Independent investigation sought in death of 15-year-old - Albuquerque Journal

Independent investigation sought in death of 15-year-old

Protesters angry about Brett Rosenau’s death interrupt a news conference and ribbon cutting ceremony at the city’s new library in the International District on Saturday. Rosenau died in a fire during a SWAT standoff not far from the library. The ACLU of New Mexico and the family are calling for an independent investigation. (Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal)
Brett Rosenau and his mother, Amanda Lopez, when he was about 13 or 14 years old. Rosenau, 15, died in a house fire following a SWAT standoff with Albuquerque police. (Courtesy of Rosenau’s family)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Brett Rosenau was small for his 15 years. His family describes him as a boy who “walked to the beat of his own drum” and wasn’t shy about hugging and kissing his mother in front of his friends or trying new things – like rebuilding a bicycle.

Rosenau died in a house fire that ignited during a SWAT standoff in Southeast Albuquerque last week. The Albuquerque Police Department and Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office SWAT teams were trying to arrest someone else in the house – 27-year-old Qiaunt Kelley – on felony warrants. Kelley came out of the house after the fire started and was taken to the hospital to be treated for burns before being booked into jail. An APD spokesman said he is now in the custody of the state Corrections Department.

Kelley isn’t facing any charges related to the standoff or fire.

Neither Kelley nor Rosenau lived at the home and police said they were looking for Kelley when they spotted him with Rosenau. They said detectives followed the pair and saw them working on a motorcycle – which turned out to be stolen – in the front yard of the home. The two ran inside as detectives moved in to arrest Kelley.

The overnight standoff ended early in the morning on July 7 after the fire started. When firefighters went into the home after putting out the blaze they found Rosenau dead.

Police have said that Rosenau’s cause of death was smoke inhalation and said it’s possible that the fire could have been started by the tear gas canisters or powder-based chemicals they fired into the house during the standoff. A family dog also died in the fire and the home on the 8100 block of San Joaquin SE, near Wyoming and Trumbull SE, was destroyed.

However, the investigation into the fire’s cause has not been completed. Police say it will likely take about two weeks.

Rosenau’s father – with whom he shares a name – was killed by a BCSO deputy a couple of months before the boy was born.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 31, 2006, a BCSO deputy shot 24-year-old Brett Rosenau after a car chase in the South Valley. According to Journal archives, deputies say they tried to pull Rosenau over for a traffic violation but he fled, then crashed his car and ran away. The deputy said Rosenau pointed a gun at him so he shot him.

A little over two years later a Grand Jury determined the shooting was justified.

Independent investigation

The story of the younger Rosenau’s death has prompted protests – with some carrying signs saying “Black Lives Matter” and “(expletive) the police” – and calls for an independent investigation. It has been picked up by national media outlets around the country. On Saturday, protesters interrupted a ribbon cutting for a new library in the International District.

Taylor Smith, an attorney representing Rosenau’s family, said they are asking for privacy at this time so they can grieve.

“In all honesty they’re trying to avoid the spotlight other than making sure that Brett’s story is told so that it doesn’t happen to others,” Smith said.

In a statement the family said the police conduct that led to Rosenau’s death “can only be described as tragic and completely avoidable.”

“The police had every opportunity to save Brett’s life but instead chose inaction,” the statement said. “Brett’s family and community are forever left without their son, brother, and friend. There will be an unfillable void by the loss of his life.”

Mourners created a memorial at the charred house where Brett Rosenau died last week. Rosenau died from smoke inhalation after a fire ignited during a SWAT standoff with police. Rosenau’s death has gained national attention and prompted local protests and calls for an independent investigation. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Smith, who works for the Rothstein Donatelli law firm, said he is conducting his own investigation into what happened and is filing Inspection of Public Records Act requests.

Rosenau’s family has also joined the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico in calling for the state Attorney General’s Office to conduct a “thorough, independent and transparent investigation” into APD’s and BCSO’s actions during the SWAT standoff.

“While patience is required to determine the details of this encounter, the facts that have already surfaced present real questions concerning the training and experience of APD’s SWAT team and the dangers presented if tear gas canisters are used improperly,” said Davida Gallegos, an ACLU spokeswoman, in a news release.

Barron Jones, a senior policy strategist at the ACLU, said anytime a police encounter leads to the death of a person there must be a full and unbiased accounting of how it happened.

“The loss of yet another young, and by all accounts, innocent Black boy during a police encounter is a story all too familiar and should trigger scrutiny from the highest levels,” Jones said in a statement. “Rosenau’s loved ones deserve answers and our community must be assured that proper accountability will be applied to fatal police encounters like this one.”

When asked if his office would investigate the incident, Attorney General Hector Balderas said he is “troubled by the recent loss of life of the young teenager in our community, and my office will offer assistance to ensure that appropriate actions were taken during this law enforcement operation.”

On Sunday, APD Chief Harold Medina acknowledged the possibility that the “the devices used to introduce irritants into the home” may have caused the fire and said “if any of our actions inadvertently contributed to his death, we will take steps to ensure this never happens again.”

In a news release, a spokesman said the department uses devices that are designed for indoor use to “minimize the likelihood of igniting a fire” and they have not been reported as the cause of any fires in the many years they have been used in the city. The devices have reportedly caused fires in other parts of the country.

Because Rosenau died while police were taking someone into custody, the incident will be investigated by the Multi-Agency Task Force and the results will be forwarded to the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office. It will also be the subject of an administrative investigation to determine if any policies were violated and will be examined by APD’s Force Review Board and the superintendent of police reform.

Teen had ‘pioneering attitude’

Rosenau’s family said he was full of life and wasn’t afraid to be himself. In a statement, his mother, Amanda Lopez, said she was always impressed by his “pioneering attitude.”

“Whether he was trying to sport a new style that he came up with or taking apart a bicycle to rebuild it, he was always interested in creating something new,” the statement said. “His teachers often believed that he would pursue engineering given his ingenuity and talents.”

The teen had an older brother and a younger brother and sister, and pictures provided by his family show them goofing around in a pool and smiling broadly. He is described as “dependable brother that any sibling would dream of having as part of their family.”

Rosenau’s family said although he was of small stature, he played football and baseball and was “always excited for a new challenge.”

On Monday, Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman, said the department is investigating threats made against Rosenau’s mother after his death and has put officers on a periodic watch over her home for the family’s safety. He said two male suspects fired shots as they left Lopez’s home. No one was injured.

APD did not publicly identify Lopez, but she identified herself in the statement from her attorney.

“The mother had just met Friday with detectives about the death of her son, Brett Rosenau, when a friend of her deceased son and another adult man showed up at her home,” Gallegos wrote in a news release. “They demanded that she return a dog that fled the apartment that her son apparently shared with the friend. The mother told police she was concerned for her safety because her son’s friends were involved in drug trafficking.”

APD released lapel camera video of Lopez talking with the officers. In the video she said her son’s friend blamed her for his death because he had run away from home.

Gallegos said the suspects were a juvenile and a man in his 30s who was bald and wearing a black shirt. He said they fled the neighborhood near McMahon and Unser NW around 5:50 p.m. Friday in a white Chevrolet Suburban.

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