In August 2019, police officers in Aurora, Colorado, approached 23-year-old Elijah McClain as he walked home from a convenience store. The Aurora Police Department later said that a 911 caller had reported a “suspicious person” in a ski mask, and that when officers confronted McClain — who was not armed and had not committed any kind of crime — he “resisted arrest.” In the 15 minutes that followed, the officers tackled McClain to the ground, put him in a carotid hold, and called first responders, who injected him with ketamine. He had a heart attack on the way to the hospital, and died days later, after he was declared brain dead.
McClain’s family maintains that law enforcement’s use of excessive force led to his death, and roughly a year-and-a-half later, a report commissioned by the Aurora City Council suggests that police lacked the legal grounds to stop McClain and to forcefully detain him. The officers involved in McClain’s death were previously cleared of wrongdoing, apparently on the basis of questionable body-camera footage and an allegedly inconclusive autopsy.
“This case is a textbook example of law enforcement’s disparate and racist treatment of Black men,” McClain’s family members and their legal team said in a joint statement on February 22, per ABC. “Aurora’s continued failure to acknowledge the wrongdoing of its employees only exacerbates the problem.”
Despite local media coverage and some smaller rallies, McClain’s death did not initially receive widespread attention in the press — not until the killing of George Floyd sparked widespread protests against racially motivated police brutality over the summer. Here’s everything we know about Elijah McClain.
McClain was detained on his way home from picking up an iced tea for his brother.
Just after 10:30 p.m. on August 24, 2019, the Aurora Police Department received a call about a “suspicious person” wearing a mask and waving his hands. They dispatched three officers — Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt, and Randy Roedema — who subsequently said McClain “resisted contact” and continued down the street.
According to McClain’s family, the 23-year-old had made a quick trip to the convenience store to pick up an iced tea for his brother. His sister later told a local ABC affiliate, Denver7, that McClain was wearing an open-face ski mask because he “had anemia and would sometimes get cold.” And although he was unarmed, simply walking home and, his sister said, listening to music, police say “a struggle ensued.” One officer accused McClain of reaching for his gun, and one put him in a carotid hold, which involves an officer applying pressure to the side of a person’s neck in order to temporarily cut off blood flow to the brain. “Due to the level of physical force applied while restraining the subject and his agitated mental state,” officers then called Aurora First Responders, who “administered life-saving measures,” according to a local NBC affiliate. Paramedics injected McClain with what they said was a “therapeutic” amount of ketamine to sedate him, while officers held him down.
Body-camera footage of the arrest did not come out for months.
Body-cam footage of the arrest does exist, although the ADP did not release it to the public until late November 2019, months after McClain’s death. In the footage, an officer can be heard admitting McClain had done nothing illegal prior to his arrest; another accuses McClain of reaching for one of their guns. McClain, meanwhile, can be heard asking the officers to stop, explaining that they started to arrest him as he was “stopping [his] music to listen.” He gasps that he cannot breathe. He tells them his name, says he has ID but no gun, and pleads that his house is “right there.” He sobs, and vomits, and apologizes: “I wasn’t trying to do that,” he says. “I just can’t breathe correctly.” One of the officers can also be heard threatening to set his dog on McClain if he “keep[s] messing around,” and claiming he exhibited an extreme show of strength when officers tried to pin back his arms.
Very little of the officers’ protocol can be seen, however, because all of their body cams allegedly fell off during the arrest. But if you watch the video from about the 15-minute mark (warning: it contains violent and upsetting content), you’ll see someone pick up the body camera and point it toward McClain and one of the officers, before dropping it back into the grass. Around 15:34, one of the officers seems to say, “Leave your camera there.”
An autopsy initially listed McClain’s cause of death as “undetermined.”
