Family of man who died after Aurora police encounter say it was ‘cold-blooded murder’

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AURORA | The voice of Reverend Reginald Holmes boomed outside of Aurora City Hall Tuesday afternoon, when he and about two dozen family members, friends and legal counsel gathered to mourn the August death of a 23 year-old African-American man stemming from a bizarre interaction with Aurora police.

Investigators are still seeking to determine exactly what occurred in the moments before Elijah McClain’s heart stopped beating after being placed into custody and transported to a local hospital in north Aurora Aug. 24.

McClain was later taken off of life support and died Aug. 30.

“The officers’ actions and behaviors were brutal and barbaric, and should never be judged as being anything but criminal,” Holmes told the two dozen people gathered at city hall under a drizzly sky.  “What was done to Elijah was nothing short of cold-blooded murder.”

Holmes gathered Tuesday with other members of the Greater Denver Ministerial Alliance, McClain’s family and Denver lawyer Mari Newman of the civil rights law firm Killmer, Lane and Newman. Holmes demanded charges against three APD officers he said were responsible for McClain’s “murder.”

Aurora police have not released body camera footage of the Aug. 24 interaction with McClain, saying it could interfere with an investigation into the death. However, Newman said she and McClain’s parents have reviewed the footage. She said the jarring video showed Aurora cops “torturing” McClain by using a chokehold, cuffing his hands behind his back and forcing him prone on the ground.

Newman said McClain eventually began vomiting, at which point an officer threatened to sick a dog on him. She also claimed that first responders injected McClain with ketamine — a powerful tranquilizer used to treat depression and as anesthesia — to subdue him. She said McClain was then loaded into the ambulance, where he went into cardiac arrest before being resuscitated.

His father, LaWayne Newman, was at a loss for words when asked about watching the interaction that led to his son’s death.

McClain was a massage therapist and generally a very gentle and free-spirited person, said Emerald Bixby, 31. Bixby said she worked with McClain for about 18 months at a massage spa in Greenwood Village.

APD will not comment further on the case until a conclusion is reached by an independent investigation led by the neighboring Denver Police Department and 17th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

Aurora police said they knew yesterday McClain’s family was going to hold the public event and posted a defense of police actions earlier.

“We fully understand the need for transparency throughout this entire investigation and we can appreciate the seriousness of this matter,” police wrote on Monday.  “Last week, at the invitation of the Chief of Police, members of Mr. McClain’s family heard the 911 call and viewed body worn camera videos from this incident. We continue to offer our deepest condolences to Mr. McClain’s family and friends during this very difficult time.

“From the beginning, Chief Metz ordered an investigation at the level consistent with officer-involved shootings pursuant to Senate Bill 15-219 by having a multi-agency team comprised of members from the Denver Police Department, Aurora Police Department and the 17th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. That investigation continues,” police wrote in the blog post.

But Newman called for the state Attorney General’s office or Gov. Jared Polis to intervene in the case and ensure an independent review, casting serious doubts on the existing investigation.

“The Governor looks at each incident on a case-by-case basis, is generally supportive of independent investigations that increase public confidence in the outcome, and does not prejudge the independent review currently underway,” Polis spokesman Connor Cahill told The Sentinel.

On the night of Aug. 24, officers were originally dispatched to the 1900 block of Billings Street after receiving a call of a “suspicious person” in the area, according to police.

Multiple responding officers later contacted McClain, who was found walking in the area wearing a ski mask. He then ignored officers’ commands and continued to walk north down the street away from police, according to Officer Anthony Camacho, spokesman for the Aurora Police Department.

“There was a physical struggle,” Camacho said. “When (police) saw (McClain), they told him to stop. He wouldn’t stop. Again, he was wearing a ski mask, it’s 10:30 p.m. at night in a residential area, so obviously that creates some concern.”

Police did not fire any guns or Tasers, or use any batons or pepper spray while restraining McClain, according to Camacho.

Because McClain appeared to be in an “agitated mental state,” police asked Aurora Fire personnel to respond and provide medical treatment. Aurora Fire paramedics then gave McClain an undisclosed medication to subdue his reported anxiety before he was loaded into an ambulance and driven to a nearby hospital.

Newman said Tuesday the undisclosed medication is ketamine. She described the video footage showing McClain handcuffed, on the ground and “passive”, when an individual off-camera suggested administering 500 milligrams of the drug.

She said she’s since learned that Colorado cops, including those in Aurora, have administered ketamine seven times to subdue suspects since the beginning of 2019.

“I’m also told that it is a very dangerous protocol, that it is a drug that has very different reactions in different people,” she said.

The drug is known on the street as “Special K” and is dubbed a date-rape drug because it causes memory loss and submissiveness.

The use of ketamine by police has been controversial on the past few years, especially in Minneapolis, where the police department there was criticized for its frequent use and danger to subjects.

News reports by the Minneapolis Star Tribune revealed that police and rescuers were injecting so much ketamine to subjects that they stopped breathing and had to be revived.

Despite the controversy, police there and across the country insist the use of the drug actually saves lives and injuries among violent people encountered by police.

In Aurora, McClain spent several days in the hospital before he was taken off life support and died.

According to APD, the Adams County Coroner’s Office has not released its report on McClain’s death. They said report will provide “much needed information to this investigation.”

— SENTINEL COLORADO reporter Quincy Snowdon contributed to this report.