During his lunch breaks, Elijah McClain sometimes played the violin for animals at the local shelter. He thought they, too, deserved some music in their lives. He was not like other 23-year-olds. He craved space to be himself, and when officers of the Aurora, Colo., police department approached him on the evening of Aug. 24, 2019, that is what Elijah McClain tried to tell them.
“I am an introvert,” he explained to the officers who responded to a 911 call about a Black male walking down the street in a ski mask on a night when the temperature was about 66 degrees Fahrenheit. “Please respect my boundaries.”
Fifteen minutes later, McClain was on the cusp of death, having been choked by one of the original responding officers and then injected with the powerful anesthetic drug ketamine by a medic who arrived on the scene later.
“I don’t even kill flies,” McClain said at one point as the officers continued to restrain him. It was a cry for help, an explanation of who he was. It went unheeded, not only by the three officers who first responded to the 911 call but by the many others who arrived later, and who chatted casually as McClain struggled for his final breaths.
“Aurora, Colo., is corrupt,” says Mari Newman, a Denver attorney who is representing McClain’s family. “Aurora, Colo., is trying to cover up its wrongdoing.”
Only now, nearly a year after his death, is the case of Elijah McClain finally receiving the national attention his family has been seeking. That attention comes largely because 2020 has seen a number of Black men and women killed by police officers or vigilantes: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. The outrage over those killings has intensified outrage over killings past. And it has made Elijah McClain the latest symbol of what many Americans see as a law enforcement culture informed by racial animosities.
Earlier this week, Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted about McClain. So did Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who called the killing “absolutely crushing.” “Learning about this case broke my heart,” wrote Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Republican governor of California. “Elijah McClain deserves justice.”
McClain’s mother, Sheneen, wants more than tweets of sympathy. She told Yahoo News she won’t be satisfied until the officers who killed her son are punished. “The whole world needs to see how evil they are,” she says, casting blame not only on the three responding officers but on those who came later and, seeing her son in distress, did nothing.
“Elijah lost his life. I’m looking for life in prison.”
Like many other Black people in the Denver area, Sheneen McClain moved to Aurora, a suburban city of about 370,000 people that borders Denver, to find a higher quality of life and better schools for her children.
In recent years, the Colorado native has watched her state become a haven for left-leaning whites priced out of, and maybe disenchanted with, either the East Coast or California. But while newcomers extol the state’s ski slopes and brewpubs, many Black families continue to struggle against dismayingly familiar forces. “Colorado is a KKK state,” McClain says, referencing the state’s long history of white supremacy, a history that sits uneasily with its current image of Patagonia-clad progressives.
“The laws are not for the people in Colorado,” McClain says. “The laws are for the slave masters.” Some may dispute that, but none can dispute this: If the officers had simply allowed Elijah McClain to walk home that Saturday night last August, he would still be alive today.
The night’s events were triggered by a phone call. At 10:32 p.m., a private citizen called 911. The caller said he had witnessed a Black male “acting weird” and “waving his arms” around on Billings Street, a highway frontage road on the eastern outskirts of Denver.
“When I passed by him, he put his hands up,” the caller told the dispatcher. “I don’t know, he looks sketchy. He might be a good person or a bad person.” The caller also noted that the Black male he saw was wearing a ski mask and coat, despite the summer weather.
The dispatcher asked the caller if he was in danger. He said he was not.
The caller had just crossed paths with McClain, who had purchased iced tea at a convenience store and was returning to the apartment complex where he lived with a cousin. He was wearing a mask and coat because he suffered from anemia, an iron deficiency that can make people more sensitive to the weather. Studies have found that Black people are somewhat more susceptible to anemia than whites.
Three officers — Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema — were dispatched to respond to the 911 call. It is not clear if the officers, who have not spoken publicly about the case, knew the caller had told the dispatcher that McClain did not have a weapon.
The young man walking down Billings Street was tall and slender, with big eyes and a wide smile. Elijah McClain wanted to go to art school, his mother told Yahoo News, but was working as a massage therapist at Massage Envy in the meantime. He loved animals and music. When there was trouble, he stayed away.
“Elijah was a giver. He was a lightworker,” Sheneen McClain says, using a term for someone who tries to improve the lives of others. “He wanted other people to feel good about themselves. He was the epitome of pure.”
A client of McClain’s at Massage Envy voiced a nearly identical sentiment to the Sentinel, a local news outlet: “He was the sweetest, purest person I have ever met. … He was definitely a light in a whole lot of darkness.”
