Vincent Valenzuela, r.i.p.
Vincent Valenzuela, r.i.p.
Courtesy of the Valenzuela family

OCDA: No Charges for Anaheim Police in Suffocation Death of Homeless Man

The Orange County District Attorney's office declined to press charges against two Anaheim cops involved in a struggle that left a homeless man in a coma on July 2, 2016. Vincent Valenzuela died days later in a West Anaheim hospital last summer after his family ended life support. The controversial death led to angry protests in front of the 7-Eleven where the altercation ended and drew comparisons to the Kelly Thomas killing at the hands of Fullerton police. Garo Mardirossian, the attorney who won a $4.9 million settlement in the Thomas case and represents Valenzuela's family, previously claimed that medical records showed police Tasered Valenzuela in the chest, stopping his heart.

According to the 10-page report, officers Daniel Wolfe and Woojin Jun responded to a call about a man who paced in front of a home near the intersection of Magnolia Street and West Broadway after following a woman there. When they arrived, the officers found Valenzuela near the intersection and thought he fit the description. Valenzuela quickly walked into a nearby laundromat once he saw police. The officers followed him inside and heard the sound of shattering glass. "Howdy," Wolfe said. "You break a pipe or something?"

Police noticed Valenzuela's bloodied hand, but he insisted he was only washing his clothes. Wolfe spotted a screwdriver in Valenzuela's duffel bag and became concerned it could be used as a weapon. "Stop, put your hands behind your back," Wolfe commanded. But Valenzuela ignored the cop and tried to make his way outside. A struggle ensued when the two cops tried restraining him. While on the ground, Jun put Valenzuela in a "carotid restraint" hold—police lingo for a specific hold in which they press on neck arteries to try and make someone pass out due to a loss of blood in the head. Is wannabe judo moves what law enforcement is reduced to?

And bad wannabe judo moves: Valenzuela eventually squirmed free, evaded officers despite being Tased four times, and escaped outside when they pulled the shirt off his back.

Anaheim police released surveillance video from the laundromat shortly after Valenzuela's death that shows the struggle described in the report. 

The altercation continued outside when Jun stunned Valenzuela on the shoulder causing him to fall on his back. But the policemen still failed to gain control of him. (Watch related surveillance video here). The report states he outweighed each cop by sixty pounds. Valenzuela's ex-wife saw him two days before the incident and tells the Weekly she believed he weighed no more than 195 pounds—that'd make the cops a pair of shrimps! Valenzuela fought back and kicked Wolfe in the chest. He escaped a roundhouse kick aimed at him and fled across the street to a nearby 7-Eleven convenience store where the struggle continued.

Sergeant Daniel Gonzalez, himself cleared by the OCDA in a non-fatal shooting last year, arrived on scene and saw fatigued officers trying to cuff Valenzuela, who tripped over shrubbery onto the pavement. Wolfe placed him in the same wannabe judo hold Jun tried earlier as Gonzalez looked on. The OCDA notes in its report that the hold is within policy when a person is physically resisting. Under Gonzalez's supervision, Wolfe continued applying pressure for 15 to 20 seconds until he felt Valenzuela relax into a snore.

But when the officers cuffed and turned him over, Valenzuela was unresponsive. An ambulance transported him to West Anaheim Medical Center where he suffered cardiac arrest three times; doctors revived him each time. He remained brain dead until the Valenzuela family decided to take him off life support on July 10. An autopsy showed he died of asphyxia while under the influence of methamphetamine.

Anniversary memorial for Valenzuela before being replaced with a cigarette ad the same day
Anniversary memorial for Valenzuela before being replaced with a cigarette ad the same day
Photo by Gabriel San Roman/ OC Weekly

The OCDA stated it's willing to release body-worn camera footage reviewed by investigators to the public, but is respecting the protective order placed on the evidence by a federal judge in the related lawsuit. Mardirossian held a press conference in Los Angeles last July about the litigation he prepared when he claimed Valenzuela was Tased in the chest. The report notes the number of times he was Tased, but never where. Mardirossian argued that Tasing the chest is cautioned against by Taser International because of its potential to cause cardiac arrest.

Finding all use of force to be within the law, the OCDA concluded that the two officers didn't commit any acts of criminal homicide or negligence. The Valenzuela family is deeply disappointed by the agency's decision not to pursue charges, but offers no other comment at this time.

As always, the report can be read in its entirety online.

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