UNLIKELY SUSPECT: Those who knew Elijah balk at Aurora police account of his death

October 24, 2019

Elijah McClain in an intensive care unit shortly before his family disconnected him from life support. McClain encountered Aurora police one night last month, was subdued and drugged during the encounter. He suffered cardiac arrest during the encounter and never regained consciousness, his family said. PHOTO SUPPLIED

 

On a Saturday night in late August, Eric Behrens walked out of an apartment building to find a north Aurora street blocked by police cars, awash in red and blue lights.

 

He didn’t see anyone.

 

Behrens, a massage therapist, was leaving a party at a friend’s apartment. To get out of the area, near the intersection of Billings Street and Evergreen Avenue, he picked his way back through the apartment complex and took a sidestreet.

 

“I had no idea what was going on at the time,” he said.

 

It would be three more days until Behrens learned he was steps away from an old friend that night.

 

Aurora Police Department officers had just stopped his friend, Elijah McClain, around 10:30 p.m. Police had received a call of a “suspicious person” wearing a ski mask and flailing his arms.

 

McClain was 23. He had been a massage therapist for about four years. He lived in the neighborhood with a cousin. He was black.

 

He’d just left a gas station to buy soft drinks, and was walking home.

 

What followed was a mysterious — and his family says, brutal — encounter with police that racked McClain with an apparent heart attack, a coma and ultimately his death on Aug. 30. Police body camera footage reviewed by McClain’s family and lawyer shows police officers putting McClain in a chokehold and forcing him onto the ground for 15 minutes before injecting him with a sedative, ketamine, they say.

 

Records show McClain had never been arrested in Colorado and was never charged with a crime.

 

“It doesn’t make sense,” said Marna Arnett, a client of McClain’s for years at the Massage Envy in Greenwood Village, calling the police response “brutal.” “He was the sweetest, purest person I have ever met. He was definitely a light in a whole lot of darkness.”

 

That’s the prevailing attitude in a community left grappling with the loss of McClain. Two-months after his death, friends and family described him as a spiritual seeker, pacifist, oddball, vegetarian, athlete, and peacemaker who was exceedingly gentle.

 

“I don’t even think he would set a mouse trap if there was a rodent problem,” Behrens said of McClain.

 

For their part, Aurora police have released few details and shuttered officers’ body-worn camera footage from public view.

 

His death after encountering police prompted a customary review led by a multi-agency team of Denver Police Department, Aurora Police Department staff and the 17th Judicial District Attorney’s office, which is still ongoing.

 

Some of McClain’s family and friends have little hope that the investigation will hold the involved officers accountable. They have called for an independent inquiry rather than one led in part by cops from neighboring Denver.

 

Regardless, McClain’s friends and family say they will never understand how a life
so rich in positivity, spirituality and earnestness could end so violently at the hands of police.

 

“He wanted to change the world,” said Sheneen McClain, his mother. “And it’s crazy, because he ended up doing it anyway.”

 

Elijiah McClain was a Denver native, living in Aurora near his family. Sheneen said she moved him away from her native Park Hill in northeast Denver because of gang violence.

 

“I just didn’t want my kids to be caught up in that life,” she said. “I thought if I got away from the gang life, Aurora would be safer for my kids. Boy, was I wrong.”

 

Sheneen would eventually have six kids, including Elijah, and describes herself as a single mom.

 

She homeschooled Elijah for some time. At an early age, Sheneen said she noticed that Elijah was intellectually gifted but fiercely independent. He wouldn’t be rushed in his learning and needed to advance himself on his own, she said. But he took his own learning and discipline seriously.

 

“He didn’t want to be subjected to the poverty that I experienced as a single mother,” she said.

 

McClain would go on to earn his G.E.D. from Emily Griffith Technical College in Denver. He had lots of different jobs, Sheneen said, from working at a PetCo to a Little Caesars pizza joint.

 

By his teenage years, he’d taught himself to play guitar and violin. On his lunch breaks, McClain would hoof his instruments to animal shelters to perform for abandoned creatures, believing the music put them at ease.

 

He’d become a vegetarian, considering carnivorous diets a form of cannibalism and eschewing meat for “food from the fields and the trees,” as Sheneen said. She said he cared about animals so much that he would chase off flies rather than kill them.

 

When Sheneen later watched the body camera footage of the interaction with Aurora police officers that August night, she said she watched Elijah tell that to officers, too, pleading with them to let him go.

 

His gentleness with animals extended to humans, friends say.