Another colleague, Eric Behrens, recalled to the same newspaper: “I don’t even think he would set a mouse trap if there was a rodent problem.” In fact, McClain was a vegetarian.
Aurora, where McClain was born and raised, has routinely proclaimed itself “the Safest Large City in Colorado.” The slogan (which has had its veracity questioned) is an implicit rebuke to neighboring Denver, as well as a more subtle means of distancing itself from the notorious crime for which most Americans know the place: the killing of 12 people by a gunman at a 2012 midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” The movie theater where that massacre took place is about 3 miles south of where McClain was stopped by the Aurora Police Department last August.
For a department of only about 700 officers, the APD has had its share of controversy beyond the McClain killing. “What we’ve got is a racist police department with a history of brutality, and particularly brutality against Black people,” says McClain family attorney Newman, who has sued the department many times over the last two decades.
In 2015, members of the department made a violent, middle-of-the-night arrest of a disabled 60-year-old Black man; the following year, two Aurora officers informed a Black man eating a muffin inside a coffee shop that his “kind of business” was “not welcome” in the establishment and made him leave. In 2018, Aurora officers beat a Latino man who had been working on a car in his garage. They had been called to the scene because of loud noise.
In the summer of 2017, Lt. Charles Deshazer responded to a police shooting. Surveying members of the public at the scene, he said that “we have all the Alabama porch monkeys contained.” The remark was captured on body camera footage, and Deshazer was fired from the department.
Deshazer appealed the ruling. “Termination is an excessive sanction,” a civil service board found in 2018, despite the fact that Deshazer had a history of allegations of racism and excessive force. Over the objections of the police chief, Deshazer returned to the force and, according to his LinkedIn profile, remains with the department to this day.
Aurora Police Officer Nate Meier was found passed out drunk in his patrol vehicle on March 29, 2019, in the middle of Mississippi Avenue, a busy east-west thoroughfare. He had been drinking vodka on the job, it was later determined. Fellow officers pulled him out of the car but did not treat the case as a drunk-driving incident. Neither Meier nor the officers who covered for him faced any consequences.
A year later, similar circumstances would lead to the killing of Black motorist Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta.
Earlier this year, local doctor P.J. Paramar sued the Aurora Police Department after an officer pointed a gun at his head while Paramar was sitting in his car, in a parking lot he owned. “Being doubted that I own the property felt worse than having a gun at my head,” Paramar, who is of Indian descent, wrote on Medium.
Also this year, the department fired Officer Levi Huffine for “severe misconduct.” The city’s new interim police chief, Vanessa Wilson, promised transparency while declining to explain what, exactly, Huffine was fired for.
She did say his misconduct had nothing to do with the McClain killing.
The department has also had trouble recruiting officers of color. Although the city as a whole is only about 46 percent white, 2017 statistics from the Aurora Police Department show that whites constitute 81 percent of its sworn officers. Blacks make up just 4 percent of the force.
Billings Street abuts Interstate Route 225, beyond which lies the gleaming University of Colorado Hospital and, west of the hospital, the Denver familiar to its many visitors. The surrounding area is an unremarkable expanse of one-story houses and low apartment buildings, including the one in which McClain lived. Officer Woodyard would later assert that the area “was known for criminal activity,” which is why he presumably felt it necessary to confront McClain instead of simply letting him go on his way.
“Officer Woodyard stepped out of his car and told Mr. McClain to stop at least three times,” Adams and Broomfield counties District Attorney Dave Young would write in his November 2019 report, which remains the fullest official account of the killing. “Mr. McClain appeared to ignore the commands and continued walking northbound on Billings Street.”
Woodyard came toward McClain.
“I have a right to go where I am going,” McClain said.
“I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious,” Woodyard said.
Young’s report describes how Woodyard grabbed one of McClain’s arms, while Rosenblatt grabbed the other. “Mr. McClain was clutching to his chest a plastic style shopping bag with items in it,” Young wrote. “Officers did not know the contents of this bag,” which consisted of the iced tea McClain had just bought. Newman, the McClain family attorney, says that there was nothing else inside the bag.
“Officer Woodyard later told Detective Ingui [Matthew Ingui, an Aurora Police Department detective who would submit his findings on the McClain killing to Young in October] that he was telling the male to calm down because he thought the male might have weapons on his person and wanted to conduct a ‘pat down’ search for weapons given the circumstances.”
