Family alleges wrongful death in lawsuit against sheriff’s deputies

More than a month after the Texas Rangers confirmed they were investigating an incident involving the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, the family of the man at the center of the investigation filed a lawsuit claiming “brutal, unreasonable and excessive force” led to his death. 

The lawsuit, filed by Jorge Gonzalez Zuniga’s mother, revealed details of what happened the night Gonzalez, 23, was arrested by four deputies with the sheriff’s office. 

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Gonzalez, his mother Catalina Zuniga Herrera, his wife Johana Acosta and son. In the lawsuit, Gonzalez is referred to using his mother’s maiden name, “Zuniga.”

The defendants, sheriff’s deputies Steven Farias and Marco Guerrero, along with two unidentified deputies referred to as John Doe 1 and 2, are being sued by Gonzalez’s family on allegations of denying his rights and leading to injuries which he died from on July 15.

The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on the lawsuit at this time, spokesman Sgt. Francisco Medrano said Saturday.  

Gonzalez was arrested in the early hours of Easter day and charged with violation of emergency management plan, resisting arrest and public intoxication, according to jail records. 

Once Gonzalez was booked in the county jail, his photo and story gained traction online after family and friends took to social media to express what they called an injustice; the photo depicted Gonzalez’s head being held by an individual outside the frame of the photo.

THE ARREST

The lawsuit stated the arrest took place at 2:15 a.m. and those involved were Farias and the unidentified deputies, designated as John Doe 1 and 2 in the lawsuit. 

The probable cause affidavit, which listed Farias as the arresting officer, does not explain how Gonzalez allegedly resisted, nor does it include any descriptive details such as the time the events transpired.

According to the affidavit, Gonzalez was highly intoxicated and resisted arrest, until they “finally handcuffed and transported” him. 

Originally responding to an assault call, Farias wrote in the report, “While finishing up [their] investigation, [he] observed a hispanic male…lying asleep on his back,” with the male later identified as Gonzalez. 

In both the affidavit and the lawsuit, Gonzalez was asleep. 

However, according to the lawsuit, Gonzalez was asleep in another part of the trailer park because he was celebrating Easter at his friend’s house. 

According to the lawsuit, deputies responded to a call of an altercation between women. 

“Neither Mr. Zuniga nor anyone at his barbeque were involved in this altercation,” the lawsuit states. 

When the deputies found Gonzalez, he was asleep in his friend’s yard and was awakened to go home when they learned he didn’t live at the property.

Although Gonzalez complied with the deputies’ commands, the lawsuit states the officers decided to arrest him instead for violating the emergency management order and public intoxication — charges that were ultimately dropped and dismissed. 

However, the lawsuit stated Gonzalez “was tazed multiple times, pushed to the ground, had his neck crushed, was handcuffed and placed in ankle restraints.”

At one point during the arrest, Gonzalez was intentionally tripped, according to the lawsuit, then shocked with a stun gun when he would not stand while fully shackled. 

In Farias’ report, after Gonzalez spoke with the deputies, he wrote “[Gonzalez] was walking around the mobile home park not knowing where he was going,” then later stated Gonzalez resisted arrest. 

THE DETENTION CENTER

In the last sentence, Farias wrote in the probable cause affidavit Gonzalez “was finally handcuffed and transported,” after he allegedly resisted arrest. 

Prior to the lawsuit, the only available time surrounding Gonzalez’s arrest was 3:07 a.m. — the time he was confined, according to the sheriff’s office booking report from that weekend in April. 

When Gonzalez was directly transported to the detention center, he was not given a medical evaluation despite the nature of his injuries, according to the lawsuit.  

Instead, at 2:57 a.m., the fourth defendant in the lawsuit, Guerrero, conducted a suicide evaluation of Gonzalez. 

The lawsuit states, “At no time does [Guerrero] make reference to or acknowledge the obvious injuries suffered by [Gonzalez].”

Jorge Gonzalez is held upright for his booking photo at the Hidalgo Colunty jail.

Following the evaluation, the lawsuit included Gonzalez’s mugshots and noted the time, just 10 minutes later. Despite the obvious injuries, the lawsuit stated “the jail officials acted with deliberate indifference and at no time sent [Gonzalez] for medical evaluation or treatment.” 

After his photo was taken, Gonzalez was put into the “drunk tank,” a large cell that holds intoxicated individuals, according to the lawsuit. 

On April 13, 21 hours after his booking, Gonzalez was released from jail because he was found to be non-responsive, the lawsuit stated. 

