Two Las Animas County Sheriff’s deputies have lost their jobs following a months-long investigation into a chaotic traffic stop last November.
Deputy Mikhail Noel and Lt. Henry Trujillo together tased Kenneth Espinoza at least three times – including once in the lower lip – as he was handcuffed and attempting to comply with conflicting orders from both deputies. The two then lied about their use of force on official reports, according to a third-party investigation that recommended their firings and further criminal investigation.
“You can't act like that when you're a peace officer and get to keep your job,” said Kevin Mehr, an attorney representing Espinoza. “It’s the first right step towards accountability.”
The Las Animas Sheriff’s Office terminated the deputies on Aug. 25 and confirmed the action to CPR News this week, but declined to comment further. The office placed both officers on administrative leave earlier this year.
Espinoza and his son, Nathaniel Espinoza, were in Trinidad for construction work. The older Espinoza needed to drop off his pick-up truck at a local Ford dealership for service.
As Nathaniel followed Kenneth to the dealer in a separate car, Deputy Noel pulled him over. Espinoza also stopped, parking his truck behind the traffic stop to stay near his son.
Lt. Trujillo responded as backup and ordered Espinoza to leave the scene. An argument ensued between the two over whether Espinoza was allowed to remain on-site to wait for his son, body camera footage of the interaction shows.
Over the course of a few minutes, Deputy Noel leaves Nathaniel’s car and approaches Espinoza and Lt. Trujillo. As he walks over, Trujillo changes his mind and tells Espinoza he should stay on the scene.
Seconds later, Noel shouts conflicting orders to Espinoza that he should leave. Following orders, Espinoza backs his car onto a street curb.
Both deputies then pull their guns and point them at Espinoza. Both yell for him to get out of the pick-up truck. Trujillo then grabs Espinoza’s arm, which is hanging out of his truck’s window, video shows.
The officers open Espinoza’s truck door and put him in handcuffs before walking him to Trujillo’s patrol car.
“Hold on, okay guys,” Espinoza says. “I’m going peacefully.”
“Get your ass in there,” Trujillo says as he shoves Espinoza toward the patrol car’s open door.
“I’m going to fucking taser you,” Deputy Noel says as he pulls out a taser. “Get in the fucking car.”
Both deputies then simultaneously tase Espinoza. Taser data shows Lt. Trujillo deployed his shock for five seconds, striking Espinoza in the lip and face. Deputy Noel deployed his taser twice on Espinoza’s chest.
Following the arrest, superiors at the sheriff’s office said the use of force was justified.
But leadership did not review body camera footage in making the final determination. Undersheriff Reynaldo Santistevan only read typed reports and spoke with both deputies prior to his determination, according to a letter he sent to Sheriff Derek Navarette recommending their termination.
In April, county prosecutors decided not to pursue any charges against Espinoza. Soon after, he and his son filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the sheriff’s department.
Navarette put both deputies involved on leave and hired the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Department to conduct an independent investigation into their use of force.
Investigators reviewed body camera footage and interviewed the deputies and other parties involved. After their inquiry, they concluded that both Trujillo and Noel had violated multiple department policies around use of force.
The deputies’ communication “was not specific,” the report concluded.
“Their poor verbal skills and actions escalated, not de-escalated, the situation leading into a presentation of deadly force, use of physical force, use of less lethal tools, property damage, bodily injury, and false arrest,” the report said.
At the county jail, Trujillo threatened to put Espinoza in a restraining chair. He also failed to record a drive from the jail to the hospital, where Espinoza was treated for taser injuries, according to the report.
The Pueblo sheriff’s report concluded that the deputies had no cause to arrest Espinoza, misused their tasers and filed inaccurate reports after the fact. The third-party investigators also recommended the sheriff’s office consider a “referral of a criminal investigation” for their actions.
Espinoza still suffers from post-traumatic stress from the incident, said Mehr, his lawyer.
“I think there are more people that need to be reviewed in connection here and what's going on at the Las Animas County Sheriff's Office,” he said.
The federal civil rights case against the sheriff’s department is still pending.
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