The Aurora Police Department has never explained what about the evening’s “circumstances” made officers suspicious that McClain was armed, especially since the 911 caller had made no such claim. He did not even say that McClain threatened him, only that his arm-waving and winter attire seemed suspicious.
According to the Fourth Amendment, which was clarified in the landmark Terry v. Ohio decision of 1968 by the Supreme Court, a police officer has to have “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity in order to stop and search a person.
Whether an anonymous 911 call meets the reasonable suspicion standard is a complex legal issue that remains unresolved. In 2014, the Supreme Court heard a case known as Prado Navarette v. California. Six years before, police officers in California had used an anonymous call to stop a truck that the caller claimed was driving erratically. Inside the truck, officers discovered 30 pounds of marijuana.
The high court said the stop was legal, but the ruling was far from unanimous. A dissent was written by conservative Antonin Scalia and joined by the court’s most committed liberals, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor. Relying on anonymous tips, Scalia warned, was “a freedom-destroying cocktail.”
To this day, just what rendered Elijah McClain suspicious remains a mystery, one of several surrounding his death. Bodycam footage shows that his left hand — the one closest to the approaching officers who had pulled up on Billings Street — held a sagging plastic shopping bag. In his right hand he held a smartphone.
The three officers crowded around McClain on the sidewalk. This agitated him, as it would any person trying to make their way home.
“I am an introvert,” he cried out as the officers boxed him in.
They persisted, either not sensing or ignoring his unease. “Relax, or I am going to change this situation,” one of them said as McClain pleaded to be left alone.
The officers then proceeded to push McClain toward a strip of grass in front of an apartment complex on Billings Street. “I intend to take my power back,” McClain said, the anxiety now unmistakable in his voice.
At that point the situation took a more serious turn, with Roedema claiming that McClain attempted to take Rosenblatt’s gun. The claim is inconsistent with how friends and family described McClain, as someone who was nonconfrontational. Nor is it consistent with his explicit desire to get home.
“All three officers then took Mr. McClain down to the ground as quickly as possible,” District Attorney Young would write in his report.
Although the composite bodycam footage from the encounter is three hours and eight minutes long, the crucial several minutes before reinforcements arrived, during which the three original officers struggled with and restrained McClain, are effectively unavailable because all three said their cameras were knocked off during the struggle with the 140-pound McClain.
Audio captured by the cameras makes clear that, even if McClain did initially resist the attempt to apprehend him, he was quickly overwhelmed and in obvious pain after having a chokehold applied by Woodyard. He can be heard pleading with the officers, which is at odds with their later claims that he mounted a ferocious resistance to their efforts at arrest.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t have a gun. I don’t do that stuff,” he said at one point. “I’m just different. I’m just different.”
About eight minutes after Woodyard and the other officers had first pulled up to McClain as he walked along Billings Street, sirens sounded and more officers arrived. First responders were also on their way.
One of the newly arrived officers picked up a body camera lying in the grass. The camera caught Woodyard still pinning McClain to the ground.
“Move your camera, dude,” Woodyard ordered tersely.
McClain continued attempting to reason with the officers. “I can’t breathe correctly,” he said at one point, echoing the final call of George Floyd and, before that, Eric Garner, both of whom were killed by neck compression methods that have been widely denounced by proponents of policing reform.
McClain then appeared to vomit, leading one of the officers to look for sanitizing wipes. At the same time, the original three officers were clearly trying to consolidate their own story. Roedema described how McClain had tried to reach for “Rosie’s gun,” an apparent reference to Rosenblatt.
Rosenblatt described how McClain had “gone crazy,” which presumably justified the intensity of the response.
“What’s he doing, exactly, crazy?” a just-arrived officer asked.
“He’s like saying stuff, he’s holding his arms in,” Rosenblatt answered.
These assertions cemented the false notion that McClain had proved a formidable foe. And that, in turn, made attempts to subjugate him seem all the more important. One officer warned him against any efforts to resist: “If you keep messing around, I’m going to bring my dog out.”
Medics arrived. One of them would tell Young, the district attorney, that McClain “was combative and appeared to be showing signs of excited delirium by his appearance and his aggression.” That medic injected McClain with ketamine, an animal tranquilizer that has recently gained popularity with psychiatrists who believe it can treat depression in people. First responders have also used ketamine as a sedative.