McClain’s autopsy also raised questions. The Adams County Coroner announced in early November 2019 that it wasn’t clear whether his death had been an accident, or carotid hold–related homicide, or the result of natural causes. The coroner listed McClain’s cause of death as “undetermined,” but points to hemorrhaging in his neck and abrasions on different parts of his body. Noting that “an idiosyncratic drug reaction (an unexpected reaction to a drug even at a therapeutic level) cannot be ruled out” in reference to the ketamine dosage, the report’s wording seemed to pin responsibility on McClain himself.
“The decedent was violently struggling with officers who were attempting to restrain him,” it said, according to Denver 7 ABC. “Most likely the decedent’s physical exertion contributed to death. It is unclear if the officer’s action contributed as well.”
As Mari Newman, an attorney for McClain’s family, said at the time, though, “Whatever the report says, it’s clear that if the police had not attacked Elijah McClain, he would be alive today.”
And the officers involved were subsequently cleared of wrongdoing.
The APD placed Woodyard, Rosenblatt, and Roedema on paid administrative leave in the incident’s immediate aftermath. On November 22, 2019, Adams County prosecutors announced that they would not bring charges against the trio, who then returned to normal duty. According to the Sentinel, District Attorney Dave Young informed Aurora police chief Nick Metz in a letter that, “Based on the investigation presented and the applicable Colorado law, there is no reasonable likelihood of success of proving any state crimes beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. Therefore, no state criminal charges will be filed as a result of this incident.”
Metz subsequently called the officers’ threats to McClain “unprofessional,” and said that the comment had “been addressed with that officer through a written corrective action.” Newman, meanwhile, told the Sentinel: “If Aurora thinks this is appropriate policing, the community should be petrified. We are disappointed, but not surprised that once again, members of law enforcement will not [be] held criminally accountable for killing an unarmed Black man.”
On June 13, the APD quietly reassigned Woodyard and Rosenblatt to “non-enforcement duties,” with Roedema following on June 20. The APD did not reply to the Cut’s request for comment, but a spokesperson intimated to Fox 31 Denver that concern for the officers’ safety motivated the decision. Rosenblatt would be let go on July 3, but not for his involvement in McClain’s death. Interim police chief Wilson fired him, along with two other officers who appeared in photos taken at a memorial for McClain in October 2019.
In the images, another officer — Jaron Jones, who resigned — posed with his arm wrapped around officer Kyle Dittrich’s neck, a mocking imitation of the hold used on McClain. Both officers were smiling, while officer Erica Marrero grinned over their shoulders. Rosenblatt did not participate in the photograph, but he did text back “haha” when someone sent it to him, according to the New York Times. Announcing the termination, Wilson said that Rosenblatt was “being fired for his … utter inability to do the right thing here,” while Dittrich and Marrero showed “a lack of moral values and integrity.”
Multiple investigations into the case began over the summer.
Over the summer, a surge in support fueled by social media campaigns and demonstrations translated to thousands of emails and calls to D.A. Young’s office, plus hundreds of complaints filed with the police department. On June 9, City Manager Jim Twombly agreed to undertake an independent investigation of McClain’s death, pursuant to Aurora lawmakers’ request. Twombly initially appointed attorney Eric Daigle, a former police officer, to lead the review, a decision that prompted pushback from the city council, and ultimately, the termination of Daigle’s contract. In July, the Council appointed an independent panel to investigate and evaluate the police and fire departments’ response.
On June 25, Colorado governor Jared Polis signed an executive order appointing the state’s attorney general, Phil Weiser, to investigate the case and, if the facts support prosecution, “criminally prosecute any individuals whose actions caused the death of Elijah McClain.” In January, Weiser opened a grand jury investigation.
Then, on Tuesday, July 28, CBS Denver reported that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment would reopen its probe into how a paramedic came to inject McClain with 500 milligrams of ketamine during his violent arrest, and its connection to his subsequent death. That inquest is ongoing.
The independent panel’s report is scathing.
