Elijah McClain’s death and what happened next: a timeline

November 19, 2021
Justice For Elijah McClain Street ArtJustice For Elijah McClain Street ArtHart Van Denburg/CPR News
“Justice for Elijah McClain” street art in Denver’s Berkeley neighborhood, July 10, 2020.

2019

Aug. 24 — 23-year-old massage therapist Elijah McClain was walking back from an Aurora convenience store when someone called the police and said he was allegedly acting suspiciously. McClain, who had a blood circulation disorder, was wearing a ski mask and was dressed warmly.

Aurora Police officers Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema arrived on the scene and began questioning McClain. The exchange quickly escalated when officers said McClain failed to follow commands. 

McClain told the officers that he didn’t have a gun and that he preferred personal space, according to a tape of the incident. 

The officers eventually used carotid chokeholds on McClain twice as they attempted to subdue him. McClain briefly passed out and vomited a couple of times. Such holds have since been banned statewide.

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When paramedics arrived at the scene, they diagnosed McClain with “excited delirium” — meaning they thought he was exhibiting “superhuman” strength — without talking to him or physically touching him. They injected McClain with 500 mg of ketamine — a dose that would have been slightly too much for a 200-pound person. McClain weighed 143 pounds. 

Shortly after McClain was loaded into the ambulance, the paramedics discovered that he had no pulse and was not breathing. He went into cardiac arrest while being transported to the hospital.

Aug. 27 — After four days in a coma, McClain was declared brain dead by doctors and taken off life support. 

Elijah McClain plays the violin.Courtesy of the McClain family
Elijah McClain plays the violin in this undated family photo.

Aug. 29 — Sheneen McClain, Elijah’s mother, set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for burial costs. She was not able to afford a funeral, and cremated her son instead

Sept. 3 —  Dr. Stephen Cina, a pathologist and independent contractor, who was paid $324,000 for conducting 342 autopsies in Adams County that year, performed the autopsy of Elijah McClain. 

A CPR News investigation found that he concluded that the manner of death “may be undetermined” before he had reviewed complete police reports, witness statements or video capturing the violent confrontation between Aurora Police and McClain.

Aurora police investigators were present at the autopsy, which was later criticized by Democratic State Rep. Leslie Herod.

Oct. 1 — Dr. Cina sent a draft of the autopsy report to Coroner Broncucia-Jordan, writing that the report needed “witness statements, police report, and any video of the incident. I know APD doesn’t like long narrative on homicides, but it appears appropriate here. may be undetermined.”

According to a national coroners group, it is best practice to seek a second medical opinion to avoid an undetermined ruling in an autopsy. However, a second medical opinion was never sought by Dr. Cina or by Coroner Broncucia-Jordan, who is not a doctor.

Oct. 16 Coroner Broncucia-Jordan met with Aurora detectives. Those involved in that meeting either declined to comment on what was discussed or declined to respond to questions from CPR News.

Nov. 7 — In his final autopsy report, Dr. Cina declared there was no way to determine whether police or paramedics played a role in McClain’s death. This effectively crippled any effort to find criminal fault with how they responded to the initial 911 call.  

Before Dr. Cina signed his final autopsy report, he received copies of the Aurora police reports on their encounter with McClain and video from the incident. None of this altered his decision to rule that both what caused McClain’s death and precisely what he died from as undetermined.

It’s rare in Colorado to have both an undetermined manner and cause of death. In 2019, only 53 out of 40,100 deaths had both an undetermined cause and manner, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.

Both Dr. Cina and Broncucia-Jordan declined requests for interviews with CPR news.

Nov. 22 — Adams County District Attorney Dave Young releases his decision clearing the officers involved in the case —  Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema — of any criminal wrongdoing. All of them were put back on the job.

“The evidence does not support the prosecution of a homicide,” Young wrote in his decision letter to Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz. Young also wrote that it was not his role to “second guess the actions of the involved officers to determine if they could have reacted to this situation in a different manner.” 

That same day, the Aurora Police Department released the footage from the officers’ body-worn cameras. It showed that shortly after the officers forced McClain to the ground, one shouted that he was trying to take one of their guns. However, the cameras did not capture the entire interaction as officers say they were knocked off their uniforms during the struggle.

Dec. 30 Aurora Chief of Police Nick Metz retired after four-and-a-half years as chief.

Sheneen McClain. Aug. 16, 2021.Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Sheneen McClain. Aug. 16, 2021.

2020

Jan. 1 — Vanessa Wilson, a veteran with the force since 1996, was appointed interim Aurora Chief of Police, becoming the first woman ever appointed to the job. Deputy Chief Paul O’Keefe was expected to step in as interim chief, but instead withdrew from consideration and retired. Wilson said she planned on applying for the permanent police chief job. 

Feb. 10 — The Aurora City Council approved a resolution to establish a Community Police Task Force “to evaluate, discuss and develop recommendations to improve effective and transparent communication between the Aurora Police Department and the community, including a potential resident-involved/resident-based review process of critical police incidents, operations, practices and procedures.” 

May 25 — George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota while in police custody. He was arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store. 

