AURORA | Elijah McClain’s fatal encounter with police began on a summer night in 2019 when a 911 caller reported that the young Black man looked “sketchy” as he walked down the street wearing a ski mask and raising his hands in the air in Aurora.

In reality, McClain, who was often cold, was just walking home from a convenience store, listening to music.

But moments later, police stopped him and after struggling with him, put the 23-year-old in a neck hold. Then paramedics gave him a sedative that officials eventually determined played a key role in his death days later. McClain, a massage therapist known for his gentle nature, was unarmed and hadn’t committed any crime.

Four years after his death — which left a gaping hole in his mother’s heart and sparked outrage over racial injustice in American policing — a trial for two of the officers was set to begin Friday with jury selection. Trials for a third officer and two paramedics are scheduled to start later this year.

While officials from inside and outside Aurora point to a host of tragedies, missteps and outright crimes committed by police as reasons why police reform has been imposed by state officials, the McClain death stands out.

A jury will decide if officers Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt are guilty of manslaughter, criminally negligent reckless homicide and assault charges in a trial expected to last about a month. They have pleaded not guilty but have never spoken publicly about the allegations against them.

Roedema, a former Marine who is currently suspended without pay, had been with the department for five years before McClain’s death. Rosenblatt had worked for the agency for two years and is the only officer who confronted McClain who was fired — not for the fatal encounter itself, but for making light of other officers’ reenactment of the neck hold.

Their attorneys — Donald Sisson for Roedema and Harvey Steinberg for Rosenblatt — didn’t return requests for comment.

They were indicted in 2021 by a state grand jury after an outcry over McClain’s death following the police killing of George Floyd. McClain’s pleading words captured on body camera, including, “I’m an introvert and I’m different,” drew widespread attention after Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.

The grand jury indictment came nearly two years after a local prosecutor decided against prosecuting the officers largely because the coroner’s office could not determine exactly how McClain died. He called McClain’s death “tragic,” but said that finding made it hard to prove that the officers’ actions caused his death.

A revised coroner’s report issued in 2021 said the cause of death was complications from the ketamine but also noted that that occurred after McClain was forcibly restrained. Pathologist Stephen Cina wrote he couldn’t rule out whether the stress of being held down by the officers may have contributed to McClain’s death.

McClain, who weighed 140 pounds, was given a higher dose of ketamine than recommended for someone of his size and overdosed, Cina found. McClain was extremely sedated within minutes of being given the ketamine, wrote Cina, who said he believed McClain was gasping for air when he was put on a stretcher.

His death brought increased scrutiny to how police and paramedics use ketamine. It is often used at the behest of police who believe suspects are out of control.

Sheneen McClain, Elijah McClain’s mother, declined an interview request ahead of the trial but has long called for the officers who stopped her son to be sent to prison. She and McClain’s father, LaWayne Mosely, sued Aurora and reached a $15 million settlement with the city.

Experts say the case against the officers is far from a slam dunk.

With ketamine blamed for causing McClain’s death, it will be difficult for prosecutors to convince jurors that the police officers are responsible for his death, said Hermann Walz, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“They don’t have a direct link for the police. They might have a better case against the EMTs,” he said.

But Jonathan Smith, who helped conduct the Aurora investigation and is a senior special counsel for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said even if they can’t prove that the officers’ actions contributed to McClain’s death, prosecutors could still try to win a conviction on the assault charges.

Except for when officers thought McClain had grabbed for one of their guns, Smith said there was no legal justification for using force against McClain.

Like so many police brutality cases today, body camera footage from the officers played a major role in bringing to light what happened. The officers’ cameras eventually fell off but kept recording though sometimes only capturing audio.

The video shows it starting when one of the officers — Nathan Woodyard, on trial later this year — gets out of his car. He approaches McClain and says, “Stop right there. Stop. Stop. … I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”

McClain, using earbuds, kept walking down the street, as he carried a plastic bag and his phone. Within ten seconds, Woodyard put his hands on McClain, turning him around. As McClain tried to escape his grip, Woodyard said, “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation.”

Then Roedema took the bag McClain was holding, containing cans of iced tea, and threw it to the ground. McClain told them he would stop the music he had been listening to to hear them while demanding to be let go.

