On Wednesday, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced a 32-count indictment against five men responsible for the death of Elijah McClain in 2019. The grand jury’s charge that McClain’s death was indeed the result of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide is a long overdue result of a renewed investigation, concluding nearly two years to the day after the unarmed 23-year-old Black Aurora resident was killed during a random and unlawful stop and frisk on his way home from purchasing iced tea.
While McClain’s family praised the indictment, which is inarguably a good move, it shouldn’t be forgotten why it took so long to get here. Officials and police officers in Aurora, through what we now know to be bankrupt investigations, lied to exonerate the five police officers and paramedics who respectively choked McClain to the point of unconsciousness and then applied—without any medical basis—an overdose of ketamine to a gentle, 143-pound man who by one of the officer’s own admissions posed no threat to anyone. And even as the killers are facing accountability, there is no similar action being taken towards those who prevented the killers from facing any sort of justice up to this point.
Some background of this case: On Aug. 24, 2019, McClain was walking home from the store wearing a ski mask, headphones, and carrying a plastic bag with iced tea in it. A man called 911 to report his behavior as “suspicious,” even though there was no crime nearby that had been reported, so officer Nathan Woodyard had nothing to investigate when he confronted McClain. Still, according to an independent investigation of McClain’s death released in February and conducted by policing, constitutional law, and emergency medical experts:
Within ten seconds of exiting his patrol car, Officer Woodyard placed his hands on Mr. McClain. Mr. McClain had no observable weapon and had not displayed violent or threatening behavior. No crime had been reported. …. Officer Woodyard’s decision to turn what may have been a consensual encounter with Mr. McClain into an investigatory stop—in fewer than ten seconds—did not appear to be supported by any officer’s reasonable suspicion that Mr. McClain was engaged in criminal activity.
Indeed, Woodyard himself admitted that he “felt safe making an approach, he didn’t have any weapons or anything I could see in his hand.” During the interaction, the audio for which was recorded even as the video on police body-cams cut out mid-encounter, McClain said he couldn’t hear the officer’s initial commands over his headphones. The stop quickly escalated from there, as Woodyard was joined by officers Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt. As the indictment states:
The officers grabbed Mr. McClain’s arms then forcibly moved Mr. McClain over to a grassy area near where the officers first contacted Mr. McClain and pushed him up against the exterior wall of a nearby apartment building. [Roedema] grabbed the grocery bag out of Mr. McClain’s hands and threw it to the ground. He did not examine the bag’s contents. The bag contained cans of iced tea.
During the interaction, McClain tried to justify his existence to the officers and ask why he was being stopped, saying:
I’m just different. I’m just different, that’s all. That’s all I was doing. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why were you attacking me? I don’t do guns. I don’t even kill flies. I don’t eat meat. … I am a vegetarian.
The three officers at that point wrestled McClain to the ground—with one claiming against all evidence that he was going for one of their guns—and placed McClain in a chokehold until he lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, McClain begged for his life, saying he could not breathe while Roedema, Woodyard, and Rosenblatt held him down while he vomited into his ski mask. McClain was handcuffed at this point and unable to take off the mask and none of the officers removed it even as he vomited.
When fire department paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec arrived on the scene, they were told that McClain had been placed in a chokehold and lost consciousness. These two paramedics later “denied having knowledge that the [choke] hold had been applied to Mr. McClain,” the indictment notes. Within two minutes of arriving on the scene, and without speaking with him, touching him, or assessing his vital signs, the pair diagnosed McClain with “excited delirium” and gave him a dose of ketamine for a 220-pound man, which was 77 pounds heavier than McClain weighed and 150 percent more than the appropriate dose for a man of his size. As the indictment notes:
By the time he was placed on the gurney, Mr. McClain appeared unconscious, had no muscle tone, was limp, and had visible vomit coming from his nose and mouth. [Roedema] said he heard Mr. McClain snoring, which can be a sign of a Ketamine overdose. Shortly after Mr. McClain was loaded into the ambulance, the paramedics discovered that Mr. McClain had no pulse and was not breathing. ….
McClain never regained consciousness. … He was declared brain dead on August 27, 2019 at University Hospital in Aurora, Adams County, Colorado. Life support was removed, and Mr. McClain became an organ donor.
The circumstances of the death of Elijah McClain, “a massage therapist family and friends described as a gentle and kind introvert, [who] volunteered to play his violin to comfort cats at an animal shelter” as the PBS Newshour reported, are horrifying. So why did it take two years for his killers to face any kind of reckoning?
The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is because public officials and fellow police officers in Aurora immediately used the apparatuses of local government to stifle any real investigation and to protect the five men who killed Elijah McClain.
First, government officials lied directly to the public. One day after he was taken off of life support and died, the Aurora Fire Rescue Department released a one-page press release clearing their paramedics of any wrongdoing and stating without evidence “that the actions of the responders were consistent and aligned with our established protocols. In fact, the initial findings indicate that our personnel demonstrated a high level of technical skill and professionalism while providing care for the patient.”
This was disproven by the full independent investigation and the indictment. As the investigation stated:
Aurora Fire appears to have accepted the officers’ impression that Mr. McClain had excited delirium without corroborating that impression through meaningful observation or diagnostic examination of Mr. McClain. …
Aurora EMS determined it was appropriate to administer ketamine to Mr. McClain despite the fact that he did not appear to be offering meaningful resistance in the presence of EMS personnel. In addition, EMS administered a ketamine dosage based on a grossly inaccurate and inflated estimate of Mr. McClain’s size. Higher doses can carry a higher risk of sedation complications, for which this team was not clearly prepared.