 

McClain naturally gravitated toward a career in massage therapy. He earned his certification faster than his peers and soon found himself giving his first professional massage on April Young, then a manager at a Massage Envy in Englewood. He was just 19, she said.

 

“He was nervous because he just didn’t want to hurt me, and that’s what he told me,” Young recalled. She was a bit nervous, too, having had nine spinal surgeries.

 

But he explained that he would send her healing energy and well-being with the massage.

 

“I don’t want this to offend you, but you’re beautiful,” she recalls him telling her. He struck her as gentle, sensitive and wholesome.

 

She said she took the comment as heartfelt and harmless.

 

The two quickly connected and remained platonic friends for years, even after he was transferred to another location.

 

“He had a child-like spirit,” she said. “Elijah McClain was not conditioned to the norms of America… He lived in his own little world. He was never into, like, fitting in. He just was who he was.”

 

Later, McClain landed at a Southglenn Massage Envy location and then in Greenwood Village at the Cherry Hills Marketplace.

 

Marna Arnett became McClain’s patient for about two years. Like Young, she’d had her fair share of physical traumas — and emotional ones. About 13 years ago, she lost family members to a suicide pact. She’s also a chronic pain patient, stemming from complications related to giving birth. She gets massages twice a month, as well as physical therapy and chiropractic sessions.  She was also hit by a drunken driver and has chronic pains in her shoulder, spine and neck.

 

She connected deeply with McClain.

 

Their conversations during long massages would span religion, politics, spirituality, their family lives and more. He was a great masseuse, in spite of his age, said Arnett, interested in traditional healing practices but also chakras, the body’s spiritual energy centers revered in Eastern healing practices.

 

“I know friends that I haven’t talked to as much as Eli,” she said. “They murdered my friend.”

 

Arnett said she’d leave their sessions feeling physically and emotionally rejuvenated — no small thing for a chronic patient for whom trips to the grocery store or simply sitting in a theater for too long can still become torture.

 

When not in his massage sessions, coworkers quickly learned that McClain was unlike anyone they’d met before, they say.

 

Emerald Bixby, one colleague, would always hear him snapping and humming to himself while walking down the hallway. She said he was so kind, positive and upbeat on Monday mornings that it could almost be annoying.

 

Behrens was briefly a lead therapist at one Massage Envy location, and spoke highly of McClain’s work ethic. He’d routinely arrive early and forged strong relationships with regular customers, including Arnett.

 

At the Greenwood Village location, McClain continued his propensity for taking unusual lunch breaks: His colleagues would find him playing violin or jamming on guitar in a back room with Behrens. He’d work out, doing push-ups, compulsively jumping rope and doing handstands in front of the store, where the sidewalk was perfectly level.

 

“If you didn’t know him, and happened to see him out on the sidewalk killing time doing something like that, you would have been confused,” Behrens said of the handstands. “But he was always a little bit like that.”

 

Behrens and Bixby describe McClain as projecting an infectious sense of tolerance, egolessness and positivity that quickly won people over. He connected with Behrens over elements of spirituality in Native American ideals. He said he was guided by a purpose.

 

“Eli was very tolerant of that, and all about tolerance and acceptance, advancing himself and helping others do that,” he said. “He was always trying to evolve, if you will.”

 

At home, that discipline manifested into a self-imposed struggle against distractions like video games. McClain saw his Playstation as a threat to his discipline and creative expression in drawing and music but also running, spending time with family and working out, Behrens said.

 

He’d remotely play video games with Behrens, but then he would sign out of his Playstation gamer tag for long periods. (He’d named it “Purposely guided.”) Behrens found out the reason for the radio silence: McClain would constantly pawn his Playstation, considering it a drain on his free time, and then buy it back. He was always going back and forth to the pawn shop, Behrens said.

 

Sheneen, his mother, took notice of his affinity for growth and learning.

 

“I believe that he was in search of higher knowledge all the time,” she said of her son.

 

All accounts describe McClain as generally abstinent from drugs and alcohol — a “straight edge” guy. And after normal interactions with people, he would usually turn to them and  bow slightly, like the Japanese.

 

Behrens called this gesture of McClain’s a “gratitude bow.”

 

McClain also began running miles at a time — so much so, that he preferred running and walking to riding in someone else’s car. (He didn’t have a driver’s license.)

 

                             Elijah McClain at a convenience store in Aurora shortly before encountering

                             police while walking home. Witnesses inside the store told family members they

                             were not alarmed by the mask Elijah wore while buying iced tea. Family members

                             said Elijah wore the mask frequently. PHOTO SUPPLIED

 

McClain’s entire look changed once he started running, his mother said. He seemed to always wear those rubber shoes with toes. He also bought a runner’s mask that covered his face, much like a ski mask.

