Witnesses fault arrest tactics in Mejia Poot case

From the Portland Tribune, April 10, 2001

Bystanders question the amount of force used by police after Jose Mejia’s bus fare incident

Witnesses to the early morning arrest of Jose Santos Victor Mejia Poot, a resident alien from Mexico shot to death by police in a Portland psychiatric hospital April 1, say officers used excessive force when arresting Mejia two days earlier.

Two witnesses to the March 30 arrest at Northeast 72nd Avenue and Killingsworth Street, both of whom work at a nearby Plaid Pantry store that has an unobstructed view about 40 feet from the bus stop, say Mejia’s arrest was far more violent than police reports indicate.

The witnesses’ accounts raise new questions about the chain of events that eventually led to Mejia’s shooting, the circumstances of which are the subject of official investigations.

Both witnesses said they saw four officers struggle to get Mejia under control, and as they were pinning him face down and handcuffing him, a female officer came running from her patrol car, clubbed Mejia on the head with a flashlight, repeatedly hit him with her hand and kneed him in the back and neck.

“It was one big dog pile,” said Plaid Pantry Manager Corey Davis, who was watching the scene with a delivery man. “We were looking at him and I said, ‘Doesn’t this look like Rodney King?’”

Neither Davis nor assistant Manager Thomas Kossak, who also told The Tribune the female officer struck Mejia while he was on the ground, had been contacted as of Monday by police officials investigating the shooting death.

The bureau has not interviewed any witnesses to the arrest and is focusing its investigation at this time on the event at the psychiatric hospital where Mejia died.

Lt. Scott Anderson, an assistant to Chief Mark Kroeker, said: “The Internal Affairs Division has not received a complaint for excessive force, but we would certainly like to have it. When they focus their investigation on the shooting, that’s what they’re going to focus on. But if you have some kind of allegation like this, then obviously they are going to look into that, too. I would encourage them (witnesses) to call us.”

After being arrested for harassment and resisting arrest, Mejia, who suffered from epilepsy, was booked into jail, released and later placed in BHC-Pacific Gateway Hospital, a Sellwood psychiatric facility. About 48 hours later, Mejia, a resident alien employed part time by Sauvie Island Nursery for more than two years, was fatally shot by one of three Portland Police officers called to assist hospital staff Sunday night. Officers had first used pepper spray and less lethal beanbag rounds.

According to police reports, the officer who fired the shots, Jeffrey Bell, claimed self-defense, saying Mejia was lunging at him with a metal bar ripped from a hospital door.

But the victim’s family, which learned of the death a day later through the Mexican Consulate in Portland, said Mejia was not mentally ill and should have never ended up in custody, especially at the hospital.

“The blame should fall on the bus driver and the police,” said Francisco Mejia Poot, 36, one of the victim’s two brothers who live in Northeast Portland. “Why did the driver have to call the police? Why did the police put my brother in jail without a reason?”

“My son wasn’t crazy. Ask his doctor. He was looking for work,” said Pedro Mejia Zumarraga, the victim’s father. Dr. Mark Thompson, Jose Mejia’s physician at Providence Family Medical Center in North Portland, did not return calls for comments.

Linda Friedman Ramirez, the Portland attorney representing Mejia’s family, said the family questions why so many officers were called when Mejia was not the type of person to pose a threat.

“The family is obviously upset with the fact that Mejia’s death started with the bus driver calling the police because Mr. Mejia may have been 20 cents short,” she said. “They questioned why, when so many times people might be short the full fare, clearly the police aren’t called.”

The East Multnomah County Major Crimes Team and a Multnomah County grand jury are investigating the shooting. Placed on routine administrative leave were Bell and fellow officers Christopher Davis, a three-year police veteran, and Jeffrey Nelson, an 11-year veteran of the force.

The Mexican Consulate in Portland, local mental health care workers and leaders in the city’s Hispanic community are raising questions about the 60-hour chain of events. The Multnomah County Department of Community and Family Services is conducting two investigations: to determine if hospital staff members abused or neglected Mejia, and to review the well-being of all patients and staff.

March 30, 6 a.m.

According to family and acquaintances, Mejia’s epilepsy may have played a role in his behavior on the bus. A supervisor where he worked said Mejia suffered occasionally from a mild form of seizure in which a person appears unresponsive and disoriented, and doesn’t convulse. His family said Mejia also occasionally experienced seizures in which he had violent convulsions.

With “a simple partial seizure,” said Alta Hancock, a spokeswoman for the Epilepsy Foundation of Oregon, “full consciousness is retained. It can be very brief, 15 seconds or a minute and a half. Sometimes that type of seizure has a longer period of confusion afterward, which can last several hours.

