Elijah McClain, 23, died after being thrown to the ground, put into a now-banned carotid artery chokehold and being injected with the tranquilizer ketamine by Aurora police and medics during the Aug. 24, 2019 encounter. Police were responding to a 911 call that he had worn a face mask into a convenience store to buy some iced tea. He was not accused of a crime by the caller, who thought he looked suspicious and reported he was Black.
“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe please. I can’t. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe, please stop,” McClain begged officers, according to body-worn camera footage.
McClain choked on his own vomit, had a heart attack and never recovered, his family said. McClain, a vegetarian massage therapist and violin player, was declared brain dead in the hospital and died six days later.
The grand jury concluded police used excessive force to restrain McClain despite a lack of evidence he had done anything wrong, and that paramedics used far too high a dose of the tranquilizer, which legally is considered a deadly weapon.
The five defendants face charges that include felony charges of manslaughter and assault. The four who remain employed by the city — officers Randy Roedema and Nathan Woodyard and paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec — will be suspended without pay once charges are formally filed by prosecutors. A third officer who was charged, Jason Rosenblatt, was fired by the city last year after sending text messages mocking McClain’s death. It was unclear Wednesday if the five would be taken into custody. Roedema and Woodyard are former U.S. Marines.
“Nothing will bring back my son, but I am thankful that his killers will finally be held accountable,” McClain’s father, LaWayne Mosley, said Wednesday in a statement. McClain’s family is suing Aurora police, individual officers and the medics.
McClain’s death initially drew little attention outside Aurora, but the murder of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis in May 2020 by a white police officer brought new attention and community pressure amid a nationwide debate over police reform and systemic racism. Although the local prosecutor declined to bring charges against the officers and medics, protesters demanded accountability via massive street protests that ended with police shooting them with tear gas and pepper spray.
Frustrated by the internal police investigation into McClain’s death, Gov. Jared Polis ordered a state investigation. A federal civil rights investigation into McClain’s death is ongoing.
“Whenever a person dies after an encounter with law enforcement, the community deserves a thorough investigation. Mr. McClain’s family deserves it. And justice requires it,” Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said Wednesday. “Make no mistake, we recognize this case will be difficult to prosecute. In so doing, we advance the rule of law and the commitment that everyone is accountable and equal under the law.”
Aurora police union officials said in a statement that officers were cleared by the initial investigation and, “nothing has changed. Our officers did nothing wrong. Sadly, Mr. McClain died due to a combination of exertion due to his decision to violently resist arrest and a pre-existing heart condition. The hysterical overreaction to this case has severely damaged the police department. Inevitably, the public are the ones who’ve paid the price.”
City officials quickly noted that the police union that issued that statement is no longer formally recognized by the city for collective-bargaining purposes.
McClain’s father, in his lawsuit, argued the department has a long history of racial bias. Several Aurora police officers were fired last summer after media reports revealed they had taken mocking photos at the scene of McClain’s death. One of the officers who detained McClain was fired by the department after responding “haha” to the pictures — but not for McClain’s death.
“Aurora permits and encourages a culture of racial violence in its police department that is so rampant that a trio of on-duty, uniformed Aurora police officers returned to the scene of Elijah’s killing to take pictures of themselves smiling while reenacting the chokehold performed on Elijah,” Mosely said in his lawsuit. “Under mounting public pressure, the city fired these officers, some of whom in turn have appealed those firings because their conduct was of the sort widely accepted in the Aurora Police Department for decades. Yet, the city still has not taken any steps to discipline anyone for the killing of an innocent young man.”
Aurora city officials hired a new police chief, Vanessa Wilson, in August 2020, who launched an initiative to restore public confidence in the department. Wilson in a statement Wednesday promised cooperation with the judicial process.
“This tragedy will forever be imprinted on our community,” Wilson said. “We continue to offer our condolences for the loss of Elijah, and we will continue to cooperate with the judicial process.”
In a statement Wednesday, Polis remembered McClain and thanked the grand jury.
“This innocent young man should be here today,” Polis said. “I continue to urge my fellow Coloradans to consider how we can work together to build a better future where everyone can be safe walking home and a Colorado for all.”