 

Sheneen believes the mask was a kind of Dri-fit material donned to keep his face warm and wick moisture while he ran long distances.

 

But he also began to wear the mask even when he wasn’t running or working out, in public places.

 

Behrens and Bixby said they don’t remember McClain wearing the mask. But Bixby isn’t surprised he’d wear it: She said McClain suffered from anemia, rendering him cold even on hot summer nights. When they’d run together on the High Line Canal trail, he’d wear long sleeves on even the hottest day, she said.

 

At Massage Envy, she said he preferred to work in the hot stone rooms.

 

“He was always chilly and worked in the hottest rooms — and when I say the hottest rooms, I mean, the freaking hottest rooms,” she said. “When you’re doing massage, it gets awful in there, and he really preferred that.”

 

Bixby wondered at McClain’s mastering of a highly physical job and his constant exercise, considering how small and skinny he was. He also looked young for his age.

 

“He was a little bit underdeveloped in a way,” she said of McClain. “We’re talking about a legitimately very skinny guy who worked a very muscular, physical job and stayed insanely skinny and cold all the time.”

 

But she said he also privately suffered from social anxiety, and speculates he’d don the mask as a way to make himself feel more comfortable interacting with people.

 

Arnett, his client and friend, also learned that he was socially anxious and isn’t surprised he didn’t reveal that to her. “It makes sense when you are dealing with that kind of anxiety. You’re not going to openly talk about it,” she said.

 

“He would hide behind that mask,” Arnett said. “It was protection for him, too. It made him more comfortable being in the outside world.”

 

None of his friends and family said they thought much about the mask until McClain was in a coma. It’s part of the reason police initially responded to a call in the area.

 

“I can’t think of any reason to wear the mask, unless it was because of wind chill or something,” Behrens said. “Unfortunately, that was the mistake of the night for him.”

 

This year, Sheneen and Behrens both drifted out of touch with McClain for a few months. In early August, Sheneen was involved in a car crash that left her somewhat anxious.

 

By late August, McClain had moved out of the family home and was living with a cousin in north Aurora, about a block away from where police stopped him on August 24.

 

Elijah McClain died twice: First, when his heart stopped in an ambulance after encountering police. Later, in a hospital, his family took him off of life support.

 

On his last night walking freely in Aurora, McClain sauntered to a nearby gas station and bought four cans of Brisk tea for friends and family.

 

Surveillance footage obtained by KDVR shows McClain standing in line, waiting to buy his drinks. He’s wearing the runner’s mask, a jacket and pants on the warm summer night. Other customers wear tank-tops and t-shirts.

 

While he pays for the items in cash, the other people in the store appear to be laughing and joking with him. Before he departs, he turns and gives them a gratitude bow. The cashier later told KDVR she didn’t feel threatened even though McClain was wearing a mask.

 

Soon after, Aurora police officers stopped McClain on the 1900 block of Billings Street after receiving a call describing a man wearing a ski mask and “flailing his arms at the caller.”

 

McClain’s friends believe he was dancing.

 

According to APD, multiple responding officers arrived and contacted McClain, who was found walking in the area wearing the 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,” said outgoing APD Chief Nick Metz. “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 medication to subdue his reported anxiety before he was loaded into an ambulance and driven to a nearby hospital. The family later disclosed the drug he was given was ketamine.

 

Mari Newman, a civil rights lawyer with the Denver firm Killmer, Lane and Newman, watched the police body camera footage of their interaction with McClain. She’s representing the McClain family.

 

                        Elijah McClain in the hospital after his encounter with the Aurora Police

                               Department. Photo courtesy of Sheneen McClain

 

She said the jarring video showed three 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 the undisclosed medication first responders injected McClain with was ketamine — a powerful tranquilizer used to treat depression and as anesthesia — to subdue him.

 

“She described the video footage as showing McClain ‘passive’ and handcuffed on the ground. An individual off-camera suggested administering 500 milligrams of the drug, she said.”

 

According to APD, McClain was then loaded into the ambulance, where he went into cardiac arrest en route to a nearby hospital. He was resuscitated in the ambulance, APD said.

 

However, Newman said the body camera footage is incomplete.

 

She claims all three of the police officers’ body cameras became “dislodged,” pointing in the wrong direction and failing to capture the entire arrest of McClain.

