Police open arrest probe in Jose Mejia Poot case

From the Portland Tribune, April 13, 2001

More witnesses claim that police used excessive force in subduing Jose Mejia on March 30

Four more witnesses have stepped forward to say that Portland police used excessive force when they arrested Jose Santos Victor Mejia Poot during a Tri-Met fare dispute March 30.

The Portland Police Bureau has initiated an Internal Affairs Division investigation into the allegations involving the arrest of Mejia, a resident alien from Mexico who was killed by a city police officer in a Portland psychiatric hospital on April 1.

In a related development, the city has agreed to pay the cost of Mejia’s funeral, including the cost of flying his body home for burial in Mani, a small town in the Mexican state of Yucatan.

Several investigations already have been launched into the shooting death of Mejia, who first drew the attention of police at a Northeast Portland bus stop after an argument with a Tri-Met driver because he was 20 cents short of the fare.

According to Lt. Mike Hefley, the bureau’s public information officer, the decision to conduct the investigation was made Tuesday by Capt. Brett Smith.

“The bureau had self-initiated an internal affairs investigation on the officers involved in the arrest because of the allegations that are out there,” Hefley said. “Even though they are hearsay, we thought that had to be investigated.”

Portland Mayor Vera Katz supports the investigation. “I’m glad it’s happening,” she said.

The early-morning arrest of Mejia was witnessed by numerous people, including two Plaid Pantry employees who said that five police officers pounded on Mejia before and after he was handcuffed and hobbled.

Another witness, beverage salesman Joshua Oates, was driving into the Plaid Pantry parking area while the arrest was taking place and said he saw a female officer “plant her shin on the back of his (Mejia’s) head.”

The officers involved in the arrest were Cristin Bolles, James A. Ferner Jr., Michael Honl, Brian Kelly and Thomas Schulze. They have not responded to an interview request left at East Precinct, where they are assigned.

Roger Yah, one of the four people interviewed by The Tribune on Wednesday about Mejia’s arrest, said he watched the drama unfold as he and his friends sat in the back of the No. 72 bus at 6 a.m. that Friday.

“He was already handcuffed, already on the ground, and they continued to hit him, kicking in the stomach and back, all over his body,” Yah said. “He was yelling in pain.”

Yah said he and his three friends, Celmi Carrillo, 24, Glendy Cortes, 23, and Fredy Interian, 23 Ñ wanted to stop the beating but were afraid to protest what was happening.

“We were afraid to help because the same thing could have happened to us,” Yah said. The four friends, all of whom knew Mejia, were up early to look for work Ñ as was Mejia.

The bus stop

Mejia’s fatal encounter with the police began at the bus stop at Northeast 72nd Avenue and Killingsworth Street. Tri-Met driver Terry Johnson waved Ferner over because Mejia was short of his fare and was apparently having problems communicating.

Witnesses in the bus said a struggle broke out after Ferner tried to get Mejia to leave. Ferner then pulled Mejia off the bus, and the two men separated briefly.

According to witnesses on the bus and at the Plaid Pantry store approximately 40 feet away, three other male officers showed up almost immediately and wrestled Mejia to the ground, repeatedly striking him in the ribs and legs.

Witnesses said a female officer then ran out of a patrol car, hit Mejia in the head with a flashlight, punched him repeatedly in the face and dropped her knee into his neck and back three or four times.

The officers continued beating Mejia after he was handcuffed and his feet were bound, then placed him in a patrol car and drove away.

The official police reports on the arrest say Mejia was struck only three times by Ferner with his baton while Mejia was still standing. The reports say that Bolles, the female officer, only “helped get control of (Mejia’s) arms and handcuff him.”

The police already have begun interviewing witnesses. Corey Davis, manager of the Plaid Pantry store, said he talked Wednesday with Det. Sgt. Paul Larson and Det. Sgt. John Brooks. Davis and assistant manager Thomas Kossak said last week that they had an unobstructed view of the arrest from the Plaid Pantry store.

According to Davis, Larson and Brooks told him they saw Mejia’s body at the autopsy and it did not have any bruises. Corey said he thought the two investigators were challenging his credibility, and he told them what he saw, including the officer hitting Mejia in the head with a blunt object.

“I said she hit him once, put the thing down, punched him and put knees to his neck,” Davis said.

Hefley said the Internal Affairs Division welcomes calls from anyone who witnessed the arrest. The unit’s phone number is 503-823-0236.

Mejia was killed after three officers Ñ Jeffrey Bell, Christopher Davis and Jeffrey Nelson Ñ were called to the BHC-Pacific Gateway Hospital shortly after 10 p.m. on April 1. Mejia, who suffered from epilepsy, had been committed to the hospital two days earlier after reportedly being found in an incoherent state after his release from jail.

According to the police bureau, Mejia somehow broke out of a secure room and was threatening staff members with a metal rod. The bureau said Bell shot Mejia in the head and chest as he advanced toward the officers.

Helping the family

An April 4 conversation between Police Chief Mark Kroeker and Mexican Consul General Alma Soria Ayuso led to the city’s announcement this week that it will pay for Mejia’s funeral and the cost of transporting his body to Mexico.

Kroeker first broached the offer during a discussion with Ayuso, according to Luis Elias, the consulate’s chancellor of protection. Ayuso called Kroeker as part of her official duties when there is a serious incident regarding a Mexican national.

“The chief just wanted to help the family out and help them get through this as best we could,” Hefley said.

The payment will come out of the Insurance and Claims Fund administered by the city’s Bureau of Risk Management. Although the city has paid funeral expenses in the past, this is the first time the fund has been used to bury someone outside the city limits, said Mark Stairiker, the city’s liability claims manager.

“It’s a goodwill gesture,” Stairiker said.

Mejia’s wife lives in Mani, and his father and two brothers live in Northeast Portland.

The Mexican consulate is working to determine the cost of burying Mejia’s body, which is currently at the Omega Funeral and Cremation Service in Northeast Portland.

Omega sends approximately 30 bodies a year to foreign countries and other cities in the United States, according to owner Erin Phelps. Costs range from $2,000 and $4,000, including embalming, the casket, airfare, funeral and local transportation costs, she said.

Phelps is still waiting to receive instructions from the family and the consulate before making final arrangements.