“I mean, I think this guy is not even going to jail tonight,” someone said as the medic prepared the syringe. “Based on his … there’s no way.” The medic injected McClain with 500 milligrams of ketamine, a higher dose than his weight would have indicated.
Vomit dribbled from McClain’s mouth as medics lifted him off the ground. Even on camera, the limpness of his body is evident.
“Head. Head,” a female voice warned as McClain was plopped onto a gurney.
In the ambulance, his “chest was not rising on his own, and he did not have a pulse,” the district attorney’s report would note. McClain suffered cardiac arrest in the ambulance as it was taking him to the University of Colorado Hospital on the other side of the highway along which he had been walking.
He suffered a second cardiac episode around 3 a.m. on Aug. 25, about four hours after he was brought to the hospital.
Sheneen McClain believes her son was effectively dead by that time. The Aurora Police Department put him “on display in the hospital so that they could figure out how to cover up their story,” she charges. She says that as many as seven police officers would be in Elijah’s hospital room with her when she arrived there later that night.
“Why is a police officer watching my son’s dead body on display?” she recalled wondering. “Why is that a part of your investigation? Why are the police even here while we’re mourning?”
At the hospital, officers met with members of McClain’s family but were reluctant to say anything definitive. “Something happened from there to here” was all that one of them could manage in the way of an explanation.
The Aurora Police Department first made a public statement about the incident on Aug. 26. “The male would not stop walking down the street from the officer,” the statement says without naming McClain. “He was taken into custody,” it says a little later without mentioning the two chokeholds, one failed and one successful, to which McClain was subject. The statement calls ketamine “a standard medication routinely utilized to reduce agitation,” without mentioning that the drug is in fact quite controversial.
McClain was taken off life support and declared dead the following day, Aug. 27, three days after his confrontation with the Aurora Police Department.
“There was no justification for what those bullies with badges did,” Sheneen McClain told Yahoo News. For 10 months she has been looking for answers, so far without much luck.
Stephen Cina, a veteran pathologist, conducted the autopsy. Cina observed that McClain’s body was marked with abrasions, evidence of the struggle on Billings Street. The hyoid bone in his neck was not broken, as it sometimes is when a chokehold is applied (the hyoid bone of George Floyd, killed earlier this year by Minneapolis police, survived intact despite an eight-minute compression of his neck by an officer’s knee).
“While on scene, the decedent displayed agitated behavior and enhanced strength,” Cina wrote, though there is little evidence of that “enhanced strength” in the bodycam footage that has been made public. “These features are commonly seen in Excited Delirium.”
Excited delirium is controversial because, critics say, it is often used as an after-the-fact justification by officers accused of police brutality. If they can claim the suspect was acting wildly, they can also retroactively justify steps they took to restrain the suspect.
Cina did not say McClain had died because of excited delirium, but he also did not rule it out. And he said McClain could have an “idiosyncratic drug reaction” to the ketamine. He said “intense physical exertion and a narrow left coronary artery” were “contributing factors,” but just how much they contributed Cina also did not say.
“Based on my review of the EMS reports, hospital records, bodycam footage from the restraining officers, and the autopsy findings, I cannot determine which manner of death is most likely,” Cina wrote.
Whatever the exact cause of death, the McClain family places the blame on the actions taken by the police that night.
“There was no justification to give him any medication at all. He was not experiencing excited delirium,” says Newman, the family’s attorney. “You can see from the video he’s handcuffed on the ground, fully restrained and totally calm. So there was no reason to give him any dosage of ketamine whatsoever, but there was certainly no justification to give him an amount that was for somebody over twice his size.”
Those findings were made public on Nov. 7. Two weeks later, on Nov. 22, District Attorney Young announced he would not seek charges.
The Aurora Police Department was also plainly eager to put the matter to rest. And maybe that would have happened, except for this year’s spate of Black men and women killed by police.
After months of what appeared to be neglect, things began moving quickly. On June 9, the city manager announced the appointment of Eric Daigle, a former Connecticut State Police detective, to conduct an independent investigation. But members of the City Council objected because of his record of testifying on behalf of law enforcement, and the contract was canceled. Mayor Mike Coffman has said he will pick a new investigator.
Despite having defended its officers, the Aurora Police Department has banned the kind of chokehold that Woodyard used on McClain.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, the state’s progressive governor, Jared Polis, directed Colorado’s attorney general to launch an investigation. In an announcing the new investigation, Polis said what many have long known: “Elijah McClain should be alive today.”
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