Then came a pivotal moment that escalated the situation.

As Rosenblatt and Woodyard held McClain’s arms and pulled him toward a grassy area, Roedema said, “He grabbed your gun, dude.” But that can’t be seen on body camera footage and was never corroborated.

All three officers later told investigators that they helped bring McClain to the ground because of Roedema’s statement.

As the officers restrained him, one of them put him in a neck hold that stops the flow of blood to the brain. Paramedics later arrived and gave him ketamine, which at the time was legal to give to people showing erratic behavior.

Pinned to the ground, McClain can be heard crying out in pain, apologizing, explaining himself and pleading with the officers. He vomited and tried to explain himself — but the officers didn’t engage.

“I was just going home … I’m an introvert and I’m different. Going home …I’m just different. I’m just different. That’s all,” he said.

Later, as the officers talked to a supervisor about what happened, McClain said: “You all are phenomenal; you are beautiful. … Forgive me.”

Three days later, McClain was pronounced dead in a hospital.

Since 2020, neck holds have been banned for police in Colorado by the state’s Democratic-led Legislature. The state health department has also told paramedics not to give ketamine to people suspected of having a condition involving erratic behavior known as excited delirium.

The diagnosis of excited delirium is itself controversial, with the American Psychiatric Association and other entities questioning its validity and stating that it is disproportionately applied to Black males who have had an encounter with police.

McClain’s death became a rallying cry for police reform advocates. They hope his death can be a watershed moment that brings meaningful reform to police and serves as a warning that police brutality won’t be tolerated.

“If we just continue to sit by and allow anyone to be murdered under the guise of ‘protect and serve’, we have failed exponentially,” said Candice Bailey, a police reform advocate in Aurora. “Elijah McClain was a wake-up call for the planet.”

Associated Press writer Thomas Peipert contributed to this report.

Join the Conversation


  1. Again, a prosecution based upon emotionalism. The resulting democratic police reform bill has huge flaws that have driven police officers out of the job and left Colorado communities in danger. The public and the legislature have no idea what the police reform bill says and the consequences. For instance, there is much in the news about the past rioting and the new limitations on use of less lethal and tear gas. But what is not understood is that none of those things can be used at all now to disperse a crowd that is destroying businesses. As tragic as McClain’s death was, it was not criminal. Everything is now a use of force under the police reform bill. The officers’ jobs are now more dangerous because they can’t use simple hands on searches when they are faced with someone who may have a weapon. They can’t have someone sit down in the middle of a domestic dispute. It is not lost on them that they should not stop anyone because they will be subject to endless second guessing. The Supreme Court long ago established that the force should not be judged by 20/20 hindsight and should be judged from the viewpoint of a reasonable officer at the scene. All of the shootings you see and the stolen cars are greatly due to the fact that there are no longer enough officers and stops are not being done. All of those stops for traffic and other minor offenses are where we get the wanted suspects off of the streets. If we do not return to the idea that citizens have a responsibility to cooperate with the police, then we are doomed to a much worse situation.

    Elijah died as the result of struggle and use of the ketamine. The original decision that it was not known why he died was where it should have ended. The police tried to stop someone who should have stopped. They did not randomly pick him out for some type of abuse. Part of his education should have been that he had a responsibility as a citizen to stop when told to do so by the police. Suspects have been dying as result of struggles with police for many years. In many of those struggles, there was no use of a chokehold or blows. There was a term for it. It was called Sudden In Custody Death. The medical people could not explain why the people died. If you eliminate use of force, then you may as well have the police stay home. You can see by all of the retail theft going on that criminals are not going to stop when there is no one to stop them.

    Sad as Elijah’s death was, it was not criminal. The prosecutions that are being carried out now are a message to the police. Do not stop anyone. Do not do the job that society expects you to do to protect everyone. So, now we have to lower standards and rush a bunch of hastily trained officers out onto the streets with the guidance to not do the job. Does that seem like a good idea to you?

