Colorado’s statewide grand jury has returned a 32-count indictment against the Aurora police officers and paramedics who stopped 23-year-old Elijah McClain two years ago in an encounter that preceded his death, Attorney General Phil Weiser announced Wednesday.
Five people — three police officers and two paramedics — each were charged-with one count of manslaughter and one count of criminally negligent homicide after Weiser’s office filed the indictment in Adams County District Court on Wednesday.
Manslaughter is a Class 4 felony in Colorado punishable by up to six years in prison, while criminally negligent homicide is a Class 5 felony punishable by up to three years in prison. Both offenses are probation eligible.
The indicted officers are Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema. Rosenblatt was fired from the Aurora Police Department last year after he responded “ha ha” to a text-messaged image of other officers reenacting a neck hold like the one police used on McClain.
The indicted Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics are Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec, a lieutenant.
Elijah’s mother, Sheneen McClain, learned of the charges Tuesday and said she is “grateful that my son is going to have his justice.”
“I’ve been crying just thinking about the process that it’s took after two years to get this report,” Sheneen said Wednesday morning. “I’m overwhelmed. I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be, honestly. I had no expectations, honestly.”
Sheneen said she is waiting to see how fast Officers Woodyard and Roedema are fired.
“I’m not just a crazy mom trying to fight a fight that’s not worthy,” she said. “This is a worthy fight for my son’s justice.”
Weiser spoke for about 10 minutes at a news conference where he announced the charges. He didn’t take any questions.
“At the time, I said our investigation would be guided by a commitment to the facts, by thorough and diligent work and be worthy of public trust and confidence in our criminal justice system,” Weiser said during the news conference. “These remain our guiding principles for this matter.”
McClain was stopped by police Aug. 24, 2019, as he was walking home from a convenience store. He was carrying cans of iced tea in a plastic grocery bag and listening to music using earbuds connected to his phone. McClain, who was frequently cold, was also wearing a black mask despite it being a warm night.
MORE: Read the indictment.
Officers approached him after they received a report from a 17-year-old in the area that McClain looked suspicious.
McClain had committed no crime, yet officers placed him into a neck hold. The unarmed Black man was then injected with ketamine, a powerful sedative. He suffered cardiac arrest and died in the hospital Aug. 30, 2019.
An independent review solicited by the Aurora City Council found that police officers were too quick in their decision-making when they stopped McClain and that investigators did a poor job of documenting the incident.
Adams County prosecutors in November 2019 declined to charge any of the first responders involved in the encounter with McClain. But then Gov. Jared Polis, facing renewed pressure following social justice protests in Colorado and across the nation last year, appointed Weiser’s office to serve as a special prosecutor and review the case for potential criminal prosecution.
It was an unprecedented move.
Then, in January, Weiser opened a statewide grand jury investigation into McClain’s death. The panel has subpoena power and is made up of people from across the Denver metro area. The grand jury can have as many as 23 members.
No more than a quarter of the members of the statewide grand jury may be from any one county. The members, whose identities and work are kept strictly confidential, are selected by a judge in consultation with lawyers from the attorney general’s office.
“As our department conducted our work it became clear that we needed a grand jury and its enhanced investigative powers to obtain documents and compel testimony from witnesses that otherwise we would not be able to obtain using ordinary investigative techniques,” Weiser said Wednesday.
The attorney general’s office and the grand jury faced several delays over the past year due to the pandemic, he said. The jury convened in December and the next month began its investigation into McClain’s death.
The grand jury’s work, as well as the investigation by the attorney general’s office, has been shrouded in secrecy. Weiser declined as recently as last week to provide an update on his office’s investigation.
Weiser said the grand jury finished its work Thursday. The indictment, which is 33 pages, wasn’t announced until Wednesday because his office wanted to notify McClain’s family and the targets of the investigation that a resolution had been reached.