During the arrest, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down. Two other officers assisted Chauvin, and a third officer prevented bystanders from coming to Floyd’s aid. 

June 3 — Colorado lawmakers introduced SB21-217, a wide-ranging police accountability measure that would ban the use of carotid chokeholds by police. It also included measures that would address body camera use and the release of footage, increase transparency in law enforcement reporting and put new limits on police action during protests. The bill was shaped, in part, by the circumstances of McClain’s death.

June 19 — After weeks of daily protests at the Colorado State Capitol against police brutality and racism following George Floyd's murder, Gov. Jared Polis signed into law the sweeping police reform bill.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Gov. Jared Polis hands ceremonial pens to bill sponsors Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver and Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo after signing law enforcement reform legislation at the State Capitol Friday

June 24 — The Aurora Sentinel reported that Aurora officials were flooded with requests to further examine the death of Elijah McClain. State Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, who represents the House district where McClain lived, said she received more than 83,000 emails about the case in three weeks.

June 25 — Gov. Jared Polis signed an Executive Order to appoint Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser as a special prosecutor to investigate. The order directed Weiser to investigate and, if the facts supported it, “criminally prosecute any individuals whose actions caused the death of Elijah McClain.”

June 27 — A planned day of vigils and protests in Aurora for McClain began with speakers, music, a march down I-225 and a rally in front of Aurora’s Municipal Center. The day ended with a police barricade and officers in riot gear

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
A thousand or more protesters marched onto I-225 during a series of rallies in Aurora demanding justice for Elijah McClain. June 27, 2020.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Jeff Hughes plays his violin as Aurora Police officers in riot gear keep protesters demanding justice for Elijah McClain off the municipal building lawn. June 27, 2020.

June 30 — The FBI, Colorado U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division released a statement that revealed they had been investigating Aurora’s handling of McClain’s death for a potential civil rights violation ever since it happened in 2019. The statement was announced at the same time as a meeting held by Aurora city council members and mayor Mike Coffman, who were answering questions about policing at recent protests.

Federal officers declined to elaborate on any details, noting the standard practice is that they don’t announce the existence of ongoing investigations.

July 2 — Interim Aurora Police Chief, Vanessa Wilson, announced that she fired three officers involved with taking and distributing a photo showing officers mimicking a carotid control hold next to a memorial set up close to where police stopped him. A fourth officer involved in the incident resigned. 

One of the officers fired was Jason Rosenblatt, who was part of the group that apprehended McClain. While Rosenblatt isn’t in the photo, it was texted to him and he replied, “haha.”

"He is being fired for his...utter lack of ability to do the right thing here. And his ability to say 'haha' when he was involved in the incident with Elijah McClain is reprehensible," Wilson said.

One week later, all three police officers appealed their firing

July 3 — Protesters surrounded Aurora’s District One police station vowing to remain until all the officers involved in Elijah McClain’s death were fired. They dispersed later in the night.

Two officers involved in the deadly encounter with Elijah McClain, Nathan Woodyard and Randy Roedema, remain on the force

July 20 — Aurora City Council approved an independent investigation into Elijah McClain’s death to be led by Jonathan Smith, a former Justice Department attorney who led a civil investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department after the death of Michael Brown. 

This is the second time the Aurora City Council started an investigation into McClain’s death. The first person it hired, in the spring, was a former police officer, which sparked criticism that the investigation wouldn’t be independent.

July 25 — A couple of hours into a protest that began at Aurora Police Headquarters, demonstrators marched onto I-225, blocking traffic. A driver in a Jeep tried to plow into them. 

A protester fired a gun and struck another protester, who was sent to the hospital in stable condition. Six demonstrators faced felony charges for their involvement in this demonstration and the one on July 3rd, though the charges were eventually either dismissed or dropped after the completion of community service. 

The man who fired shots during the protest was charged with attempted first-degree murder. No charges were brought against the driver of the Jeep

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
A driver in a blue Jeep speeds through a protest demanding justice for Elijah McClain. A protester fired a gun as the vehicle drove by, shooting another protester. July 25, 2020.

Aug. 1 — McClain’s death continued to gain national attention; the Denver Nuggets’ coach Michael Malone wore a shirt with the slogan “Justice for Elijah McClain" during a game in Florida. A month later, tennis champion Naomi Osaka donned a mask with his name on it at the US Open in New York. 

Aug. 3 — Aurora City Council voted 9-1 to appoint interim Aurora police chief Vanessa Wilson as the city’s next police chief, the first woman to assume that role in the city’s history. Wilson said in a statement she was honored, humbled and energized by the decision.

Aug. 11 — State Attorney General Phil Weiser said that his office has, for the last several weeks, been probing “patterns and practices” at the Aurora Police Department to see whether officers have deprived individuals of their constitutional rights under state or federal law. This investigation is separate from the ongoing investigation Weiser’s office is conducting into the death of Elijah McClain and was made possible by new powers granted to the Attorney General under the police reform law.

On the same day, the family of Elijah McClain filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city of Aurora, several police officers and paramedics who they allege are responsible for McClain’s death. 

