Feds reveal they've been investigating death of Elijah McClain since last year

The FBI said the recent attention around McClain's death caused them to disclose their ongoing investigation

By Elise Schmelzer
The Denver Post

AURORA, Colo. — Federal law enforcement agencies revealed Tuesday that, since last year, they’ve been investigating the death of Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police and paramedics.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the Denver Division of the FBI said in a news release that the recent international attention around the death of McClain in August caused them to disclose their ongoing investigation.

A demonstrator holds a placard during a rally and march over the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain Saturday, June 27, 2020.
A demonstrator holds a placard during a rally and march over the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain Saturday, June 27, 2020. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

“The standard practice of the Department of Justice is to not discuss the existence or progress of ongoing investigations,” the news release states. “However, there are specific cases in which doing so is warranted if such information is in the best interest of the public and public safety. Recent attention on the death of Elijah McClain warrants such disclosure.”

The coalition of federal authorities began reviewing the facts of the case in 2019 to see whether there are grounds for a federal civil rights investigation.

“The matter is ongoing, and we are in the process of gathering additional evidence from the Aurora Police Department and other parties,” the authorities said. “To date, the city of Aurora has been cooperating.”

The federal authorities also will gather information about the internal investigation into Aurora police officers who posed for photos at the spot where McClain was arrested to see if a federal civil rights investigation is warranted into that situation.

The revelation Tuesday now means there are three separate investigations — at every level of government — planned or underway into the death of McClain. Aurora’s city leaders have pledged to hire an outside investigator — after terminating their first contract for their job — and Gov. Jared Polis last week appointed the state’s attorney general to lead a separate investigation.

The announcement came while city leaders held a virtual meeting Tuesday evening to examine how Aurora police responded to demonstrations Saturday, when hundreds gathered to protest McClain’s death and honor his life. Many of the largely peaceful protesters were pushed off of the municipal center lawn by Aurora police.

For more than 40 minutes, City Clerk Stephen Ruger read dozens of submitted comments. The vast majority slammed the police department for its response to the protest and the photo incident. They said the response by well-equipped police was disproportionate to any actions by some people in the crowd.

In a flat voice and at a clipped pace, Ruger also read McClain’s last words that had been submitted as a comment.

“I was just going home,” McClain said as police brought him to the ground and arrested him, though he was accused of no crime. “I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry.”

Interim police Chief Vanessa Wilson choked up as she started her presentation after the comment period.

“Your words have not fallen on deaf ears with me,” she said. “It’s a very emotional moment for me right now.”

Wilson walked council members through the events of Saturday and repeatedly blamed the disruption in the crowd on a small group of approximately 50 agitators. She said out-of-sight officers were dressed in riot gear before the first protest began at 1 p.m. and that the department moved them into sight a short time later as people shook a barricade police had set up.

She said the department decided to disperse the crowd that evening because some people were pushing over a barricade fence, people armed themselves with rocks and it soon would be dark. She also cited actions by crowds in other cities, like Denver and Minneapolis, and said she worried police headquarters would be overrun. A total of about 110 officers responded to the protests.

Wilson apologized that she didn’t better communicate with peaceful protesters when she ordered lines of riot police to push one part of the crowd off the lawn.

Wilson and her top staff also said multiple times that they saw people wearing helmets and goggles, which they believed indicated the protesters would not be peaceful.

Aurora City Councilwoman Alison Coombs questioned why defensive gear would seem threatening to police, who were already wearing helmets and body armor themselves. The nation has watched weeks of protests at which police used tear gas and projectiles on crowds of protesters.

“I think people have a right to protect themselves with protective equipment,” Coombs said.

Councilmen Curtis Gardner and Juan Marcano also called for police to release more body camera footage than the montage of short clips they put online Monday.

“I have no problem releasing all the body camera footage,” Wilson said, but it will take time to process hundreds of hours of video.

Two councilmembers seemed to come to the defense of the department. Councilwoman Françoise Bergan argued that people should have left when police told them to disperse.

But Councilwoman Crystal Murillo questioned why the situation even had to escalate to the need for a dispersal order, especially when most people were not agitating.

“Why did an overwhelmingly peaceful demonstration still end the way it ended,” Murillo said. “The people are traumatized now as a result of what happened.”

McClain’s death has garnered international attention over the past two weeks following weeks of protests around the world against police brutality and the killings of Black people by law enforcement.

Aurora police stopped McClain, 23, on the street on Aug. 24 because a 911 caller had reported him as suspicious. Officers attempted to arrest McClain when he did not immediately comply with their orders to stop walking. The officers took him to the ground, where one used a carotid chokehold on him, and a paramedic injected him with the heavy sedative ketamine.

McClain suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital, where he died Aug. 30 after he was declared brain dead.

The three officers who arrested him — Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema — were cleared of criminal wrongdoing and internal policy violations. They were taken off street duty this month for their own safety, according to an Aurora spokesperson.

©2020 The Denver Post

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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