And as the indictment stated:
[Cooper and Cichuniec] did not perform a proper assessment of Mr. McClain, so their diagnosis of excited delirium was inaccurate. They did not obtain a reasonable estimate of Mr. McClain’s bodyweight, so the dosage administered was too high. They did not properly monitor Mr. McClain during or after Ketamine was administered, so Mr. McClain suffered multiple predictable complications from the Ketamine administration. Further, paramedics did not have Mr. McClain’s consent to administer Ketamine, and they made no attempt to obtain his consent. …
This is a far cry from the “high level of technical skill and professionalism” that Aurora Fire Rescue falsely declared the day after McClain died. The coverup did not stop there, though. Detective Matthew Ingui of the Aurora Police Department’s Major Crime/Homicide Unit led an investigation into McClain’s killing and determined that his killers had done nothing wrong. During the course of the investigation, Ingui demonstrated his clear bias. As the independent investigation notes:
At the end of Detective Ingui’s interview with the 911 caller, the caller asked Detective Ingui if Mr. McClain had been caught and if he was a “bad person.” Detective Ingui replied that yes, he was caught, and “I don’t know if he was a bad person, but he got the help that he needed.”
McClain obviously did not get “the help that he needed.”
On Oct. 21, 2019, Ingui completed his investigatory report, describing a parallel universe from what actually happened the night of McClain’s death and putting the blame for his killing squarely on the victim alone:
The [o]fficers believed the subject Elijah McClain was possibly armed and were attempting to check on his well-being. … McClain continued to disobey lawful orders, and Officers Woodyard and Rosenblatt attempted to physically stop him and check him for potential weapons. Officers Woodyard and Rosenblatt immediately noted the physical strength and resistance by McClain who immediately pulled his arms to his chest and refused to allow officers to pat him down. McClain was carrying a plastic bag (grocery style bag) with unknown contents in his hands, which caused further concern for the officers. Throughout this contact Officers tried to verbally deescalate their contact with McClain who was hyper-aggressive and refused all orders.
Officers Woodyard and Rosenblatt started to escort McClain off the landscaping rocks onto the grass to lessen any injuries if a fight was to ensue. … McClain’s actions resulted in all three officers attempting to take him to the ground to control him and stop his violent assault. … [After McClain went briefly unconscious], Woodyard, and Rosenblatt continued to struggle with the violently resisting McClain through their entire encounter even after he was placed into handcuffs.
Again, this was after Woodyard had stated he “felt safe making an approach, he didn’t have any weapons or anything I could see in his hand.” And according to the indictment, there was no actual evidence that McClain went for anyone’s gun:
While Mr. McClain was pushed up against the wall and struggling, [Roedema] told the other officers that Mr. McClain had reached for “your gun.” Neither [Rosenblatt] nor [Woodyard] knew whether “your gun” meant [Rosenblatt]’s or [Woodyard]’s gun. [Roedema] later said that Mr. McClain reached for [Rosenblatt] gun. [Rosenblatt] stated that he did not feel any contact with his service weapon.
And as the independent inquiry put it, mildly:
The leading nature and general quality of the questions posed by Detective Ingui [during his investigative interviews] raised concerns for the Panel regarding the rigor of the interrogation and his willingness to probe the responses that he was receiving from the officers involved.
After this an internal investigation claimed to clear the officers involved of any wrongdoing, it was the district attorney’s turn. One month after Ingui issued his report, Aurora District Attorney Dave Young put out his own statement saying he would decline charges. Young went so far as to say that the actions of officers and paramedics couldn’t be said to have caused the 23-year-old otherwise healthy man’s death, even accidentally. As Young put it in his letter to the police chief:
The results of the forensic autopsy demonstrate that the cause of Mr. McClain’s death was undetermined.
But as the indictment put it, validating the common sense notion that McClain died because of the interaction, the assessment Young cited was clearly false:
Mr. McClain was a normal healthy 23-year-old man prior to encountering law enforcement and medical response personnel. A forensic pathologist opined that the cause of death for Mr. McClain was complications following acute Ketamine administration during violent subdual and restraint by law enforcement and emergency response personnel, and the manner of death was homicide.
In his own “investigation,” Young also said:
[T]he evidence suggests that [officers] exercised a degree of force they believed necessary to detain him and investigate into possible criminal activity.
Again, as the independent inquiry found, during the entire investigative process, the officers were all unable to articulate any possible crime McClain might have committed.
The case of Elijah McClain’s manslaughter could have—and likely would have—ended with Young’s travesty of a report. Only after uproar over George Floyd’s murder did Colorado Gov. Jared Polis reopen the investigation, which led to Wednesday’s charges.
Now McClain’s killers will perhaps face some justice, even if those who covered up their alleged crimes apparently will not. In spite of what we now know, there are still those that defend the actions of the officers that day. On Wednesday morning, for instance, the police union representing Aurora officers released a statement saying nothing had gone wrong. They again blamed McClain for his own death.
“Immediately after Elijah McClain’s death, Chief [Nick] Metz stated clearly that Mr. McClain was not murdered by Aurora Police Department officers. Nothing has changed. Our officers did nothing wrong,” the union statement read. “Mr. McClain died due to a combination of exertion due to his decision to violently resist arrest and a pre-existing heart condition. He was alive and talking when the officers turned him over to EMS. There is no evidence that APD officers caused his death.”