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Family grieving loss of baby accuses police of illegal entry, arrest

SHARE Family grieving loss of baby accuses police of illegal entry, arrest

WEST VALLEY CITY — Tevin Evans and Maryssa Estrada had been home for less than 10 minutes — the tragic death of their 2-month-old son still very fresh on their minds — when a West Valley police officer knocked on the door.

What followed was a chaotic scene that started with an officer kicking the front door open, three members of the couple's family being handcuffed and pepper sprayed, Evans tumbling down a flight of stairs with West Valley police officer Ben Christensen, and Evans spending the night in the Salt Lake County Jail.

The situation in the house became so bad that at least two family members called 911.

"I told them this officer just isn’t handling the situation correctly,” said family spokesman Ricardo Estrada Jr.

"The family called 911 on the police. The family called 911 because they were so terrified,” the family's lawyer, Salt Lake civil rights attorney Robert Sykes, echoed in disbelief.

"I was distraught. Obviously me and my wife were upset and feeling probably every emotion possible: anger, sadness, grief, everything. And then for all that to happen and the aftermath at the home, it was just shocking,” said Evans, who also used words such as "unbelievable" and "nightmare" to describe what happened.

Because of that night, Evans and Maryssa Estrada are considering a lawsuit against West Valley City, accusing officers of unlawfully entering their home and using excessive force during an unlawful arrest.

The department has launched an internal investigation into the actions of Christensen, which will also be presented to an independent review board, according to West Valley Police Chief Colleen Jacobs, who said Friday she has "high expectations of my officers."

"I expect the highest levels of conduct in their professionalism, and I will not accept anything else,” she said.

On Feb. 24, Kameron Evans died at St. Mark's Hospital, apparently due to complications from RSV, Sykes said. The death was not considered suspicious and there was never any indication the death was the result of anything but an unfortunate tragedy, according to the family.

However, per police protocol, the family was told that officers needed to ask them questions to make sure no foul play was involved. The family asked if they could be questioned at home, Sykes said. Because their home is in West Valley City, Unified police called West Valley officers to stop by their house.

Shortly after the family arrived home from the hospital, officers Christensen and George Martinez arrived.

Kameron's grandfather, still distraught and not aware police were coming, according to the family, answered the door.

"My father opened the door, yelled at the cop, ‘What do you want?’ And then shut the door,” said Ricardo Estrada Jr., Kameron's uncle.

West Valley's chief described the grandfather as being "in a highly agitated state. The man shouted expletives at the officer and closed the door." On surveillance video, a man can be heard shouting at police, "What the (expletive) do you want?"

At that point, Christensen kicked the front door twice, which came open, and entered.

Family members claimed he was immediately hostile toward them, threatening to arrest everyone. Christensen then allegedly threatened to arrest family members who pulled out their cellphones to record what was happening and used pepper spray on several individuals, including Tevin Evans' mother.

In cellphone video, a man can be heard repeating, "Facebook Live" while recording the officers and a woman is heard saying, "We are recording it."

At one point during the confrontation, Evans attempted to pull the officer away from his mother as the officer attempted to push and pull him, according to the family. The result was both men tumbling down a flight of stairs.

In cellphone video, it also appears that Evans may have thrown a punch at the officer just before both went down the stairs. The family denies that Evans hit the officer, saying he was just trying to get away while the officer was trying to restrain him.

The officer said he suffered a concussion and went on medical leave after the incident.

Evans was arrested for investigation of assault on a police officer. But as of Friday, police had not submitted their case to the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office to be reviewed for formal charges. Jacobs did not reply Friday when asked if the city plans on pursuing charges against anyone in the family.

During a press conference Friday, the Evans and Estrada families contended that officers had no right to enter their house.

"No warrant. No crime had been committed. There was no suspicion that a crime had been committed. Right away, (Christensen) took offense to that. You can visibly see this officer was upset. He couldn’t really handle the situation,” Ricardo Estrada Jr. said. "Again, this cop is not showing any kind of restraint. No type of de-escalation at all. No respect to the situation.

"It felt very ego driven," he continued. "That cop never said, ‘Calm down. Here’s why I’m here.’ It was instantly, ‘Everyone is getting arrested.'”

Sykes and the family were prepared to announce a lawsuit against West Valley City on Friday. But he said he got a call that morning from the city's attorney asking to meet with the family first. According to Sykes, the city admitted its officer was in the wrong.

"I think they recognize it was an outrageous violation of these people’s constitutional rights at a time when they’re grieving. And I think they recognize that. And to their credit, they said, ‘Yes, we were wrong,'" he said.

Jacobs, however, who held a subsequent press conference Friday to address the allegations, did not characterize the city's call to Sykes as an admission of wrongdoing.

"It is our practice to reach out to the family, get their side of it, and if they have been wronged, we will do what we can to make it right,” she said.

Jacobs said Christensen, who has been with the department for about nine years, was reassigned to different duties pending the outcome of an internal investigation. She said his current duties do not involve interaction with the public.

The chief said the officers who went to the family's house were there for an unattended death investigation. They were not aware at that point that the death was not considered to be suspicious, she said.

However, based on the body-camera video from the officers that she has seen, Jacobs admitted the encounter was "concerning."

"What seemed to have been a routine investigation in the video, it was a death investigation, and for it to turn into a use of force, clearly something happened. And we need to find out why it went down that road,” she said.

Earlier this week, West Valley City denied a public records request by the Deseret News to release the police body camera video.

The family released videos Friday taken from two cellphones and their home surveillance video. The video from the porch shows Christensen kicking open the door.

The cellphones show a chaotic situation inside the house. Maryssa Estrada can be heard screaming at the officers, "I just lost my son!" and "He died in my arms!"

Evans and others can be heard angrily telling officers, "You had no right to come in. You had no probable cause, nothing," and later, "This is our house! You don’t tell us what to do in our house!"

As the grandfather is being placed in handcuffs, family members ask Christensen, "You feel good about yourself doing that?"

The officer is also heard confronting family members, at one point stating, "You dumbass, you're going to jail."

Christensen eventually appears to have had enough taunting in the video and confronts Evans. "Turn around and put your hands behind your back, do it now!" Christensen orders.

"I did nothing to you," Evans replies. A short time later, the two tumbled down the stairs.

When asked about her opinion of the video, Jacobs only said, "It is under review."

Later, however, the chief commented, "It is my opinion that calling a citizen a dumbass is never appropriate."

The family said in order for the city to make this "right," they expect some compensation in addition to an apology. They also don't believe Christensen is fit to be an officer.

Tevin Evans and Maryssa Estrada say they still can't believe what happened to them.

"It was just a terrible day. I’m devastated," Maryssa Estrada said.