Sheriff, attorney address deputy brutality allegations 

Law enforcement authorities have addressed allegations of excessive force against deputies with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, allegations levied by the family of a local man who they argue in a lawsuit died as a result of brutality.

“First, on behalf of the County of Hidalgo and the Sheriff’s Office, I offer my heartfelt condolences to the family of Mr. Zuniga for their loss,” Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra said in a statement, which although available for release weeks earlier wasn’t provided to The Monitor until Oct. 2.

The sheriff is referring to a lawsuit filed against four deputies by the family of Jorge Gonzalez Zuniga, in which they allege that injuries suffered in a brutal assault during Gonzalez Zuniga’s April 12 arrest eventually led to his death.

“Mr. Zuniga’s death is the direct result of violent actions executed by three Hidalgo County Sheriff’s deputies as well as the callous indifference displayed by all who observed Mr. Zuniga during his booking at Hidalgo County Detention Center and failed to call for immediate, emergency medical attention,” Thomas J. Henry, the attorney for Gonzalez Zuniga’s family, said in a news release Wednesday.

Although Gonzalez Zuniga was an undocumented immigrant, Henry argued his legal status does not deprive him of basic human rights.

“Politicians can debate what services, benefits, and privileges an undocumented individual is entitled to; however, what is not up for debate is whether or not any person, regardless of their legal status, has a right to their life and a right to fair, unbiased, and humane treatment by our nation’s justice system and law enforcement officers” Henry said.

The four deputies listed as defendants in the lawsuit have been identified as Steven Farias and Marco Guerrero, while the other two deputies have remained unidentified and are referred to as John Doe 1 and 2.

As of now, the arresting officers are on administrative leave with pay. According to the probable cause affidavit, Farias is one of the arresting officers.

Preston E. Henrichson, the attorney representing the sheriff’s office, said Gonzalez Zuniga’s family only sued the names of the officers found in the booking records.

Guerra said the sheriff’s office requested an independent investigation — to be conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety — a day after Gonzalez Zuniga’s arrest. Henrichson said this was procedural. In the release, the sheriff said his office “is committed to the full and complete investigation of complaints against the department and its employees.”

“Anytime the sheriff receives a report there’s an injury that involves force, in connection with an arrest,” Henrichson explained. “He wants it investigated independently, so no one thinks the sheriff’s office is covering anything up.”

A member of the Texas Rangers, DPS’ investigative agency, was assigned to the investigation, Guerra said. Their investigation included an interview with each person involved and access to all records from the sheriff’s office, according to the release.

After responding to a disturbance and assault call at a home park on FM 88 in the Delta area, Guerra said the deputies found Gonzalez Zuniga lying on the ground “among empty beer bottles.” He added a blood test “confirmed the presence of cocaine in his system.”

Neither the lawsuit nor Farias’ report mention the cocaine. In his report, Farias does not make mention of the empty beer bottles either.

Although the deputies gave Gonzalez Zuniga multiple chances to either go inside and get sober, or call someone to pick him up, Gonzalez Zuniga walked around aimlessly and knocked on a door “without success,” according to Guerra.

While Farias did write Gonzalez Zuniga was also walking around, the door knocking was not mentioned in the probable cause affidavit.

Although Gonzalez Zuniga insisted he’d walk home, Guerra said he was placed under arrest and taken into custody so he could “‘sober up’” in jail because walking home “would have involved walking along the highway by a canal in a highly intoxicated state.”

In addition to refusing to cooperate, Gonzalez Zuniga “became physically agitated, verbally abusive, and strongly resisted efforts to be taken into custody,” Guerra stated. As a result, three deputies, pepper spray and tasers were “required to accomplish his physical restraint and placement into the backseat of the police cruiser.”

While being placed into the car, Gonzalez Zuniga “made several statements claiming that he had been hurt in the process,” according to Guerra. This was not in Farias’ report. Instead, toward the end of the seven-sentence probable cause affidavit, Farias wrote that Gonzalez Zuniga was advised he was being placed under arrest for violation of emergency plan and public intoxication.

