikes and carotid techniques. Valenzuela managed to get away from the officers in the laundry business and ran away.

The suspect was about 60 pounds heavier than Officers Woojin Jun and Daniel Wolfe, and they felt he appeared to be on drugs, prosecutors said.

"He's acting and smells like he was under the influence of methamphetamine," said Assistant District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh.

"They notice he appears to be extremely strong," Baytieh said.

Officers managed to catch up to him, but prosecutors said Wolfe and Jun appeared exhausted by the time Sgt. Daniel Gonzalez arrived on scene to help. Gonzalez supervised Wolfe as he used a "carotid artery technique" to stop the suspect's resistance.

The suspect was choked for about 15 to 20 seconds before he began snoring. Attempts to revive Valenzuela were unsuccessful and he never regained consciousness, Baytieh said.

An autopsy showed Valenzuela died of asphyxiation while under the influence of methamphetamine, Baytieh said.

Rackauckas said the officers "had a duty to investigate to see what was going on" when they saw Valenzuela, who matched the description of the man who followed the woman home.

Valenzuela was immediately "unresponsive and uncooperative," Rackauckas said.

"They had no choice but to get him physically under control," Rackauckas said. Rackauckas said Valenzuela was "clearly dangerous."

Rackauckas called it "good police work" and that Anaheim officers "should be proud" of how they handled the conflict.

Baytieh said there was no evidence that the carotid technique was improperly done.

Attorney Garo Mardirossian, who is representing Valenzuela's family in a federal lawsuit against Anaheim, said there were many similarities in this case and the beating death of transient Kelly Thomas at the hands of Fullerton police July 5, 2011.

The major difference, however, is Rackauckas charged three of the six officers involved in Thomas' in-custody death. Two officers were acquitted and Rackauckas dropped charges against the third following the jury's verdict.

In Thomas' death, he was approached by Officer Manuel Ramos, who Rackauckas argued, was confrontational and threatened to beat the transient, triggering his attempt to flee and then the deadly struggle.

"There are some similarities and some major differences," Rackauckas said.

Rackauckas said the amount of force in Thomas' death exceeded than in Valenzuela's case. He said Thomas had a right to self-defense in his arrest.

Mardirossian has scheduled a news conference for Thursday when he will release additional video of the struggle with police.

"What he should have done here was the same as what he did with Kelly Thomas -- bring charges against the officers," Mardirossian told City News Service.

"But I guess he learned a difficult lesson that it's hard to" win verdicts against police officers, Mardirossian said. "He's gun shy and that's too bad."

Mardirossian noted that both men got into a fight with police on the Fourth of July weekend, and both died on July 10.

"He had committed no crime when police approached him," Mardirossian said of Valenzuela.

"There was no reason to use force, and then it escalated to lethal force when no one's life was in danger," Mardirossian said. "They killed both of these men who were both mentally challenged.

"They should have been handled with kid gloves. They could have let him go. He wouldn't have gone very far."

When the officers caught up to Valenzuela after he ran out of the laundry business they had him down "and didn't have to apply a carotid hold anymore, but they decided to keep choking."

Mardirossian also disputed the officers' claim that they saw a screwdriver in Valenzuela's duffel bag.

"They made that up afterward to justify the choking death of an innocent human being," Mardirossian said.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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