Juan Farias Mendoza was in the custody of the MCJ for a DUI probation violation on December 2, 2007. Four days later, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) detective Jeff Perez contacted Mendoza’s family to inform them he had passed away due to natural causes. Perez said no one at MCJ had hurt or injured Mendoza prior to his death.
But rather than having died on December 6 as Perez told the family, Mendoza actually died on December 5. Further, medical records and autopsy reports indicated that Mendoza died after he suffered a severe beating. When the family viewed Mendoza’s body several days later, they were “completely shocked ... because it was covered with bruises, abrasions and contusions.”
MCSO failed to comply with nine requests for information related to Mendoza’s death between December 20, 2007 and May 22, 2008. Despite this intentional effort to conceal what had happened, Phoenix attorney Luis P. Guerra was able to uncover sufficient facts to file a notice of claim concerning Mendoza’s death.
It was later learned that at least ten guards beat Mendoza, who was also pepper sprayed and Tasered. His arms and legs were cuffed behind his back and he was forced to wear a spit mask. Additionally, according to the notice of claim, MCJ medical staff may have improperly medicated him. The autopsy revealed a brutal, painful death, as Mendoza had broken ribs and bruises and contusions on all parts of his upper body.
The effort to conceal the true nature of Mendoza’s death extended not only to the MCSO, which, according to Detective C. Garcia, had videotape footage of the guards’ altercation with Mendoza, but also to the Medical Examiner’s Office, which did not initially release an autopsy report or findings despite a policy requiring the release of such records within 90 days.
The matter was settled in November 2011 for $1 million based on the notice of claim filed by Guerra, without the filing of a lawsuit. Mendoza was survived by his three children.
Maricopa County is infamous for its brutal and degrading treatment of prisoners. The county’s self-styled “America’s toughest Sheriff,” Joe Arpaio, denied the settlement had anything to do with his jail’s policies or misconduct by employees.
“It was settled due to the nature of doing business,” he said. “That wasn’t up to us, that was the county that decided to settle it. We have nothing to do with this.”
Wrongful deaths, civil rights violations and other abuses involving the MSCO have resulted in around $50 million in verdicts, settlements and related legal costs since Arpaio was first elected sheriff in 1993. A disproportionate number of those claims and lawsuits have involved the MCJ.
“Claims are far excessive, and that is because [Sheriff Arpaio] has created in our jails a culture of cruelty,” noted Phoenix attorney Michael Manning.