On February 22, the independent investigators released the results of their months-long inquest that combed body cam footage, videotaped interviews with the responding officers and their follow-up reports, notes from the scene, the 911 call and the dispatch record, the autopsy report, medical records, and more. In 157 pages, the investigators contend that the APD “stretched the record to exonerate the officers rather than present a neutral version of the facts,” and that police — particularly Woodyard — escalated “what may have been a consensual encounter with Mr. McClain into an investigatory stop,” without reason to suspect criminal activity. “This decision had ramifications for the rest of the encounter,” the report states, emphasizing the speed with which officers resorted to (what investigators deemed) unnecessary force, and questioning the justification for a “pat-down search” in the first place.
The report also notes that first responders injected McClain with an inappropriately large dose of ketamine “based on a grossly inaccurate and inflated estimate of Mr. McClain’s size,” without attempting to “examine or question” him first. “At the time of the injection,” the report states, “Mr. McClain had not moved or made any sounds for about one minute.”
After the fact, the report says, detectives with the APD’s Major Crimes unit “failed to ask basic, critical questions about the justification for the use of force” and “seemingly ignored contrary evidence” in its investigation of the incident.
On Monday, City Manager Twombly said he and City Council were “reviewing their report and look forward to hearing additional context during their presentation before we comment further,” according to ABC. McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, told CNN: “It was overwhelming knowing my son was innocent the entire time and just waiting on the facts and proof of it. My son’s name is cleared now. He’s no longer labeled a suspect. He is actually a victim.”
“I looked at everything that happened to him because it’s my responsibility,” she added. “Even in death, he’s still my son. His name, his legacy. All that matters.”
McClain’s family has filed a civil rights suit against Aurora, Colorado.
McClain’s family filed a lawsuit against Aurora on August 11, alleging that the city’s “unconstitutional conduct on the night of August 24, 2019, is part of a larger custom, policy, and practice of racism and brutality, as reflected by its conduct both before and after its murder of Elijah McClain, a young Black man,” according to CNN.
The suit lists members of the police department, including the officers involved in McClain’s death and those involved in the photo incident, and Aurora Fire Rescue, as defendants. It argues that there was no need to restrain McClain, who had not been accused of a crime, as aggressively as the officers did, and no need to inject him with a “massive dose of ketamine.” The suit suggests that McClain’s detention was a product of racial bias, which it says is reinforced by the city’s failure to “discipline” the parties responsible for his death. Further, the lawsuit points to recent, combative police response to peaceful protesters.
Mari Newman, the family’s attorney, said she intends the lawsuit “to hold accountable the Aurora officials, police officers, and paramedics responsible for [McClain’s] murder, and to force the City of Aurora to change it longstanding pattern of brutal and racist policing.”
McClain’s family and friends described him as extremely gentle and very kind.
McClain worked as a massage therapist, and taught himself to play both the guitar and the violin. According to the Sentinel, he often spent his lunch breaks at local animal shelters, putting on concerts for cats and dogs because he believed music would help soothe their anxiety. Those who knew him describe him as gentle: “I don’t even think he would set a mouse trap if there was a rodent problem,” his friend, Eric Behrens, told the Sentinel.
He often developed friendships with his massage clients, like April Young, who told the Sentinel: “He had a child-like spirit … He lived in his own little world. He was never into, like, fitting in. He just was who he was.”
“He was the sweetest, purest person I have ever met,” another of his friends and former clients, Marna Arnett, added. “He was definitely a light in a whole lot of darkness.” Arnett believes that, in addition to helping manage a chronic chill that McClain attributed to his anemia, wearing a mask helped him manage his social anxiety. “He would hide behind that mask,” Arnett said. “It was protection for him, too. It made him more comfortable being in the outside world.”
Speaking to CBSN Denver, his mother, Sheneen McClain, described her son as incredibly determined. “I thank God that he was my son because just him being born brought life into my world, you know what I mean?” she said. “I know he was giving life to other people too.”
This article has been updated.