Arapahoe County sheriff’s deputies and Sheridan police officers are responsible for killing a mentally ill man, and their departments are at fault for failing to train the officers on how to respond to people in crisis, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.
John Thomas Rotzin died in November 2014 just days after a sheriff’s deputy used a Taser to shock him at least three times and other deputies and police officers piled on top of Rotzin and beat him as they tried to restrain him.
The county coroner determined the cause of death was homicide, although that designation does not mean it was a crime. District Attorney George Brauchler chose not to file criminal charges against the officers involved, and the sheriff’s department and Sheridan police did not discipline anyone for their roles in the death, saying their actions fell within department policies.
But Rotzin’s mother and wife, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, blame the two departments. The women are accusing law enforcement of excessive force, a Fourth Amendment violation, and other rights violations. The lawsuit asks for an unspecified amount of damages.
Arapahoe County, the city of Sheridan and seven deputies and officers are named as defendants.
Rotzin, 33, was a patient at the Arapahoe Community Treatment Center when he suffered from an acute mental breakdown Nov. 20, 2014, the lawsuit says. He suffered from depression and addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Rotzin’s episode began with convulsions and a seizure, according to the lawsuit, and he walked into the treatment center’s day room and began hitting random people.
Staff members at the center called 911 and restrained Rotzin as they waited for police.
The first Arapahoe County deputy on scene, James Wightman, demanded that Rotzin stand. Once Rotzin stood, he began to wander away, but Wightman grabbed him by his shirt and slammed him into a wall, the lawsuit states.
Rotzin was in a daze and ignored Wightman’s warnings to keep his hands up and to face the wall. The lawsuit states Wightman deployed his Taser into Rotzin’s chest.
Rotzin fell. But when he again tried to stand, Wightman fired a second blast from the Taser. And while Rotzin was on the ground, the lawsuit says, Wightman administered a third shock from the Taser.
After the third shock, Sheridan police Officer Joe Thomas arrived and started holding Rotzin face down on the floor. Two more deputies arrived, including Deputy Matt Howerton, who delivered at least three knee strikes into Rotzin’s rib cage, the lawsuit said.
As Rotzin struggled with the officers, Thomas began hitting him in the left rib cage and neck, and the lawsuit says at least one officer struck Rotzin in the head with a baton.
Then two more Sheridan officers, Greg Miller and Jared Patterson, arrived and got on top of Rotzin.
Witnesses reported that Rotzin repeatedly yelled, “Grandma, I’m OK,” Grandma, help me,” and “I love Mom,” while he was being beaten and restrained, the lawsuit said.
When paramedics arrived and started loading Rotzin onto a stretcher, he spoke incoherently, saying the paramedics looked like pie, talked about their water boots and said he had spiders all over him, according to the lawsuit.
Still, Howerton and Sheridan Officer Bryan Valenzuela used their body weight to pin Rotzin on the stretcher. Rotzin went into cardiac arrest. Rotzin died four days later in the intensive care unit at Swedish Medical Center.
Julie Brooks, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s department, said the county has not been served with the lawsuit. A commander with the Sheridan Police Department said he was not authorized to comment on lawsuits and would refer questions to the chief and city attorney.
The lawsuit, filed Friday by the Killmer, Lane and Newman firm in Denver, takes the two law enforcement agencies to task on how they train deputies and police officers.
For example, Taser International issued a bulletin 2009 advising law enforcement agencies that shooting its stun guns at a person’s chest carried a risk of cardiac problems. The Arapahoe County deputy shocked Rotzin three times in the chest.
Both agencies did not train officers to calm themselves in stressful situations, did not train officers on how to de-escalate volatile situations, and did not train them to respond to mentally ill detainees, the lawsuit said.
“Mr. Rotzin’s death at the hands of Arapahoe County law enforcement officers is a tragic example of the overwhelmingly common use of excessive force by law enforcement officers throughout Arapahoe County,” the lawsuit said.