DOCUMENT: LAWSUIT FILED BY THE ESTATE OF CHRISTOPHER LOPEZ
“I can see you breathing,” Cheryl Neumeister called to a shackled, mentally ill — and dead — inmate, whose slow-motion death took place in the presence of casually chatting prison personnel, and on video.
Fifteen more minutes dragged by before guards pulled the body of Christopher Lopez, 35, from an intake cell and they realized he had died.
Moments later, a guard called for medical “backup.”
It is the first hint on the nearly six-hour video that anyone witnessing the man’s almost comatose behavior, uncontrollable shaking, grand mal seizures and disturbed breathing realized he was in dire need of medical attention.
The video, taken at San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo on March 17, 2013, is evidence in a lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Denver by Lopez’s mother, Juanita Lopez.
In a release responding to the suit, prison officials said within 10 days of the incident, three employees were terminated and another five were subjected to corrective and/or disciplinary action.
Neumeister, a mental health clinician, was among those fired, according to the suit.
Lopez, a schizophrenic, died of severe hyponatremia, a condition that occurs when sodium levels are too low. “Almost all instances of hyponatremia are treatable if a person receives prompt and adequate medical attention,” the suit said.
The lawsuit suggests the condition was brought on by too much psychotropic medication.
On the video, corrections staff, including guards, nurses and Neumeister, can be heard talking, joking and laughing while Lopez lay dying.
Guards noticed a partially clothed Lopez lying on his stomach, arms under his chest and face on the floor at about 3:30 a.m. In the video, he can be seen shaking.
A corrections officer, identified in the suit as Jaime Gutierrez-Gonzalez, spoke through a food-tray slot in the door, telling Lopez to come to the door.
“You’ve got to do more than lift your head up, you’ve got to get over here to the door,” Gutierrez-Gonzalez said.
“He actually wants to respond, but he can’t,” Gutierrez-Gonzalez told someone, then called out, “I understand you have some medical condition, but you have to work with me so I can help you.”
Gutierrez-Gonzalez then told Lopez if he didn’t cooperate, there would be a forced cell entrance, during which he would be pepper sprayed.
More than an hour after they noticed Lopez on the floor, a six-member team assembled to mount a forced cell entrance. Before going to the cell, they were told that because of a lack of personnel, gas wouldn’t be used.
The guards entered the cell dressed in riot gear and dragged him out. They told him to stop resisting, though he appeared limp.
They stripped him, then chained and cuffed him to a wheeled transport chair, and pulled a black spit mask over his head.
They left him in the chair, slumped forward, his trunk held to the chair by a chain around his belly.
Sometime after 6 a.m., his legs began to shake uncontrollably, the chains rattling loudly.
His entire body began to shake and convulse, and his eyes rolled back in his head as he went into a seizure. At the end of the seizure, he slumped over, leaning to the side, and began to snore loudly, evidence of a grand mal seizure, according to the suit.
They took him out of the chair, telling Lopez “maybe you will be a little more comfortable,” and then laid him on the floor, still in restraints.
The tortured snoring continued.
“I went to Walmart this morning,” a guard said.
At about 9:10 a.m., after a second seizure, Lopez’s body, which had been heaving with each breath, stopped moving as he died.
His body lay on the floor, facedown, his head inches from the cell toilet.
Neumeister, who had been called at home more than an hour earlier, arrived at about 9:15 a.m. and said she could see him breathing.
Moments later, she said, “I can’t tell if he is breathing.”
“He was breathing earlier,” one of the guards replied.
Though Neumeister and others were trained in CPR, none tried to revive Lopez. Neumeister left the area after chatting and joking with Capt. James Yates and correctional officer George Roman.
Nothing further was done to check on his well-being, according to the suit. At about 9:30 a.m., Roman and two other guards went into the cell and dragged Lopez’s body out.
“It was only then (they) explicitly recognized that Mr. Lopez was not breathing,” the suit said.
The video “is horrific to watch,” said civil rights lawyer David Lane, who is handling the case for the family.
Lane and the Department of Corrections declined to provide a copy of the video to The Denver Post.