(LAS ANIMAS COUNTY, Colo.) — Two Las Animas County Sheriff’s Office (LACSO) deputies have been terminated following an extensive third-party investigation into an incident where they tased a man in the face.
The November 2022 incident began with a routine traffic stop but rapidly escalated to Kenneth Espinoza’s arrest. LACSO Deputy Mikhail Noel and Lieutenant Henry Trujillo faced allegations of using excessive force when they tased Espinoza, a grandfather from Colorado, in the face during his arrest.
The incident was initially brought to the public’s attention in April through body camera footage, gaining local, state, and national media coverage.
“We’ve all seen the body camera. It speaks for itself. This was just totally unjustified. It was brutal. And that’s what this report says, that Ken had committed no law violation. That he had done absolutely nothing wrong,” remarked Kevin Mehr, Kenneth Espinoza’s attorney.
The third-party investigation, carried out by the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO), spanned 65 pages and included in-depth interviews with both deputies and Espinoza, as well as other LACSO deputies and Trinidad Police officers who were present at the scene. Shockingly, many of them expressed their astonishment at the aggressive behavior displayed by Noel and Trujillo during the incident, highlighting the severity of the situation.
PCSO’s 65-page report not only condemned the actions of the two deputies, but also recommended a criminal investigation. It highlighted that both deputies had violated LACSO policy, and there was no justifiable reason for Espinoza’s detainment.
“There was neither probable cause violation of state law by Kenneth Espinoza, nor was there any visual recognition to Kenneth Espinoza that he was detained by law enforcement,” the report stated.
Kevin Mehr, Espinoza’s attorney, expressed his stance on the matter: “If you broke the law, you should be held accountable for it. Having a police uniform on shouldn’t keep you from being held accountable for your own actions that hurt other people.”
In response, Las Animas County Undersheriff Reynaldo Santistevan, who had originally approved the use of force report, issued an internal recommendation for the termination of both deputies. In his statement, he admitted regretfully that he had not thoroughly reviewed the report or the body camera videos.
“Upon initial reading of the reports I simply check for grammatical and spelling errors… As to the body camera videos I do not watch them I simply get them downloaded and sent to the District Attorney’s Office,” Santistevan said in the statement.
“What’s the point of a supervisory review if you’re not going to look at the substance in the content of what you’re reviewing?'” Mehr pointedly remarked.
Furthermore, Undersheriff Santistevan stated, “I was incorrect in signing off on the use of force report… Neither Lt. Trujillo nor Dep. Noel used any type of de-escalation techniques at any time but instead by their own actions escalated matters in an incident where no violations of the law had occurred.”
The PCSO investigation directly contradicted claims made by LACSO Sheriff Derek Navarette that Espinoza was tased only once and that Deputy Noel never discharged his taser. The report conclusively showed that Noel had fired his taser at least twice during the incident.
Mehr minced no words: “This is the most clear-cut case of police negligence, brutality, and abuse of power that I’ve ever seen.” He emphasized that firing Noel and Trujillo was just the first step towards justice.
In his interview with PCSO, Lt. Henry Trujillo, who was third in command at LACSO and a 22-year veteran in law enforcement, said he was given a USB drive with the policies, and admitted, “He was not sure if he ever received any specific supervisor training courses.”
Undersheriff Santistevan refuted this claim, saying that they had extensive discussions and meetings about policies and procedures at least once a month.
“Lt. Trujillo himself failed to take what he was taught about policy and use it and learn from it,” said Santistevan. He went on to state that the only appropriate recommendation for both Trujillo and Noel was termination.
During his interview with PCSO, Kenneth Espinoza described the profound impact the incident had on him. Despite his tough exterior as a heavy equipment mechanic, Espinoza revealed that he was broken and left in tears by LACSO’s actions.
“I think that was pretty heart-wrenching to watch one grown man treat another human being like that. He’s a heavy equipment mechanic, a very strong, very tough guy, just by nature, by the really rough upbringing that he has had… To see it bring him to that feeling of hopelessness. It’s just so impactful,” Mehr commented.
Espinoza has filed a civil rights lawsuit against LACSO and is awaiting court proceedings.
In a statement to FOX21, LACSO said, “Dep Mikhail Noel and Lt Henry Trujillo were terminated from employment on August 25, 2023. In regard to criminal charges, you may contact the 3rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office for comment/info requests pertaining to this matter. This office will not release further information due to pending litigation.”
FOX21 reached out to the 3rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office for comment, and has yet to receive a response.
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