Jail Death of Veteran Haunts Joe Arpaio, 'America's Toughest Sheriff'

Controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio faces a lawsuit over the suspicious death of a mentally ill veteran in a Phoenix jail. Terry Greene Sterling reports.

06.03.12 7:35 PM ET

On a quiet day in early January, the family of Marty Atencio, a mentally ill Gulf War veteran who had died under suspicious circumstances at one of Sheriff Joseph Arpaio’s jails in Arizona, gathered to pay their respects at a funeral home in Phoenix. In their tributes to Atencio, who was 44, the grieving family recalled his recoveries, his relapses, his homelessness—and their struggle to help him. 
Last Friday, six months after Atencio was buried with full military honors, the Maricopa County medical examiner released an unusual autopsy report that paints a horrifying picture of his last hours.

Atencio’s cause of death was tied to “complications of cardiac arrest” due to “acute psychosis, law enforcement subdual and multiple medical problems,” wrote the medical examiner, Mark Fischione. The medical examiner didn’t specify whether Atencio died of natural causes or was killed by the officers. 
Atencio is at least the 12th inmate to die under strange circumstances in the Maricopa County jail system. (The Phoenix New Times lists 11 other such cases here.) And listing “law enforcement subdual” as one cause of death, according to former Maricopa County chief prosecutor Rick Romley, is particularly unusual because it could implicate law enforcement in Atencio’s death. 
The former soldier’s allegedly rough treatment by officers at Arpaio’s infamous Fourth Avenue jail in Phoenix was caught on routine jail video tape. By then, Atencio had been in police custody for over four hours and had been showing signs of “acute psychosis,” the medical examiner reports. The video appears to show burly officers from Phoenix and Maricopa County piling on Atencio, apparently after he said something, though exactly what remains unclear because jail cameras don’t record audio.

Atencio was  subdued for seven minutes, according to the medical examiner’s report, which found evidence of “apparent carotid chokehold, prone placement and restraint, use of conducted electrical device and use of handcuffs” on Atencio’s corpse. He was eventually checked by a jail medical employee before being carried to a cell, where he was stripped naked and lay completely motionless except for an “unspecified movement in his abdominal region,” the report continues.  
Minutes later, when guards went to check on him, Atencio was in full cardiac arrest.  He had no pulse and did not respond to frantic first aid measures, the medical examiner wrote. After at least 35 minutes without a heartbeat, doctors managed to recover his pulse in the emergency room. A few days later, he died, after his family removed him from life support because he was brain dead. 
Atencio’s family is expected to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Arpaio, the sheriff’s department and Maricopa County. They have hired Phoenix attorney Michael Manning, who has won more than $24 million in judgments for relatives of inmates who have died in Arpaio’s jails. 

In an email to The Daily Beast, Manning said that the autopsy, combined with the video and witness interviews, is proof that Atencio was killed by the sheriff’s officers, who taunted Atencio for being mentally ill. 

“Police subdual,” Manning wrote, “means that their handling and their gratuitous restraint of Marty caused him to have a cardiac arrest.” Manning wrote that the officers knew Marty was mentally ill, but made fun of him for it. “They never needed to assault him that night. He had been compliant—even when they asked him to clown for them.”  

Lisa Allen, Sheriff Arpaio’s spokesperson, said in an email to The Daily Beast that she could not comment on the case due to the imminent lawsuit. She added that Manning “is not always familiar with the truth when it pertains to this office and this sheriff,” and that he “appears willing to use lies and deceit to denigrate the detention profession—always with the ultimate goal in mind to secure more money from taxpayers for himself.” 
Atencio, an American citizen of Latino descent, had multiple health problems. He suffered from high blood pressure, a possible heart arrhythmia and high cholesterol. He smoked cigarettes and had abused alcohol and methamphetamine, according to the medical examiner. 

Yet Atencio’s biggest health issue may have been his schizophrenia. On the night of his arrest, Atencio had violently and inexplicably kicked at a door in a Phoenix apartment complex, then yelled at a woman calling 911 to report the incident. Later, he chased a car down the street. 
When the police stopped him, however, Atencio did not resist arrest. He was in their custody for three hours before arriving at the Fourth Avenue jail. 

There, Atencio displayed psychotic and suicidal behavior, according to the medical examiner’s report. Atencio also told jailers he’d recently taken meth, and some jailers though he was on drugs, the report found. About an hour and a half after he arrived in jail, officers moved Atencio from an isolation cell into a booking room where the “law enforcement subdual” occurred. 

Several toxicology reports later determined Atencio had no drugs in his system. Instead, he was apparently in the throes of a serious psychotic episode.  

“Clearly jail personnel need to pay special attention and great care” when someone “with obvious psychosis” arrives at their doorstep, said Romley, the former Maricopa County attorney. 

As the county’s chief prosecutor, Romley clashed with Arpaio over the 1996 death of jail inmate Scott Norberg, who died after guards put him in a restraint chair and allegedly suffocated him.  A jail staffer reported she tried to tell a guard he was cutting off Norberg’s air supply, but the guard allegedly replied: “I don’t give a fuck.”  

The case was sent to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but never prosecuted. In 1999, Manning, the lawyer for the Atencio family, secured an $8.2 million settlement from the county for Norberg’s death. 

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

The threat of yet another Manning lawsuit spells more trouble for Arpaio, the embattled 79-year-old sheriff, who has reigned over Arizona’s most populous county for nearly two decades. 

In early May, the U.S. Department of Justice sued him, alleging rampant racial profiling of Latinos by the sheriff and his department  in various jails across the county and in Phoenix. The lawsuit alleges that the sheriff’s department fails to train its officers, hold them accountable for their actions, and has dramatically departed from standard police procedures.

 The Justice Department is also conducting a criminal probe of allegations that Sheriff Arpaio abused his power by retaliating against his political foes with harassment and bogus investigations. Arpaio has called the accusations by the Justice Department a “witch hunt.” He has also made headlines by launching an investigation into the widely debunked claims that President Obama was not actually born in the United States—something his critics say is an attempt to distract voters from his legal woes, though Arpaio, who is up for re-election in November, denies that the Obama investigation has anything to do with politics. 

For Atencio’s family, the heat on Arpaio is of little consolation; it will not bring back Marty, whom they remember as a troubled, but affable man.