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Family of teen sues over police chase death

Manuel Tapia (Courtesy Marcus Chavez)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The family of a teenage boy who was fatally struck by a stolen truck after a police chase last summer is suing the Albuquerque Police Department.

Relatives of 15-year-old Manuel Tapia filed a wrongful death suit Thursday against APD, Police Chief Michael Geier, Mayor Tim Keller, the officers involved – John Holler and Robert Telles – and the man charged with stealing the truck they were pursuing, 31-year-old Juan Carlos Ramirez.

Although Ramirez has not been charged in Tapia’s death, the lawsuit alleges he was driving the stolen truck when the crash occurred. He has since pleaded guilty to a charge of receiving or transferring a stolen motor vehicle.

The wrongful death lawsuit, filed in 2nd Judicial District Court, accuses APD and the other city defendants of failing to follow procedure and not preserving critical evidence, including camera footage from the intersection. The suit accuses officer Holler, who was driving at the time, and Ramirez of negligence in Tapia’s death.

“Manuel Tapia’s parents continue to lack information regarding how their son was killed,” the Will Ferguson and Associates law firm said in a news release. “Despite many attempts to get answers from the City and its departments, there remain a multitude of unanswered questions.”

Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman, declined to comment. “We don’t have any indication the city has been served yet,” he said. “Once the city is served, a response will be filed in court.”

It was early July 17, just after midnight, when Tapia, who was walking home from seeing a movie at Cottonwood Mall, was hit at Ellison and Coors Bypass apparently by a truck that had fled police moments before.

According to police, the officers did not see Tapia get hit, continued the pursuit and turned around when they heard of the crash.

Tapia was pronounced dead at the scene. On July 19, officers arrested Ramirez for the theft of the truck, which was stolen from a motel days earlier.

After the incident, APD made contradictory statements – at first saying officers had not pursued the vehicle, then that they had only pursued it for a few seconds – before acknowledging the chase went on “a lot longer” after witnesses disputed the initial claims.

APD opened an internal affairs investigation to determine whether the officers were following policy, which says officers should not pursue stolen vehicles unless certain circumstances are met, such as the vehicle or its occupants present an immediate threat. It’s unclear where that investigation stands.

The lawsuit says the defendants didn’t follow that policy and “failed to preserve and maintain” the police vehicle driven during the incident or the video footage of the intersection recorded by traffic cameras at Ellison and Coors Bypass, which was previously viewed by an APD employee.

“The video footage was not tagged or preserved and instead, was destroyed by these defendants, their employees and/or agents,” the lawsuit says. “In so acting, these defendants’ sole intent was to disrupt or defeat a potential lawsuit.”

The law firm released video taken from a Walgreens store at Ellison and Coors that it says disputes the officers’ claims in police reports that they were several car lengths behind the stolen truck and “came to a complete stop” before continuing to pursue the truck through the intersection.

“The family is hopeful that the lawsuit filed today will allow them to solve the mysteries surrounding their son’s death,” the release says.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages for pain and suffering, mental anguish and distress and other losses.

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