Just hours after Elijah McClain’s family filed their lawsuit, the city of Aurora announced that it would conduct a comprehensive review of its police department.

Aug. 22 — Members of Breonna Taylor’s family met with Elijah McClain’s mother and other relatives at Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. Later that evening, the families and their supporters gathered at the State Capitol to read the names of Elijah, Breonna and many others killed by police.

Aug. 23 — The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced it planned to review the use of ketamine by emergency medical providers. However, the review was paused on January 15, 2021 so the CDPHE could "reassess the scope, in deference to other investigations." Shortly thereafter, on January 18, 2021, the CDPHE resumed the review to focus not on individual cases of ketamine problems, but on the authorizations the state has given to emergency medical providers to administer ketamine in pre-hospital settings.

Aug. 27 — Aurora City Council banned local police from using carotid holds, a type of chokehold that puts pressure on either side of the subject’s windpipe. The council’s decision codified a policy change enacted by police chief Vanessa Wilson, who banned the holds in June while serving as interim chief. 

Sept. 14 — The Aurora City Council unanimously voted to temporarily ban city paramedics from using ketamine until the city’s independent investigation of the events leading up to McClain’s death was completed. The resolution was introduced by Curtis Gardner, an at-large city councilman.

Dec. 2 — The city of Aurora filed a motion in federal court to dismiss a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the McClain family.  A city spokesman alleged that the lawsuit failed to support its claim that Aurora was liable in McClain’s death when it came to proper training and supervision of the police department and its paramedics. 

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Protesters demanding justice for Elijah McClain shout at Aurora Police officers dressed in riot gear nearby. June 27, 2020.

2021

Feb. 22 — A 157-page, independent investigation commissioned by the City of Aurora found crucial missteps in the Aurora Police Department’s encounter with Elijah McClain, including the initial pat-down and use of a carotid hold once police pushed him to the ground. 

The report made several suggestions, including that Aurora Police should review its use of force policy, provide enough guidance to officers on how to avoid using force, and make it clear that de-escalation is required in every encounter when possible.

July 6 — Gov. Jared Polis signed legislation that puts guardrails around ketamine use. The 12-page bill says the powerful sedative can only be administered under the discretion of medical professionals — not law enforcement. 

The legislation also outlines specific situations in which ketamine may be administered, sets forth new regulations for monitoring patients and specifically prohibits the use of ketamine for “excited delirium,” a broad description applied to anyone aggressive, agitated, paranoid or disoriented.

Aug. 16 —  An independent watchdog group presented a report at Aurora City Council that said Aurora Police disproportionately use force on Black men and a small number of officers are involved in a large percentage of use of force incidents.

Although 328 officers used some level of force on the job in 2020, 27 of them — about 3.5 percent of officers overall — were responsible for nearly 24 percent of all use-of-force incidents.  

The group presented more than 60 recommendations in the several-hundred-page report including improving hiring practices and prioritizing diversity, clarifying use-of-force rules, increasing training to prevent bias in policing, requiring better data collection and analysis and making better use of officers trained to deal with people in mental health crises. 

Sept. 1 — Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced that a grand jury filed a total of 32 criminal charges against three Aurora Police officers — Nathan Woodyard and Randy Roedema, former officer Jason Rosenblatt — and two paramedics — Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec — including manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, for their role in the deadly detention of Elijah McClain in 2019.

All five turned themselves into the Glendale Police Department the same day the indictment was announced. They were each released after posting $10,000 bonds.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Attorney General Phil Weiser addresses press after a grand jury formerly indicted three police officers and two paramedics involved in Elijah McClain's death in 2019. Sept. 1, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Attorney General Phil Weiser's staff stands at the back of a conference room as he addresses press about a grand jury indictment of three police officers and two paramedics involved in Elijah McClain's death in 2019. Sept. 1, 2021.

Sept. 15 — The ‘patterns and practices’ investigation by Phil Weiser’s office revealed The Aurora Police Department and Aurora Fire and Rescue repeatedly violated state and federal law with racist policing, illegal use of excessive force and inappropriate administration of ketamine.

The 118-page report was the result of a 14-month investigation, and will require Aurora Police to enter into a consent decree to make major changes across the organization, including improving its policies, training, recordkeeping and hiring, with the goal of overhauling its entire culture. 

It will also require the APD to instate clearer use-of-force policies and ensure officers document every stop they make, as required by state law. State officials are also going to require Aurora Fire overhaul when and how they use ketamine in emergency situations, including how they evaluate whether it’s necessary and setting stricter rules around dosages.

Oct. 19 — McClain’s parents, Sheneen McClain and Lawayne Mosley, reached a settlement “in principle” with the city of Aurora over her civil rights lawsuit. The size and specific conditions of the settlement were not disclosed.

Nov. 16 — Aurora and the Attorney General announced they had reached a deal on a consent decree to make the reforms recommended by the patterns and practices report and would send it before the city council shortly.

Nov. 19 — Aurora agreed to pay the family of Elijah McClain $15 million. The money is the largest known settlement for police violence in state history.


CPR's Megan Verlee, Allison Sherry and Sarah Bures contributed to this story.

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