Jailers’ use of force in death of inmate again under scrutiny

Minutes before Deramus Lemuel went limp, El Paso County jail deputies pinned him to the cell floor with their shins and elbows while landing blows to his shoulders, back and legs as he fought against them, records show.

Deramus Lemuel and his wife, Elizabeth. He died in August. Courtesy of Elizabeth Lemuel.

 

The newly released documents and surveillance camera footage portray the events leading up to the death of the 38-year-old Colorado Springs resident, who was high on drugs and distraught when he was brought to jail the morning of Aug. 1 after being arrested hours earlier on suspicion of a parole violation.

 

During the more than 10-minute struggle, at least five jailers held down Lemuel, who was 6 feet and roughly 200 pounds, according to Sheriff ’s Office records.

 

Parole officers later told another deputy who was reviewing the incident that they heard Lemuel yell, “You’re hurting me!” before the jailers noted he had stopped breathing.

 

When Lemuel stopped moving and was turned to his side, his ankles shackled and hands cuffed behind him, a sergeant noticed his “eyes had rolled back.”

 

Lemuel had gone into cardiac arrest, the Coroner’s Office would later conclude, and never regained consciousness before he died two weeks later at an area hospital.

 

The Coroner’s Office ruled Lemuel’s death a homicide, attributing the loss of oxygen that caused his cardiac arrest to a combination of his drug-induced high and the “physical restraint of law enforcement officers.” The autopsy report stated that the ruling does not imply wrongdoing by law enforcement; his death was ruled a homicide because, while there were other factors, Lemuel had contact with jail staff when he suffered the medical crisis.

 

A review by the Sheriff ’s Office found that the jail deputies who restrained Lemuel did not violate policies, spokeswoman Jackie Kirby said. They also won’t face charges, 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Lee Richards recently told The Gazette.

 

That disturbs Lemuel’s family.

 

“He didn’t die on his own,” said Lemuel’s mother, Marva Lemuel, who’s retained civil rights attorney Darold Killmer of the Denver-based firm, Killmer, Lane & Newman. “I’m not giving up on trying to get justice.”

 

When Lemuel was arrested at a southeast Colorado Springs liquor store July 31 on suspicion of a parole violation, officers said he swallowed a small bag of meth and other illicit drugs. He was then medically cleared at an area hospital, where he tested positive for methamphetamine, benzodiazepines, amphetamine and MDMA, according to the autopsy.

 

In internal Sheriff ’s Office reports after the incident, deputies wrote that he was uncooperative when he arrived at the jail.

 

After he was taken to a cell in the jail’s intake section, he dropped to the floor and tried to free himself from jailers’ grip.

 

Killmer’s firm originally requested the documentation and surveillance footage, which was provided to The Gazette by the Sheriff ’s Office.

 

One deputy pinned Lemuel’s right arm down with her shin and her hand and elbowed him in the shoulder when he tried to bite her, she wrote in a memo.

 

A second deputy reported that he pressed his elbow into Lemuel’s upper back, kneed Lemuel for the biting attempt and struck Lemuel’s shoulders “a few times” while trying to dislodge his arms from underneath his body to put on handcuffs.

 

A third deputy said she hit his thigh twice with the heel of her palm while he tried to kick as she and a fourth deputy were restraining his legs.

 

A fifth deputy reported that he forced Lemuel’s mouth shut by pressings a nerve under his jaw to put on a spit hood — a routine practice to protect jailers from bodily fluids — after Lemuel had tried to spit at them.

 

The jailers also cut off his clothes to dress him in a safety smock and ensure that he didn’t smuggle in contraband.

 

Attempts by jail staff to revive Lemuel with CPR and a defibrillator were unsuccessful, and he was taken to UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central, where he was admitted to ICU.

 

The struggle was in the same cell where more than four years ago jailers yanked a woman’s legs out from under her and shoved her to the floor, leaving her with a torn ACL, fractured knee, and bruises all over her body. Philippa McCully, then a junior at Colorado College, sued and last year won a $675,000 settlement, the county’s largest payout on record.

 

Killmer also represented McCully, and revealed while preparing to argue her case, that a group of El Paso County jailers competed in what a deputy dubbed “fight club.” The overnight jail deputies were ranked by how often they used force against an inmate.

 

Sheriff ’s Office staff who were reportedly involved have denied the allegation, but an internal probe suggests it went on for several years before it was investigated in 2016.

 

Sheriff Bill Elder’s administration chalked it up to deputies monitoring their performances under an internal reporting system.

 

Lemuel’s death has Killmer again questioning the integrity of Sheriff ’s Office employees and others whose job it is to protect the public.

 

“We can’t expect law enforcement to enforce the law against themselves, and this is just more evidence,” Killmer said. “When they’re the ones that are breaking the law, there’s no one left to do anything about it. It’s left to the families of the victims of their abuse.”

 

Lemuel was a graduate of Harrison High School and had four children with his wife, Elizabeth.

 

At the time of his death, he was on parole, serving time for identity theft and attempted escape from a community corrections or intensive supervision parole program. But Lemuel had not checked in with his parole officer and was wanted for violating parole, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections.

 

The autopsy states Lemuel suffered from high blood pressure — also believed to be a factor in his death — and had a “history of cigarette smoking, anxiety, and illicit drug use.”

 

Another family who recently lost a loved one last year after a confrontation with law enforcement has also retained Killmer.

 

Jeffrey Melvin, 27, was hospitalized after he was repeatedly shocked with a stun gun during an altercation with police and died about a week later on May 2.

 

The Coroner’s Office also ruled Melvin’s death a homicide, attributing it to complications from sickle cell disease, which affects red blood cells, and “extreme exertion” during his confrontation with police.

 

Melvin, an attempted murder suspect, resisted arrest when police found him at a southeast Colorado Springs apartment complex while investigating a report of a disturbance last spring, according to police.

 

Two officers shocked him, each with a pair of cartridges, and another officer used pepper spray as police tried to apprehend him, Colorado Springs police spokesman Lt. Howard Black said in a past news release.

 

He fled the apartment and ran across the street, where he fell on his knees. Once police had restrained him, he complained that he was having difficulty breathing and was taken to Memorial Hospital Central, where he was admitted to the ICU. Initial tests showed he had alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroine in his system, Black said in the release.

 

Melvin’s family filed a complaint with Colorado Springs police after he died.

 

On Friday, Black declined to provide further comment.

 

Melvin’s sister Cherie Craft told The Gazette body camera footage from the incident has been requested from police and she and her family “are moving forward with a civil suit.”

 

The District Attorney’s Office will not be charging anyone in Melvin’s death, spokeswoman Richards said.

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