These charges were later dropped and dismissed, according to the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, the family alleged during the arrest, “The deputies tackled and assaulted Mr. Zuniga.”

They also claim Gonzalez Zuniga was placed in ankle restraints and was intentionally tripped at one point.

Gonzalez Zuniga was seen by a nurse once he was in jail, Guerra said, but due to “his advanced state of intoxication,” it took several hours before spinal injuries were discovered. Guerra said as soon as the jail personnel realized he was “seriously injured,” an ambulance was called and Gonzalez Zuniga was transported to the hospital.

The fourth defendant in the lawsuit, Marco Guerrero, conducted a suicide evaluation on Gonzalez Zuniga at 2:57 a.m., 10 minutes before he was confined, according to the booking report from that weekend.

When asked why there’s no mention of the suicide evaluation in Guerra’s statement, Henrichson said it was a routine form that is filled out during booking.

According to Henrichson, Gonzalez Zuniga was able to answer questions asked by Guerrero. He also stated Gonzalez Zuniga had his temperature taken by Guerrero due to COVID-19 measures.

Additionally, Guerra makes no mention of Gonzalez Zuniga’s booking photo either, which depicted someone holding his head up.

The sheriff’s office statement and probable cause do not specify the time these events transpired, but Gonzalez Zuniga’s family alleged in the lawsuit he was placed in the “drunk tank” for more than 20 hours without any medical attention. EMS were called at 12:11 a.m. on April 13, the lawsuit stated.

According to the lawsuit, this photograph of Jorge Gonzalez Zuniga was taken before his release from the hospital. Gonzalez was on a ventilator and paralyzed from his chest down, the lawsuit stated. (Courtesy photo)

The family’s attorney stated as a result of these injuries, Gonzalez Zuniga was declared a quadriplegic at McAllen Medical Center, where he was hospitalized until June 5.

“Under his family’s care, Zuniga continued to suffer complications from his injuries requiring multiple hospitalizations and emergency room visits,” Henry said in his news release. “Despite Zuniga’s unrelenting fight for his life, he suffered a heart attack on July 8, 2020 and died.”

Guerra wrote in the sheriff’s release, “We are not in possession of the medical records required to confirm the cause of death.” The family’s lawsuit stated Gonzalez Zuniga’s “cause of death was listed as acute on chronic respiratory failure.”

On Aug. 20, the Texas Rangers and the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s office presented the case to a grand jury, in which they “inquired carefully” for the offense of manslaughter and voted on a no bill.

In a prepared statement, DPS confirmed their investigation was finalized and presented to the DA’s office, then a grand jury.

Previously, DPS continued to say the investigation was ongoing as of Sept. 12 — more than three weeks after the no bill was filed. However, in their statement, DPS did not address why they told The Monitor that the investigation was on-going when it had concluded before Aug. 20.

Following the grand jury’s decision, Gonzalez Zuniga’s family, La Union del Pueblo Entero, and Divest Invest RGV organized a protest in response.

Linda Valle of Mission during the “Justice for Jorge” protest held on Sept. 26, 2020 in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

The protest “Justice for Jorge” demanded that the sheriff’s office release all videos and records pertaining to Gonzalez Zuniga’s time in custody, as well as firing and jailing the deputies involved in the arrest and revealing the names of the unidentified officers.

Now, Guerra said the Texas Rangers’ report was delivered to the Internal Affairs Division for an administrative investigation, which is still pending, Henrichson added.

“Once the internal affairs investigation is complete, I will review and consider the recommendations of my staff,” Guerra said in the release.

Additionally, Henrichson stated there were no allegations of force being used in the jail or the detention center. When asked why two deputies haven’t been identified, Henrichson said prior to the no bill, it was the subject of the Texas Rangers’ investigation.

“It is my intention that all personnel in the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office respect and protect the civil rights of the citizens in this county,” Guerra stated in the release. “Any allegation that a citizen’s rights have been violated is taken seriously and corrective action will be taken when justified. We will continue to share information as we can within the rules of law and the orders of the Court.”