“For epilepsy, medication needs to be take on time, every time,” Hancock said. “If the medication is not taken, it lowers the seizure threshold.”

His family said Mejia always carried his medication with him, but neither police nor hospital officials have released any information regarding his epileptic condition or medication.

People who observed Mejia after he boarded Tri-Met bus No. 72 on March 30 said he seemed confused and unresponsive.

According to Mary Fetsch, a Tri-Met spokeswoman, driver Terry Johnson informed Mejia Ñ in both English and Spanish Ñ that he was 20 cents short of his fare. Johnson also told bus officials that Mejia did not seem to understand what he was saying. His family said Mejia spoke very little English.

Two witnesses on the bus agreed with Johnson.

Glen Derry, a Northeast Portland sheet metal worker, said: “It doesn’t seem like he understood too much. They were talking in normal voices, just talking back and forth. All of a sudden (Mejia) just stopped like he had no idea what (Johnson) was talking about.”

Health care worker Janice Barney, who was sitting on the driver’s side near the front of the bus, said: “He (Mejia) looked like he was either drunk or in a daze or half asleep or something.”

Fetsch said Johnson never left his seat nor raised his voice to Mejia but became concerned about the safety of his passengers and honked his horn to signal a nearby police officer.

Officer James Ferner was sitting in his car at a stoplight at the corner of 72nd and Killingsworth when he heard the horn and saw Johnson waving him over. He parked behind the bus and boarded it.

According to a report by Ferner, when he asked Johnson what was wrong, the driver said Mejia didn’t speak much English and was having a “communication problem.” His report said Johnson wanted Mejia to pay or sit down, motioning toward the seating area of the bus.

Ferner said when he asked Mejia if he spoke English, Mejia smiled at him. Ferner pointed to the fare box and said “dinero,” meaning “money.”

What happened next is in dispute. Mejia eventually was arrested, but accounts vary.

Ferner said Mejia “reached out with his left hand to strike me, hit me in the right side of chest.” Ferner said he then grabbed Mejia’s left arm to drag him off the bus, and Mejia grabbed the left side of the bus door.

Derry said: “The bus driver was telling (Ferner) something about (Mejia) wouldn’t sit down or get off the bus. That’s when the officer motioned like, ‘C’mon, get off the bus.’” Derry said he didn’t see Ferner place his hand on Mejia’s body.

“That’s when Jose turned around. He reached out and grabbed the officer’s chest,” Derry continued. “The officer grabbed him by the head, put him in a headlock and dragged him off.”

According to Barney, Ferner grabbed Mejia’s shoulder first in an attempt to move him off the bus: “When the officer tried to turn him around so he would get off the bus or something, (Mejia) hit him.”

Call for backup

Once Ferner pulled Mejia out of the bus, he said Mejia swung at him then and “balled up his hands into fists and turned slightly sideways in an aggressive fighting stance.”

However, none of several witnesses interviewed by The Tribune remembered that taking place.

At that point, Ferner said he stepped back, took out his baton and told Mejia eight times to get to the ground. He used his radio to call for cover and kept yelling at Mejia to get down, that he was under arrest.

Derry said: “Jose broke loose from the officer, and the officer told him to get down on the ground, five or six times. He just wouldn’t. The officer tried to grab him. That’s when the other officer tried to get him down.”

Barney said she was close to the front door and could see the two officers struggling with Mejia. “He was hitting them, and they were hitting him,” she said. “They couldn’t get him down until after the other car showed up.”

Ferner said he grabbed Mejia when officer Thomas Schulze arrived. Ferner struck Mejia twice in the right leg with his baton, hit him once in the face, then helped push Mejia down on the ground and got on his back. Mejia kept struggling, Ferner said, so he pepper-sprayed him in the face four times.

Ferner said officers Michael Honl and Brian Kelly helped put Mejia in restraints, including handcuffs and a hobble that tied his ankles together. They placed Mejia in Kelly’s car and took him to the Multnomah County Detention Center.

However, that description differed from one offered by Davis and Kossak.

Davis said he looked out the window when he heard a commotion. Four officers were restraining Mejia, who was lying face down in the bark dust between the sidewalk and the Plaid Pantry parking lot. Then he saw a female police officer approach the scene.

“The lady got out of the cop car,” Davis said. “She had her flashlight in hand and ran up there. She ran around the front and dropped down to her knees. She whapped him (Mejia) one time with the flashlight and put it down.

“It looked like she hit him in the forehead or at least the side of the head. He was still kind of putting up a little bit of struggle so she hit him about the face. It looked like the side of her hand. I don’t think it was with the full fist, but she was hitting pretty quick and consistent.

“She got up, she dropped a couple knees into his shoulder Ñ I’m assuming to make him go more limp so they could continue to put the handcuffs on him. But at this point, he was already face down on the ground. It was like watching a riot squad out there.”