 

Newman said she doesn’t believe that’s a coincidence.

 

She says that, at one point in the footage, one officer tells another: “Move your camera, dude.”

 

Photos of the unconscious McClain in the hospital show a liquid, appearing to be blood, leaking from his nose, his head wrapped in a bandage, hooked up to tubes.

 

His family took him off life support six days after arriving.

 

It’s unclear what exactly would have caused McClain to vomit and stop his heart during his arrest.

 

A final autopsy report from the Adams County Coroner’s Office is still pending. While the initial autopsy was conducted on Sept. 3, final reports take up to three months to complete, a spokesperson confirmed. Sentinel Colorado has already requested a copy of the final report.

 

APD, too, has noted the importance of the report.

 

“The Adams County Coroner’s Office report is not yet completed and is a key component to providing much needed information to this investigation,” APD said in a statement this month. “Once their report is finished, the Coroner’s Office will be the ones who release those results. It will be included in the case that is then presented to the 17th Judicial District Attorney’s Office for review.”

 

That pending investigation, and shuttered details, has created an information gap filled by Sheneen McClain’s report of watching the body camera footage.

 

The details have hit hard for Elijah’s friends and family.

 

Above all, people who knew McClain are confused why three police officers would need to restrain him in the first place: Behrens agreed that wearing a mask at night look sketchy, but he affirms McClain would quickly have deescalated the situation if able.

 

“If you were to pull Elijiah over and talk to him —  he’s never been in trouble with the police, he is not confrontational, he is very cooperative. If anything, he would be like, ‘I’m so sorry to distract from your night,’” Behrens said. “It’s confusing.”

 

He also noted that McClain’s small size confuses the details of his arrest even more.

 

“I could hold him like a baby, like nothing. So naturally hearing about the other stuff, I don’t know why that force was needed,” he said of the police response. “One big guy would have been enough for Eli.”

 

The confusion has also spilled into anger — and activism.

 

From left to right, the father of Elijah McClain, LaWayne Mosley, their lawyer, Mari Newman, and Elijah’s mother, Sheneen McClain. From a press conference and protest at Aurora city hall Oct. 1, 2019. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

 

Early this month, about two dozen family members, friends, religious leaders and legal counsel gathered at city hall to mourn McClain and call for justice. McClain’s name has become a rallying cry, used in the same sentence as Eric Garner — the New Yorker who died after a police-administered chokehold — and Laquan McDonald, a Chicagoan shot 16 times in 2014. Body camera footage of that shooting was just released. Both victims were black.

 

Activists now have some key demands: Firing the cops responsible, and creating a more independent investigation than one led by the Denver Police Department that would result in criminal charges against the officers. Community members say DPD is less than transparent itself.

 

As of press time, APD has not released the names of the officers involved that night, but have confirmed they continue to work on the force.

 

The three Aurora police officers who interacted with McClain were placed on administrative leave for one week following the incident, then shifted to “limited duty” for two weeks, according to Officer Matt Longshore, spokesman for the Aurora Police Department.

 

All three officers have since resumed their normal patrol duties in the northeast corner of the city.

 

While the officers won’t be formally identified until 17th Judicial District Attorney Dave Young issues his analysis of the events, Longshore specified that each of the three involved officers have been with the department for two and a half years, five years and three years, respectively.

 

Only two months after his death, wounds are still raw from losing McClain. In private, his friends and family are struggling to fill the emptiness left by his death.

 

April Young and others have been testifying to Aurora City Council meetings calling for third-party oversight of the investigation.

 

But she feels like most council members aren’t really listening.

 

“When do they care?” she said of city council. “Do they care once their child is murdered? They go home to their families while we are left to pick up the pieces.”

 

Marna Arnett said fear of police is rippling through the community.

 

She fought through tears while detailing how her own children are now scared of cops, how she’s still emotionally numb with McClain no longer her “healer.”

 

“Now, that healer is missing, no longer here…. It’s definitely a void,” she said. “It’s the worst possible nightmare.”

 

As for Sheneen McClain and her family, they’re raising money on GoFundMe to pay for an Adopt-A-Street sign on Billings Street in Elijah’s honor. They’ve gathered several times since his death to clean up the neighborhood.

 

Sheneen said she’s trying to stay at home as much as possible.

 

“I’m still kind of in shock,” she said. “I just want to be more at home. Everything that happened — the crash, Elijah getting killed — I don’t know. The streets are just crazy right now.”

 

Sentinel Colorado reporter Quincy Snowdon contributed to this story.

 

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