The lawsuit states the county jail “finally” called EMS at 12:11 a.m. that Monday to transport Gonzalez to the hospital and receive the medical care he “desperately needed but which was denied due to the absolute deliberate and unconscionable indifference of the deputies and jail staff.” 

‘WRONGFUL DEATH’

After Gonzalez’s family organized a GoFundMe campaign titled “Justice for Jorge: Help our family find justice,” they revealed Gonzalez was hospitalized in the intensive care unit for more than a month after his arrest and went through various surgeries before being sent home because he did not have insurance. 

The lawsuit stated once EMS personnel arrived that Monday morning, they found Gonzalez hypothermic and with bradycardia, at 82.4 degrees, among other injuries such as a swollen, hyperextended neck. 

First, Gonzalez was taken to the McAllen Heart Hospital, then McAllen Medical Center where doctors found hematomas, accumulation of blood outside a blood vessel, on his left eye, right chest, upper arm and nose, according to the lawsuit. 

The lawsuit stated Gonzalez has a deformity of his neck and was diagnosed with a severe cervical fracture and a swollen spinal cord. 

Specifically, the lawsuit explained Gonzalez was found to have rhabdomyolysis — breakdown of damaged skeletal muscle, “a 9mm anterolisthesis at C5-C6 in his neck (meaning his two vertebrae have been pushed over each other); bilateral jumped facet bones in his neck; bilateral laminar fractures in his neck and paralysis from his neck down.” 

Gonzalez was diagnosed as a quadriplegic, according to the lawsuit. 

As a result of his injuries, Gonzalez was hospitalized until June 5, where he underwent multiple surgeries and was placed on a ventilator due to his paralysis, the lawsuit stated. 

According to the lawsuit, this photograph of Jorge Gonzalez Zuniga was taken before his release from the hospital. Gonzalez was on a ventilator and paralyzed from his chest down, the lawsuit stated. (Courtesy photo)

Following his release from the hospital, Gonzalez remained on a ventilator and was completely paralyzed from his chest down, according to the lawsuit, which cited a photo of Gonzalez before he was released. 

While at home, Gonzalez suffered multiple complications and returned to the hospital various times, the document read. 

Around early July, Gonzalez suffered a heart attack before dying on July 15 due to acute chronic respiratory failure.

“[Gonzalez’s] death was the direct consequences of the injuries and the lack of medical care by these Defendants,” the lawsuit stated. 

THE LAWSUIT

The first count in the lawsuit stated Farias, John Doe 1 and John Doe 2 violated Gonzalez’s Fourth Amendment rights — the right to be free from an unreasonable seizure — by applying excessive force. 

“Despite [Gonzalez] posing no risk of harm to himself or others, they initiated an arrest, and in the course of that arrest, used tasers and physical violence sufficient to crush his neck rendering him paralyzed,” the lawsuit stated. “There was no need to use force, yet, these officers collectively either directed that it be used or participated in it.”

The lawsuit then refers to Guerrero, who is associated as part of the jail staff, and stated he violated Gonzalez’s Fourth Amendment rights as well after ignoring Gonzalez’s injuries before and after the suicide evaluation. 

“On multiple and repeated instances, despite their knowledge of a substantial risk of serious harm,” the lawsuit read, “[the deputies] acted with a deliberate indifference to the urgent medical needs of [Gonzalez].” 

The second count in the lawsuit stated all four defendants violated Gonzalez’s 14th Amendment rights — which prohibits excessive force and requires officials to provide adequate medical care to individuals in governmental custody. 

Citing excessive force and neglect, the lawsuit stated the plaintiffs allege the deputies knew the distress Gonzalez was under, but continued to throw him in jail despite his obvious medical needs.

“Defendants’ deliberate and systematic denial of such serious and critical medical needs constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States,” the lawsuit stated.

Listed as statutory beneficiaries and/or representatives of Gonzalez, his mother, wife and son filed the lawsuit for the damages suffered and sustained by Gonzalez. 

The lawsuit listed the damages the plaintiffs seek recovery from: the conscious pain, suffering and mental anguish Gonzalez suffered prior to his death, expenses for Gonzalez’s medical, funeral and burial costs, and “severe mental anguish” his family suffered and will “in reasonable probability, continue to suffer in the future.”

Also included were loss of consortium, inheritance and “the past and future loss of companionship and society arising from the death of [Gonzalez].”

Gonzalez’s family prays, according to the lawsuit, for punitive damages against all the four defendants. 

“Defendant’s conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involved reckless or callous indifference to the federally-protected rights of others,” the lawsuit stated.  

As of Saturday, DPS spokesman Lt. Christopher Olivarez said the Rangers are still investigating the incident. 

The next hearing is a conference scheduled for Nov. 4.