Police reports say a female officer, Cristin Bolles, was at the scene. The report did not say specifically that Bolles took part in the arrest.

Kossak, the Plaid Pantry assistant manager, also stopped working to watch the struggle: “I saw the bus was stopped. The next thing I knew, he was out of the bus and they were beating on him. One lady officer ran out of her car and started beating on him with a flashlight.”

Kossak said he has called police for help with surly customers numerous times, “but I’ve never seen them do anything like that. I think it was a little excessive myself. Once a man’s down, you don’t have to keep beating on him.”

Booked in jail

Mejia was transported to the Multnomah County Detention Center at booked at 6:51 a.m. His combined bail was $4,000 for alleged harassment and resisting arrest. He was fingerprinted, photographed and placed in custody until he was released in lieu of bail at 7:51 p.m.

The 12-hour stay is normal, said Dan Oldham, Multnomah County sheriff’s spokesman. “They have to wait until we run the print and photos and find out you are who we say we are,” he said. “It just takes all that time to do all that checking.”

About 90 minutes later, according to officer Angela Hollan’s report, she found Mejia in front of the jail, holding his right hand to an ear and sobbing loudly. He was leaning against a car and then fell down in front of it, she said. Hollan said other officers said earlier that Mejia had been banging on the door of the Federal Building and had been standing outside the Justice Center crying and spitting at the door.

Hollan took Mejia into custody without incident, she said, transporting him to Providence Crisis Triage Center. Mejia cried the entire time, Hollan said in her report.

At CTC, as the mental treatment facility is called, Mejia was evaluated by a psychiatrist, and possibly by a therapist, psychologist and nurse. The center’s chief executive officer said a Spanish-speaking translator was on duty that night.

It is the triage center’s job to assess patients’ problems, evaluate whether they need further treatment and, if possible, get them to a facility providing long-term treatment. It is the center’s policy for officers to check their weapons at the door.

According to Jerald Block, a private adult psychiatrist in Northeast Portland who is on the board of directors for the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill, a hospital can hold patients without their consent if they meet at least one of three criteria: potential danger to themselves, at risk to harm others or not being able to feed or care for themselves.

Block said for Mejia to be placed in Pacific Gateway Hospital, he must have been “found through a psychiatric interview to be mentally ill, or at least what was thought to be mental illness.” A company contracted by the county transported Mejia to the hospital in a vehicle similar to an ambulance equipped with a stretcher and restraints.

Pacific Gateway Hospital

The 66-bed hospital, owned since 1997 by Behavioral Healthcare Corp. of Nashville, Tenn., is well hidden among cherry blossom trees and pastel-colored homes in a quiet Sellwood neighborhood near Sellwood Middle School.

On the inside, however, everything is not as picturesque as it seems. Through April 1, police have been called for security reasons 17 times this year Ñ including responses to assaults, patients escaping and vandalism. They were called 56 times last year, 49 in 1999 and 46 in 1998.

Lt. Mike Hefley, a police spokesman, said the bureau is looking into the increase of calls.

The Oregon Health Division, which licenses hospitals, and the federal Health Care Financing Administration, have found problems with the hospital.

Mejia’s family members said they received a phone call from him at the hospital at 3 p.m. Saturday. They arrived at 4 p.m. with epilepsy medication, they said.

On the night of April 1, hospital staff called the police at 9:19 with a report of a man making threats with pencils. Police responded and locked Mejia in a seclusion room.

Bell, Davis and Nelson arrived at 10:16 p.m. after the hospital again called for assistance. Hefley said the officers found Mejia in the main area of the hospital, and he began threatening them with a metal rod, which he apparently had ripped from a hospital door. Hefley said Davis responded to Mejia’s threat by firing several beanbag rounds and pepper spray.

“When that had no effect,” Hefley said, Bell fired two rounds of his pistol “as the subject was approaching him with this bar.”

Mejia died at the scene from gunshots to the head and chest, an autopsy revealed. A toxicology report is pending. If results need to be quantified, that could take up to three more weeks, said Dr. Cliff Nelson, the deputy state medical examiner.

“I’ve got a pretty good idea of what we’ll find, based on what he’s been prescribed,” said Nelson, who declined to comment on details until the criminal investigation is completed.

Hospital staff members declined to comment, releasing only a written statement saying they planned to meet with the family.

Block, the psychiatrist, said he wonders about the hospital’s ability to handle its patients.

“You’re asking for troubles if you have police on psychiatric units with guns on them,” he said. “What if a patient grabs for that gun? Many patients on psychiatric units are paranoid, afraid of authority figures.”

“We don’t know what happened in the hospital,” said Zumarraga, the victim’s father. “We want to know how they killed him.”