Las Cruces police officer fired and charged after fatally choking a man during an arrest, police say
A New Mexico police officer is out of a job and facing an involuntary manslaughter charge after he allegedly used a vascular neck restraint on a man during a traffic stop.
Police body camera footage shows the February struggle involving Antonio Valenzuela, who died after Las Cruces officer Christopher Smelser was heard saying, “I’m going to f**king choke you out, bro.”
The city informed Smelser on Friday of its intent to fire him. The four-year veteran of the force had been on administrative leave since the incident.
“Words are insufficient to bring comfort to Antonio Valenzuela’s family, but I extend my sincere condolences for their loss,” said Las Cruces Police Chief Patrick Gallagher. “Once we learned of the findings in the medical investigator’s report, we felt it necessary to immediately initiate termination proceedings.”
‘Give up, bro’
Officers pulled over Valenzuela for a traffic stop and learned he had a warrant for a parole violation, according to a news release from the Doña Ana County District Attorney’s Office.
Valenzuela fled on foot, prosecutors allege, and police chased him and deployed their Taser twice “without affecting” him.
Body camera footage released by authorities appears to show Smelser tackling Valenzuela.
“Valenzuela was continually struggling to get away,” the district attorney’s office said. “Once on the ground, during this struggle, Officer Smelser applied a vascular neck restraint technique to gain control.”
Smelser is heard in video footage saying, “If you don’t f**king stop, bro, I’m going to f**k you up.”
Valenzuela replies, “Hit me harder.”
Smelser then says, “I’m going to f**king choke you out, bro.”
Valenzuela groans for approximately one minute as the officer repeatedly says, “Give up, bro.”
The officer then says, “Yeah, he’s out.”
Paramedics attempted to save Valenzuela but were not successful, the district attorney’s office said.
After his death, the Las Cruces Police Department banned the use of vascular neck restraints in apprehensions, it said.
Meth a factor, autopsy says
Valenzuela died from “asphyxial injuries due to physical restraint,” and methamphetamine was listed as a significant contributor to his death, the Office of the Medical Investigator ruled.
The autopsy shows “small pinpoint hemorrhages” — consistent with Valenzuela having his neck or chest compressed — in his eyes and eyelids, as well as “evidence of focal, deep muscle hemorrhage and a fracture” to his Adam’s apple, the medical investigator’s report said.
Methamphetamine, the report says, can increase heart rate, blood pressure and the body’s demand for oxygen.
“The presence of methamphetamine in Mr. Valenzuela’s system during the struggle and restraint likely increased his baseline oxygen demands and placed increased stress on his cardiovascular system, contributing to death,” it said.
Police found “a silver multitool and what appeared to be illegal narcotics” on Valenzuela, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.
Smelser appeared in Doña Ana County Magistrate Court on Monday. His attorney, Amy Orlando, filed a motion for an expedited first appearance, citing death threats he has received since the medical examiner’s report was made public, according to the Las Cruces Sun News.
Smelser has a “clean disciplinary record, lack of criminal history and family ties in the community,” Orlando told the court, according to the newspaper.
Orlando told CNN that Smelser “used a maneuver that was sanctioned by the Las Cruces Police Department during a violent struggle while attempting to take Mr. Valenzuela into custody.”
“Office Smelser regrets the outcome of the incident however, Mr. Valenzuela had a felony warrant, ran from the police, was under the influence of drugs, had drugs on his person, had a weapon, actively resisted, and violently fought the officers,” Orlando said.
New Mexico State Police, the lead investigative agency in the case, referred CNN’s questions to the district attorney’s office.
A judge permitted Smelser to remain free without posting bail, but ordered him to abide by a 10 p.m. curfew, the Sun News reported.
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