Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
A former U.S. Forest Service ranger was ordered this week to pay a disabled Afghanistan war veteran and another man almost $600,000 after a federal judge ruled that the ranger violated their civil rights by using excessive force during their 2014 arrests at the Juan Tomas campground in the mountains east of Albuquerque.
In May 2014, then U.S. Forest Service Ranger David Chavez confronted Adam Griego, who served in the Army during two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and fellow camper Elijah Haukereid at the Juan Tomas campground.
Earlier, Chavez had told Griego that the road to the campground was closed and that Griego would have to hike into the area to retrieve his belongings.
Griego found another route to rejoin his friends, who were packing up and preparing to leave.
According to findings made by U.S. District Judge Judith C. Herrera, after Chavez arrived at the campsite, he noticed Griego, then handcuffed him and slammed his face into the hood of Chavez’s government truck.
Chavez then twice slammed Griego’s head into the door frame of the truck while putting Griego into the rear seat, where Griego was kept for several hours without water despite the heat.
Herrera noted in her ruling, which followed a bench trial, that, at the time of his arrest in May 2014, Griego was 100 percent disabled from his military service by post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Griego received a Purple Heart for his wounds from an improvised explosive device while serving in Afghanistan, one of five IED explosions he experienced during his two tours of duty – in Iraq from 2009 to 2010 and in Afghanistan from 2012 to 2013.
He was wounded, and his best friend killed by the fourth IED explosion he experienced, and he returned to his unit after being treated for his wounds in Germany.
Griego served as an infantryman in 1st Battalion 23rd Infantry Regiment “The Tomahawks” 3rd Brigade Stryker Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, based at Fort Lewis, Wash.
After forcing Griego into the truck, Chavez then turned his attention on Griego’s fellow camper, Haukereid, who was recording Griego’s arrest on his cellphone.
Chavez slapped the phone out of Haukereid’s hand and threatened him with a Taser. Haukereid questioned why Chavez said he needed to get on the ground. Chavez then commanded his trained dog to get out of the vehicle and attack Haukereid.
Haukereid then complied with Chavez’s order, was handcuffed and placed in the Forest Service truck for two hours, according to the court’s ruling.
“It was a privilege to represent both men,” attorney Louren Oliveros said. “It was particularly important that Adam (Griego) got to tell his story to Judge Herrera. It was the first time he was able to tell his story.”
Herrera awarded Griego $450,000 in compensatory and punitive damages after finding that the beating he suffered made his combat injuries worse. Haukereid was awarded $140,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.
There is still a lot of legal work to do before either man can receive any money, according to Oliveros.
The Department of Agriculture, of which the Forest Service is a part, didn’t provide former Ranger Chavez with a defense attorney, despite his request, and didn’t agree to indemnify him.
Herrera’s order of a $590,000 judgement is directed at Chavez, but normally his former employer would have to pay the judgment for his actions.
Oliveros said she and her co-counsel, Timothy Padilla, will have to try to get the federal government to accept responsibility for Chavez’s actions and pay the judgment.
Chavez pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor criminal civil rights charge in 2015 for slamming Griego’s head twice into the hood of Chavez’s government truck after handcuffing him.
The criminal information charging Chavez and his agreement to plead guilty were filed together in December 2015, which indicates that the charge and plea were negotiated before being filed. He was sentenced to one year of probation.
The criminal case was handled by prosecutors from Washington, D.C., because the local U.S. attorney had a conflict in the case.