Two Las Animas County sheriff’s deputies who shocked a handcuffed man with a Taser as he tried to watch a traffic stop were fired in late August after an independent investigation found they had no legal basis to detain the man, used excessive force and wrote false reports, according to a report made public Monday.
The 69-page internal affairs report also recommends local authorities pursue a criminal investigation into the actions of Lt. Henry Trujillo and Deputy Mikhail Noel during the November 2022 incident.
The two deputies shocked Kenneth Espinoza with Tasers even though he had committed no crime, was unarmed and, at one point, handcuffed, body-worn camera footage shows.
Both men were fired Aug. 25, Las Animas County sheriff’s Lt. Phil Martin confirmed Monday. Third Judicial District Attorney Henry Solano said Monday his office is reviewing the case to determine whether the deputies should face criminal charges.
“We have received the report, and the matter is under investigation,” he said.
Las Animas County Sheriff Derek Navarette asked the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office to conduct an internal affairs investigation into the incident months after it happened, inviting the independent investigation only after Espinoza publicly released body-worn camera footage of the incident and announced a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office.
Espinoza’s attorney, Kevin Mehr, made the Pueblo County sheriff’s internal affairs report public Monday, a few days after Espinoza received a copy.
“This is the first correct step that Las Animas has taken here,” Mehr said of the firings. “It shouldn’t have taken this long. The unfortunate reality of this is that my client had to sue them to make this happen…They didn’t do anything about it until they were sued.”
Undersheriff Reynaldo Santistevan initially approved the deputies’ use of force in the incident without reviewing the body-worn camera footage, he wrote in an Aug. 10 letter to Navarette in which he recommended the pair be fired.
“I simply went off the reports and verbal comments made to me by Lt. Trujillo and Dep. Noel,” he wrote. “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.”
Weeks after signing off on the use of force, Santistevan did watch the body-worn camera footage at the urging of a colleague, he wrote, and immediately realized the deputies made “many errors.” However, he did not launch an internal affairs investigation because of a pending criminal case against Espinoza.
“This was the second mistake on my part during this matter,” he wrote in the letter. All charges against Espinoza were later dropped.
Mehr said the initial failure to thoroughly investigate the deputies’ actions is troubling.
“There are probably a hundred more uses of force that they need to re-review,” Mehr said. “Who knows what else is out there, what else got rubber-stamped?”
Trujillo and Noel could not be reached for comment Monday. An attorney representing the men in the lawsuit did not immediately return a request for comment.
The Nov. 29 incident began when Noel pulled over Espinoza’s son for following Noel’s patrol vehicle too closely. Espinoza had been driving behind his son because they were headed to the same destination. When his son was pulled over, Espinoza also stopped. He pulled over several feet behind the deputy who was making the traffic stop and watched from a distance.
When Trujillo arrived on the scene, however, he ordered Espinoza to leave. Espinoza explained that his son had been pulled over and refused to leave.
“I don’t need to do anything, I’m on a public street,” Espinoza said, body camera footage of the incident shows.
After a brief argument, Trujillo told Espinoza he could stay and returned to his vehicle. At the same time, Noel approached Espinoza and ordered him to leave. When Espinoza then backed up his truck to leave, both deputies shouted at him to stay.
Noel then drew his pistol and pointed it at Espinoza, who stopped the truck. The two deputies then grabbed Espinoza. As Noel shocked Espinoza with a Taser, Trujillo pulled Espinoza from the truck and told him he was under arrest, to which Espinoza said “OK,” that he was going peacefully and asked the deputies to “settle down.”
“You do what you’re told, OK?” Trujillo said.
The deputies walked a handcuffed Espinoza to a police SUV and told him to get inside, but Espinoza said he couldn’t because the deputies were grabbing at him. Trujillo then shot Espinoza with a Taser cartridge, striking him in the face and chest before slamming the door on Espinoza’s leg.
In a report about the incident, Trujillo claimed Espinoza “kicked the door open, causing the door to nearly strike my face.” Body camera footage shows that is false.
A few minutes later, Trujillo re-opened the door and told Espinoza to step out so they could find his identification. When Espinoza didn’t immediately comply, Trujillo and other officers ripped him from the car and threw him onto the snow-covered ground.
In his report, Trujillo claimed that Espinoza “slipped on the snow/ice and fell” — another falsehood. Noel also claimed in an arrest affidavit that his hand was caught in the door of Espinoza’s pickup truck and squeezed; body camera footage shows that did not happen. Noel claimed Espinoza tried to run him over; that also was false.
The internal affairs investigation documented several other instances in which the deputies’ reports were untrue. The investigator found that Trujillo, who was third-in-command at the sheriff’s office, violated policies around honesty, professional conduct, reviewing body-worn camera footage, using a Taser and writing accurate reports.
Noel violated those same policies, as well as the sheriff’s policy on deadly force, which requires deputies to give a warning before pulling their guns, the report found.
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