ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — While 88-year-old Fidencio Duran lay dying in the hospital after being shot with stinging pepper balls and injured by a deputy’s K-9, the Sheriff’s Office was praising the deputies’ actions that eventually led to Duran’s death.
Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales has since ordered a full investigation into the elderly man’s death and said he will review how letters of commendation are created.
The Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday released a letter dated Oct. 5, 2015, that lauded the deputies who responded to the Sept. 15 South Valley call.
Duran, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, was wandering the neighborhood with a knife, distraught over the death of his wife a day earlier. After an hourslong standoff, the deputies shot him with less-than-lethal weapons, including a pepper-ball gun.
Duran died a month later – about a week after the commendations were issued – and medical investigators ruled the death a homicide.
The commendation letters say the nine deputies and two sergeants acted “exemplary.”
“There was constant consideration of the male’s age and physical condition which played a role in each decision at the various steps involved in the resolution of this incident, which included using an appropriate level of force even though a higher level of force could have been justified,” Lt. Craig Sevier wrote in the letter.
Sheriff Gonzales, Undersheriff Greg Rees, Deputy Chief Ed Mims and Capt. Andrea Taylor all signed the document.
Gonzales said in a public statement that he signed the letter based on what was told to him at the time and he will be reviewing how the letters are created in the future.
Letters of commendation are written by supervisors who witness or review an incident and find a deputy deserves praise. The letters go into a deputy’s personnel file and can be considered if he or she is up for a promotion, said deputy Felicia Romero, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office.
Sevier could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. Sheriff’s officials didn’t say whether the letters are still in the deputies’ files.
“I have no idea why letters of commendation were issued before there was an investigation,” said Shannon Kennedy, an Albuquerque attorney who filed a lawsuit on behalf of Duran’s family. “It’s outrageous. They pepper-balled an old man to death and got a commendation.”
The lawsuit, filed in the 2nd Judicial District Court, is seeking damages and for the Sheriff’s Office to require deputies to wear lapel cameras.
After several news stories were published on the incident, Gonzales ordered an internal affairs investigation into the matter. The Sheriff’s Office hasn’t provided any details of that investigation.
The incident occurred in the 300 block of Camino Siete SE. Duran was reportedly wandering the neighborhood shirtless and with only one shoe. He had a knife, was distraught and asked deputies to kill him.
Deputies’ belt tape recordings captured audio as officers tried to talk to Duran, who spoke Spanish. A Spanish-speaking deputy said Duran wasn’t making any sense.
As negotiations went on, deputies tried to create a plan to get Duran into custody by using less-lethal force.
“Dude, I think that pepper-ball (gun) might be awesome, you know what I mean?” one deputy said. A pepper-ball gun shoots balls that look like paint balls but are filled with a stinging agent.
Other deputies had different plans.
“Let’s not do less lethal. Let’s keep him talking,” one said.
“He’s 90 years old. He’s not going to sprint at us,” another says.
Eventually, the deputies were ordered by Capt. Justin Dunlap to shoot Duran from two directions with pepper balls and unleash a muzzled K-9 onto him.
It sounds like about 50 shots were fired. Pictures at the scene show chunks of Duran’s flesh were cut by the pepper balls. He also broke his femur after getting knocked down by the K-9.
Duran died Oct. 15 from pneumonia, which medical investigators attributed to his injuries.