A jury in Los Angeles awarded $13.2 million on Wednesday to the children of Vincent Valenzuela, a 32-year-old man who died following an encounter with Anaheim police in 2016. The decision came after the jury found on Monday that officers Daniel Wolfe and Woojin Jun had acted negligently and used unreasonable force in the incident.
The award is the largest ever in a civil case involving Anaheim police and an in-custody death.
Back on July 2, 2016, officers Wolfe and Jun responded to a call about a man who paced in front of a home in West Anaheim. They followed Valenzuela into a nearby coin laundromat, began questioning him and a violent altercation ensued.
“The police tracked Valenzuela down–I hate to say it–like a wild animal and killed him,” says Garo Mardirossian, an attorney representing Valenzuela’s two children in the case. “There was no serious crime that he committed. The only thing they heard was a meth pipe break.”
Officers used a “carotid restraint” hold on Valenzuela inside the laundromat but he broke free, even after being Tased. He kicked Wolfe in the chest and ran across the street to a 7-Eleven after avoiding a roundhouse kick. Police caught up with Valenzuela at the convenience store’s parking lot. They got him to the ground and Wolfe applied a carotid restraint hold .
Valenzuela became unresponsive during the arrest. He suffered three heart attacks on the way to West Anaheim Medical Center and never recovered from being in a comatose state. The family decided to end life support eight days later. The incident drew comparisons to Kelly Thomas, the homeless man killed in a violent encounter with Fullerton police in 2011. Both men died on July 10, five years apart.
Mardirossian won a $4.9 million settlement in the Thomas civil case. Anaheim offered to settle the Valenzuela case, but for a paltry sum. “We said no, we’ll let a jury decide,” Mardirossian adds.
“If that bone breaks, that means you have not properly applied the carotid hold,” says Mardirossian, calling it “signature” evidence.
Attorneys Dale Galipo, Lawrence Marks, Douglas Linde also joined Mardirossian in the case. The legal team called Bennet Omalu, a world-renowned forensic pathologist, to testify during the trial. Not only did he back up the physical evidence showing a broken hyoid bone, but also medically explained Valenzuela’s slightly enlarged heart as the defense tried to only ascribe meth abuse as the cause. Omalu testified that being on life support for several days will cause organs to enlarge.
The jury evenly split the $13.2 million award between Valenzuela’s son, now 13, and his 8-year-old daughter.
“We respectfully disagree with the decision and believe the judgment is unwarranted,” says Mike Lyster, Anaheim spokesman. “Our officers responded to a family’s call for help and took measured, reasonable actions in dealing with someone intent on resisting, fighting and getting away.”
Mardirossian counts 12 cries for help and six “I can’t breathe” pleas from Valenzuela before he became unresponsive. Towards the end of the encounter, Sergeant Daniel Gonzalez arrived on scene and supervised the carotid restraint hold Wolfe continued to apply. The attorney says all three officers had martial arts training, but Valenzuela still ended up dying from complications of asphyxia.
The Orange County district attorney’s office declined to press charges against the policemen in 2017. A few months later, the agency publicly released body worn camera footage and surveillance video of the encounter.
Even with a record award being handed out by a jury for an in-custody death civil case, Anaheim is still standing by its officers. “Any loss of life in our city is tragic, and we are the first to take a critical look at any encounter,” says Lyster. “We have done so and believe our officers acted in the best interest of public safety. Ultimately, this incident speaks to the devastating impacts of drugs on people, families and communities.”
With Anaheim police now under the helm of chief Jorge Cisneros, Mardirossian believes the outcome of the Valenzuela case ought to provoke key policy changes.
“They should follow the Los Angeles Police Department’s lead and basically ban any kind of neck hold unless in a use of deadly force situation,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s too lethal and is very difficult to apply.”
*Updated with corrected reporting on jury award split.