When Anaheim police officers Daniel Wolfe and Woojin Jun Tasered Vincent Valenzuela earlier this month, the incident drew immediate comparisons to Kelly Thomas in Fullerton. Both men had been homeless with histories of mental health conditions and fell into comas following stops by cops. The Valenzuela family even ended all life support for Vincent five years to the day that Thomas died.
But Valenzuela’s death summons another eerily similar Anaheim police case that occurred in the very same 7-Eleven parking lot 17 years ago.
Back on March 25, 1999, Olivia Graves called Anaheim police to help get her fiancee Brian Drummond, who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, to a hospital. Four officers responded to the scene, including Kristi Valentine and Christopher Ned. They didn’t deem Drummond to be a danger to himself or others and declined to put him in a 5150 involuntary psychiatric hold. Graves alleged that the officers acted unprofessionally and even cracked jokes instead. She took her fiancee to get lithium on her own to stop his hallucinations, but he didn’t have health insurance or the money to pay for the medication out of pocket.
The following day, Drummond’s neighbor called Anaheim police, worried that Brian might dangerously wander into traffic. Officers Valentine, Ned and Brian McElhaney found Drummond wandering around aimlessly at the parking lot of 7-Eleven on Magnolia Avenue and Broadway. This time around, they decided to call an ambulance. While they waited, officers decided to take Drummond into custody “for his own safety.” That’s when things took a turn for the worse.
Ned took Drummond down to the ground and put him in the prone position. Already handcuffed, McElhaney dug his knees into Drummond’s back while Ned put a knee to his neck. Drummond only weighed 160 pounds at the time and it wasn’t long before he cried out that he couldn’t breath. Witness Victor Calleja claimed that the officers were “laughing during the course of these events.”
Twenty minutes later, officer Gregory Sawyer arrived on scene and helped hobble tie Drummond’s ankles. But by then, he’d gone limp. The police turned him over and started performing CPR. Seven minutes passed before they brought Drummond back to life, but he already suffered considerable brain damage, leaving him in a permanent vegetative state for the next seven years until finally succumbing to his injuries on July 26, 2006—a decade to the month that Anaheim officers left Valenzuela dead. Drummond’s doctor claimed he “suffered a cardiopulmonary arrest caused by lack of oxygen to his heart,” all due to chest compression caused by the cops. Anaheim Deputy City Attorney Deborah Knefel argued in court documents that Drummond’s death was due to something called “excited delirium,” a controversial condition where a person suffers acute distress from drug use or mental health episodes. In addition to mental health conditions, Drummond, like Valenzuela, struggled with methamphetamine use throughout his life. To this day, civil libertarians decry “excited delirium” as a ruse providing cover for police brutality.
The Drummond family sued the officers, police department and the city of Anaheim for damages. The civil trial didn’t come the first time around because U.S. District Judge Alicemarie H. Stotler agreed to the city’s request to dismiss the family’s claim in January 2002. “The reason why the case was decided against us is that Stotler found that the police were entitled to qualified immunity,” Federico C. Sayre, the attorney for the family at the time, told the Weekly. “It is a very frequent defense of the police.”
The following year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Stotler’s decision in reviving the lawsuit with harsh words about the police encounter. “We hold that the force allegedly employed was, if proven, constitutionally excessive,” wrote Judge Stephen Reinhardt. “The force was not only severe, but it was also, on the facts asserted, wholly unwarranted.” Knefel bitterly disagreed with the court’s decision. “He was cussing and kicking and screaming the entire time,” Knefel said of Drummond in the Los Angeles Times of Drummond. “He resisted the officers right up until he suddenly grew docile.”
Sayre hoped the ruling would open the way for a civil trial to begin within months. When it did, an OC jury left him disappointed. “We tried to argue that the police piled on him and left him asphyxiated, which I thought was pretty clear,” Sayre says. “In the trial, the jury found that the officers did not engage in excessive force.” In an unusual occurrence, Sayer reached a settlement on behalf of the family after the trial verdict. In exchange for not filing another appeal, the city of Anaheim paid out a paltry $145,000 in 2009. “My nieces and nephews ended up getting about $3,000 each from that money,” Tammy Galbraith, Brian’s sister, told the Weekly. “It was an insult to my brother’s life and his children.” The police officers, Galbraith says, were never removed from the force or disciplined for their actions. The legacy of the Drummond case lives on. The Ninth Circuit’s decision in Drummond is often cited in police brutality cases where qualified immunity is argued against. Reinhardt’s opinion stated that the Anaheim Police Department had concerns about compression asphyxia and warned officers in training bulletins about the dangers of kneeling on a detainee’s back or neck nearly a year before the Drummond incident. In overturning Stotler’s decision, they also rebuffed her qualified immunity justification.
History has a way of repeating itself in Anaheim and Drummond also lives on in Valenzuela’s death. Garo Mardirossian, the attorney for Valenzuela’s family, claims that Vincent had been Tasered in the chest based on medical records, something the Anaheim Police Department’s policy cautions against doing so unless given no other option. “My heart just goes out to them,” Galbraith says to the Valenzuelas. “I understand how tragic it is to lose somebody so suddenly.”
The Weekly requested files from Digital Audio Recorder devices worn by the officers involved but after a “diligent search” by APD, none could be identified and turned over. The Orange County District Attorney’s office also has yet to provide Mardirossian with body camera footage, which also can record audio, from the incident. The police department showed surveillance video to media last week but without syncing any sound.
Though the picture of what exactly happened to Valenzuela is incomplete, the similarities to Drummond are too hard to ignore. “I’m shocked by it all because basically it’s the same story,” Patricia Gonzalez, Vincent’s former wife, says of Drummond. The Valenzuela family is currently raising funds online for funeral and burial costs. “It just seems that so many years later, Vincent ended up the same way as he did.”