Charges filed in death of Elijah McClain, with investigations still unfolding
Aurora police officers suspended following grand jury indictment
A memorial at the site where 23-year-old Elijah McClain was violently detained by Aurora police in August 2019 while he was walking home from a convenience store. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)
Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist and self-taught violin player, died in August 2019 after being violently detained and injected with ketamine, a powerful tranquilizer, on his way home. McClain was never suspected of committing a crime — the Aurora police officers who contacted him were responding to a 911 call about someone who looked “suspicious.”
Two years later, a grand jury indictment, announced Wednesday, means three officers and two paramedics could soon stand trial on manslaughter charges in Adams County district court.
More scrutiny awaits the Aurora Police Department, which is still under a federal investigation, state civil investigation, and subject to a civil lawsuit in McClain’s death.
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State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, told reporters she spoke with Elijah McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, after Attorney General Phil Weiser announced the 32-count indictment, which included charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide for all five defendants.
“I know there was a lot of apprehension about what the attorney general’s findings would be, and finding out that he is bringing those 32 indictments forward I believe gave her some peace,” Herod said Wednesday of Sheneen.
Herod has sponsored multiple police reform bills at the state Capitol over the past two years, with much of the legislation guided in part by what happened to Elijah McClain.
“I’m proud that the attorney general has basically validated what the people of Colorado and people around the world have cried for when they’ve asked for justice,” she said.
In the summer of 2020, Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order appointing Weiser to reexamine the case and file charges if necessary. Weiser convened a state grand jury that investigated McClain’s death for more than six months, resulting in the indictment announced on Wednesday.
The grand jury’s charges against the three officers and two paramedics were filed in Adams County district court. For now, the two officers who were still on the force are out of a job, according to an Aurora police spokesperson.
Officers Nathan Woodyard and Randy Roedema “have been placed on immediate and indefinite suspension without pay,” Lt. Christopher Amsler confirmed in an email. The third officer, Jason Rosenblatt, was fired last year after responding “ha ha” to a photograph of other Aurora police officers reenacting a chokehold at the site of McClain’s arrest.
After the case is adjudicated, Aurora police will conduct an internal affairs investigation to determine whether the officers committed any policy violations in their arrest of McClain, Amsler said. If they are found to have violated department policy, Chief Vanessa Wilson “will then make a determination on what the appropriate punishment should be.”
“I know this has been a long-awaited decision for Ms. McClain and her family,” Wilson said in a statement provided by Amsler. “This tragedy will forever be imprinted on our community. We continue to offer our condolences for the loss of Elijah, and we will continue to cooperate with the judicial process.”
Aurora city charter requires any police officers and firefighters indicted on a felony charge to be immediately suspended without pay. That would presumably also include paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec, who were named in the indictment. They were employed by Aurora Fire Rescue at the time of McClain’s death.
The fire department did not respond to a question about Cooper’s and Cichuniec’s employment status by Newsline’s deadline. However, Amsler provided the following statement from Aurora Fire Rescue Chief Fernando Gray:
“For more than two years our community has grieved the death of a precious life. Our community demanded answers and continually questioned the circumstances surrounding Elijah’s death and we are committed to fully cooperating as the judicial process moves forward. We want to share again our deepest expression of sympathy to the family members and friends of Elijah McClain.”
On top of the charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, Roedema and Rosenblatt face one count each of second-degree assault causing serious bodily injury. Cooper and Cichuniec are charged with three counts each of second-degree assault, including assault causing serious bodily injury, assault with a deadly weapon (ketamine), and unlawfully administering ketamine without consent.mcclain-grand-jury-indictments
More investigations underway
Besides the criminal indictment, a federal investigation into McClain’s death is currently underway, along with a separate investigation by Weiser to determine whether there are serious patterns and practices of excessive force and biased policing within the Aurora Police Department.
This type of “patterns and practices” investigation was authorized under Senate Bill 20-217, legislation sponsored by Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, and Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, along with Herod and Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Democrat from Denver. The bill — signed into law by Polis in June 2020 — came in response to public outcry over the deaths of Elijah McClain, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people detained by police officers in Colorado and across the country.
“After two long years, we finally have some clarity on Elijah McClain’s case, and can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that these individuals will be held accountable for their vile actions,” Fields said in a Wednesday statement. “Today, I stand in solidarity with the McClain family, all of his loved ones, and the Aurora community, and commit to continue working together to advance meaningful criminal justice reform so we can create a world where black lives truly do matter.”
The family of Elijah McClain has filed a civil lawsuit in August 2020 against the city of Aurora and several police officers and paramedics, which is still pending in federal district court.
Initially following McClain’s death, former 17th Judicial District Attorney Dave Young had cleared Woodyard, Rosenblatt and Roedema of all criminal wrongdoing.
But independent investigators commissioned by the city of Aurora released a report in February detailing how Aurora police officers and paramedics mishandled the encounter that led to McClain’s death.
The investigators — led by Jonathan Smith, executive Director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs — found that the initial investigation conducted by the police department was inadequate and upheld a false narrative from law enforcement. Their report highlighted far-reaching accountability issues within the Aurora Police Department.
The Aurora City Council also commissioned the firm 21CP Solutions to make broader recommendations about police department policy, which were released in August. In recent months, Aurora police have begun implementing changes aimed at restoring trust with the community — such as acquiring updated body-worn camera system in July and commissioning an outside organization to draft new use-of-force policies.
“This tragedy has greatly changed and shaped Aurora,” City Manager Jim Twombly said in a Wednesday statement provided by Amsler. “Today’s announcement is an important step in restoring the community’s trust in Aurora’s public safety agencies and in honoring Elijah’s life.”
This year, the Colorado General Assembly passed House Bill 21-1251, which restricts when and how paramedics can administer ketamine outside of a hospital setting. The bill — sponsored by Democratic Reps. Yadira Caraveo of Thornton and Herod, along with Democratic Sens. Rhonda Fields of Aurora and Julie Gonzales of Denver — was spurred by McClain’s death.
Federal legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Lafayette, would federally restrict the use of ketamine during arrest or detention, though the measure has not received approval in the House or Senate.
“The tragic death of Elijah McClain was devastating for so many in the Colorado community,” Neguse said in a Wednesday statement. “While accountability for those involved in his death cannot bring him back, such justice is critical to provide healing for his family and the community.”
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