    One other fact emerges for those who pay attention. the police have no voice. The police chiefs, sheriffs, and the police unions have not stood up to explain the problems with the police reform bill. They have kept their heads down while giving great guidance to the officers. That guidance is that they don’t know what the police reform bill means and that officers should not stop anyone or do any type of proactive police work. Community policing is essentially dead. The officers already knew that their leadership was essentially political types. Those same leaders who won’t stand up now are the folks who failed to train their officers, did not get rid of bad officers, and failed to lead them in any crowd control efforts that made sense. The failed leadership cost millions in the case of the George Floyd and Elijah McClain riots. I guess no one is paying attention to the fact that those in charge in law enforcement have a duty to lead in a professional way. Where are they now?

    1. Here we go again Mr. Black.

      1. First off I wasn’t there that night and neither were you. Hopefully, you will concede that point.
      2. So your “Monday morning quaterbacking”, as to what happened that night is just that, and holds no more credibility than mine, if I was to engage in that behavior. And please spare me the BS of all your years of experience.

      3. Just a simple common sense question. Do you think it would have made sense to have at least one officer go to the 7-11 and just ask was there a problem here? Were you robbed or threatened in any way by anyone this evening; while at the same time you restrained this big 140 lb person. Would that have made sense. Aren’t officers trained to sort through situations and get to the facts. Did this situation require a split second decision based on a life and death situation. Would that have been
      an approach to make a “reasonable” judgement as to whether anyone’s life was in danger

      1. There is a great quote in a book written by Jeff Cooper who taught firearms to countless military and police. “In specialized disciplines, the majority opinion is almost automatically wrong”. There is value in experience. We are undergoing experience now in what the results will be of extremely lenient attitudes toward criminals. Let us see what that experience will show. Mind you, the police already understand from experience. But, to your point. yes, it would obviously be better to have gone to 7-11 and found out all of the details before contact. Now, the reality is that you cannot do that much of the time because the suspect will be gone before you can accomplish that. There are presumptions that a person will stop long enough for you to ascertain the circumstances. The law requires them to do so when stopped by an officer. When you don’t stop and resist, you are committing a violation of the law namely “Obstruction”. Sadly, for whatever reason (perhaps fear of the police stoked by the media), poor Elijah decided to not stop and to resist. When people don’t give you a chance to talk or explain, things get out of hand quickly. I know from long experience (thousands of arrests). In those cases, I always said to myself, “All he had to do was stop and he would have been on his way in a few minutes”. If we just let everyone walk away from us, then we can forget enforcing any laws (even your favorite laws). I have watched the body cams many times. I have been involved in training officers for a long time. It is easy for you to send guess. The Supreme Court long ago said that that type of second guessing should not be used to judge police use of force. You don’t have to deal with real situations. The idea that officers should be held to the same standard as citizens is ridiculous. No citizen is constantly required to confront and fight with people. Let us take professional football. Are players criminally charges when they use too much force on a tackle or when they punch each other. No, there are penalties imposed. That type of internal punishment is necessary. If the force was grossly excessive, like hammering someone with your helmet, then criminal charges would be appropriate. The same applies with police work.

        1. Ok , was this a “specialized discipline” threatening situation? Was the “suspect” fleeing? Was he threatening anyone? He had his headphones on. More than that did he beg for his life? Did he tell the police he loved them?
          Did he really grab for the officer’s weapon? Come on Don spare me the bullshit about quotes from experts. It’s called COMMON SENSE. Stop overthinking a case that clearly shows, not only a lack of common sense, but also a lack of decency, civility, and an absence of the mantra “to serve and protect.”. So tell me, who were the cops serving and protecting that night?

          I really would love to see this case per the police video and audio taught in any police academy in the U S as a life threatening “specialized discipline situation.

  2. Looks like local police reform advocate spokeswoman Candice Bailey ostensibly has created a new persona for herself. In the Sentinel video she is emotionally confident, focused, and well-balanced throughout her interview for this piece. The distinctive behavior of sociopathic manipulation of others.

    “Candice Bailey yells to protesters with raw emotion, June 27, 2020 at the Aurora Municipal Center.”
     QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff WriterJuly 16, 2020”
    I’m confused .. Who exactly is this Bailey a portrayal of?

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