DENVER (AP) — Two Colorado sheriff's deputies were fired after an investigation found their repeated use of Tasers against a man, including in his lower lip, was unjustified, the Las Animas County Sheriff's office confirmed Monday.
Deputy Mikhail Noel and Lt. Henry Trujillo violated a number of agency policies, including inappropriately using a Taser against Kenneth Espinoza while he was handcuffed and inaccurately reporting what happened, according to the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office.
Investigators also recommended referring the matter for a criminal probe, alleging that Noel’s and Trujillo’s actions during the traffic stop escalated the use of physical force, bodily injury and false arrest. It is unknown if a criminal investigation has been launched.
“The existence of excessive and unlawful force was so apparent here that there’s really only one conclusion,” said attorney Kevin Mehr, who's representing Espinoza in lawsuits against the deputies and the sheriff's office. “This is the most outrageous thing I’ve ever seen.”
The sheriff's office said Noel and Trujillo were fired on Aug. 25, but declined to comment further pending the lawsuit from Espinoza.
Telephone numbers for Noel and Trujillo could not immediately be found. A message seeking comment was left Monday for their attorney, David Goddard.
The events being investigated began when Espinoza's son was pulled over on Nov. 29, 2022 for a traffic stop while his father was driving behind him. When Espinoza pulled off the road to support his son, Trujillo and Noel ordered him to leave.
After initially refusing, Espinoza was starting to drive away when the deputies ordered him to stay. Noel, who said Espinoza tried to strike him with his truck, then pointed his gun at Espinoza, according to the report. Espinoza was handcuffed, told he was under arrest, taken to the patrol car and stunned with a Taser, the report found.
Noel and Trujillo said Noel was uncooperative, resisting and attempting to harm the deputies by kicking them.
The investigation found Espinoza did not attempt to strike Noel with his truck and “at no time does Mr. Espinoza actively use any force against Lt. Trujillo or Dep. Noel,” wrote Undersheriff Reynaldo Santistevan in a Aug. 10 letter to the Las Animas County Sheriff. He recommended both deputies be fired after reviewing body camera footage and the investigative report.
Santistevan added that at “no time did either try to de-escalate this matter, but only made it worse.”
Santistevan said he initially reviewed the deputies use-of-force reports, checking only for grammatical and spelling errors. He did not watch the body camera footage at first.
“In hindsight I now see this was wrong and should have reviewed all documents and watched all body camera videos before approving this use of force,” he wrote.
A local, unnamed police officer interviewed as part of the investigation said there had been “numerous” calls complaining of Trujillo's behavior in the past and that the reports were sent to the district attorneys office, but nothing was done.
Espinoza is suing the Las Animas County Sheriff’s Office for failure to train and discipline employees.