A man found unresponsive in a jail cell after fighting with deputies at a Phoenix jail over the weekend has died after being taken off life support, an attorney representing his family said Wednesday.
The family of Ernest Atencio was exploring a possible lawsuit against the embattled Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, said Michael Manning, a Phoenix attorney who has won five wrongful death lawsuits against the department.
Manning said Atencio's family took him off life support Tuesday. He said the 44-year-old man had no brain activity from the moment he arrived at the hospital Friday, did not have alcohol or drugs in his system and had marks from a stun gun on his body.
Latino activists say that Atencio's death raises more questions about practices under Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Arpaio's office said Wednesday afternoon that it had no immediate comment on the issue but planned to make a formal statement within two days.
A Justice Department investigation released last week found that Arpaio's office committed wide-ranging civil rights violations against Latinos, including a pattern of racial profiling and heavy-handed immigration patrols based on racially charged complaints. A defiant Arpaio has called the allegations a politically motivated attack by the Obama administration.
Earlier in the week, authorities said Atencio was combative when police brought him to the downtown Fourth Avenue jail for booking on an assault charge, and that he was placed in a so-called "safe cell" to calm down after fighting with deputies. They said Atencio was found unresponsive 15 minutes later even though he was being monitored by medical staff.
Lt. Justin Griffin said Atencio's death was under investigation and that he could not comment.
"At this stage, we all have to give the MCSO the benefit of the doubt, but based on prior experience with these people, I have plenty of doubt," Manning said.
The sheriff's office needs to release any surveillance video that may have captured Atencio's scuffle with them, Manning said. He added that in all five of the wrongful death cases he won against the sheriff's office, video of the incidents had been degraded or destroyed.
Manning said that Atencio was in the Army from 1988 until 1992 and served in Korea before being medically discharged for a shoulder injury. He was divorced, had three sons, who are 15, 16, and 21, and worked in his family's real estate business, he said.
Manning said that there was evidence that Atencio may have had bipolar disorder and that his family said he might have been off his medication recently.
"They said he was a good father and a good employee, that he was not someone that was in trouble often," Manning said. "They're devastated right now. They can't even speak coherently.
"It's a gruesome time for them right now," he added, "made all the more poignant that we're just days away from Christmas."