Roedema, Rosenblatt, Woodyard, Cooper and Cichuniec are all also accused of committing second-degree assault and a crime of violence.
Roedema, Woodyard, Cooper and Cichuniec have been indefinitely suspended without pay per the city of Aurora’s policy for any member of the civil service who is indicted on a felony charge.
According to the indictment, Woodyard applied the neck hold — called a carotid hold — that caused McClain to become unconscious.
Roedema told the grand jury that he also used a bar hammerlock on McClain — where someone’s arm is held behind their back — and that he “cranked pretty hard” and heard McClain’s shoulder pop three times.
McClain repeatedly told officers he was in pain and said he couldn’t breathe. “My name’s Elijah McClain. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all,” Elijah said as he was being restrained.
The officers called for paramedics after McClain became unconscious. Cooper and Cichuniec responded and determined that he should be given ketamine because he was experiencing excited delirium, an often misdiagnosed condition.
Cooper estimated McClain’s weight to be about 200 pounds and administered 500 mg of ketamine.
“McClain actually weighed 143 pounds, and as such his weight-based ketamine dose should have been closer to 325 mg,” the indictment says. “The paramedics did not ask McClain how much he weighed and overestimated his weight by 57 pounds and administered a dosage that was appropriate for a patient who weighed 77 pounds more than Mr. McClain.”
Additionally, according to the indictment, an emergency room physician with expertise in paramedic protocols concluded that excited delirium was an inaccurate diagnosis and that McClain should never have been given ketamine.
“McClain was a normal, healthy 23-year-old man prior to encountering law enforcement and medical response personnel,” the indictment says. “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.”
The board of directors of the Aurora Police Association, an Aurora police union, insisted on the officers’ innocence in a statement posted on Facebook shortly after the news conference Wednesday.“Our officers did nothing wrong,” the association wrote, calling the public response to McClain’s death a ‘“hysterical overreaction” that “has severely damaged the police department.”
Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson took a different stance.
“I know this has been a long-awaited decision for Ms. McClain and her family,” she said in a written statement Wednesday. “This tragedy will forever be imprinted on our community. We continue to offer our condolences for the loss of Elijah, and we will continue to cooperate with the judicial process.”
Fernando Gray, chief of Aurora Fire Rescue, said in a written statement that his agency is “committed to fully cooperating as the judicial process moves forward.
“We want to share again our deepest expression of sympathy to the family members and friends of Elijah McClain,” Gray said.
McClain’s death drew renewed scrutiny and international outrage following the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. The pressure preceded Polis’ decision to appoint Weiser as a special prosecutor in the case.
“Elijah McClain’s death was a tragedy and my thoughts are with his mother, father, friends and family today,” Polis said in a written statement Wednesday. “This innocent young man should be here today. I thank Attorney General Phil Weiser and the members of the grand jury for their work to hold those responsible accountable. I continue to urge my fellow Coloradans to consider how we can work together to build a better future where everyone can be safe walking home and a Colorado for all.”
McClain’s death also prompted new laws to be passed by the Colorado legislature in 2020 and 2021 seeking to reform how police officers in Colorado can use force. The changes included banning neck holds and strictly limiting when ketamine can be used in situations involving law enforcement outside of hospital settings.
McClain’s family is suing Aurora over Elijah’s death. Sheneen McClain has become a champion of police reform efforts.
“For me, it comes down to the policies and the laws,” she recently told Colorado Public Radio. “And I’ll fight for the rest of my life to make sure people don’t use his name in the wrong way.”
The FBI and federal prosecutors are also investigating McClain’s death.
Weiser said Wednesday that his office continues to investigate the Aurora Police Department’s practices and policies. It’s not clear when that ongoing review will be complete.
“We are here today because Elijah McClain is not here and he should be,” Weiser said Wednesday. “He was a son, a nephew, a brother and a friend. When he died, he was only 23 years old. He had his whole life ahead of him and his family and friends must go on and live without him. His life is a loss to all of us.”