Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Man’s death in police custody still a mystery

Citizen Staff Writer



Michelle Moreno wants to know why her husband died in Tucson police custody Jan. 31.

So do police.

Michael E. Moreno, 42 – an asthmatic diabetic with high blood pressure, according to his wife – had cocaine and alcohol in his system, said Dr. Eric Peters, a forensic pathologist in the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office who performed the autopsy on Moreno.

In the police account of the incident, Moreno banged his head against the sidewalk after police handcuffed him for his own protection while he was behaving erratically at a South Side gas station about 5 a.m.

Several news agencies, including the Tucson Citizen, reported it appeared he might have died from a self-inflicted head injury. But Peters suggested that head injuries may not have played a role in Moreno’s death.

His wife said she thinks her husband was banging his head because he couldn’t breathe and was thrashing around gasping for air.

Moreno was 6 feet tall and weighed 275 pounds, his wife said. Police at the scene estimated he weighed 300. Tucson police officers used two sets of handcuffs to restrain him because of his size.

The official cause of Moreno’s death is pending, Peters said March 31. He is “a third of the way through” his review of the police records in the case and won’t issue a ruling until he completes that review.

How much force was used by police and for how long will be key factors in the case, Peters said.

Several written reports of the incident by police officers involved in the struggle say Moreno was restrained on his stomach and that one officer had his knee on Moreno’s head and right shoulder while Moreno was facedown. One officer said Moreno was on his stomach “less than a minute” while he was being handcuffed. Another officer held his legs, at one point bending them at the knees.

One report said an officer kept Moreno’s head on the ground for some period of time, using his knee.

Moreno was trying to “buck” them off, police reports said.

Moreno stopped struggling and an officer checked Moreno’s pulse, the reports said.

The officer noted it had slowed and then he stopped breathing and became “unresponsive,” according to police reports.

One officer wrote, “Moreno was handcuffed for his own safety and went unconscious.”

Officers took off the handcuffs and an officer began chest compressions as Tucson Fire Department paramedics were called.

Paramedics took Moreno to nearby University Physicians Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 5:45 a.m.

Sgt. Fabian Pacheco, a spokesman for the police department and a former homicide detective, issued a statement last month about Moreno’s death:

“We too, as a department, have some unanswered questions regarding the in-custody death of Mr. Moreno.

“It is because of this that we have a board of inquiry; that we make sure that we have answers to all these unanswered questions.

“The important thing to remember is that the Tucson Police Department is one of few agencies nationwide that conduct board of inquiries” into in-custody deaths.

Pacheco said it is “inappropriate” for him to answer specific questions about the incident until the board issues its report, including questions about how long police restrained Moreno. He didn’t know when the report would be finished. A similar review of a man shot to death by police in May was just released.

The board will determine if officers followed proper procedure and provide a timeline of police actions at the scene, he said.

Chief Deputy Pima County Attorney David Berkman said police have not presented the case to the county attorney for review.

A December report by Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, a Chicago-based organization that provides legal training to law enforcement, warns police agencies about custody deaths when suspects are placed facedown and pressure placed on their backs. The restraint can result in what is commonly called compressional asphyxia.

“Police trainers must be aware of potential deaths from compressional asphyxia. Officers must be taught to avoid putting their body weight on a confined person as soon as active resistance has ended or the person has been adequately restrained from causing harm to himself or others,” the report states.

An April 2006 FBI advisory also discussed the problems of placing an individual in a prone position on his stomach and said it should be done as a last resort.

The AELE report, though, also warns that even when officers relax their restraining efforts, suspects may still die if they have drugs in their system or health problems.

Moreno could not breathe on his stomach, his wife said. To sleep, he needed a positive pressure machine that forced air into his lungs after he was diagnosed with sleep apnea a couple of years ago. He also had asthma, she said.

Patients with apnea stop breathing for short periods while they are asleep.

Tucson police spokesman Officer Chuck Rydzak said all TPD officers are taught during basic training various techniques for safely taking combative individuals into custody.

Officers are taught not to leave someone in a prone position for more time than it takes to handcuff them. The suspect should be placed on his side, in a seated position or standing position after he is handcuffed, he said.

Officers are taught not to exert pressure on a suspect’s back while he is prone because that could result in respiratory strain and a subsequent heart attack.

Rydzak said officers were taught last year how to properly subdue a suspect with multiple officers, each taking an arm, leg and the head so as not to exert excessive force and not concentrate any force on the midsection.

In the more than 50 pages of Tucson Police Department documents reviewed by the Tucson Citizen, it is clear that Moreno’s behavior was erratic as police arrived.

Police said their involvement with Moreno began when they got a “disturbing the peace” call at 4:52 a.m. and arrived at 5:01 a.m. at the Diamond Shamrock gas station at Campbell Avenue and the Benson Highway on the city’s South Side.

Moreno was banging his head and his wallet against the glass door and windows of a gas station, witnesses told police. He took a broom he found there and pounded it against the glass.

The broom handle broke, but not the glass, reports said.

No one was harmed by his actions, though one officer had a scratch on his arm after the struggle.

Police say in their reports they did not use pepper spray or a Taser on Moreno.

Police said Moreno was rolling around on the ground when they arrived at the gas station

“At one point during the incident, Moreno was on the ground and banging his head into the sidewalk,” a police report states.

He spoke but his words were unintelligible, police said.

An officer who saw him drive his truck into the gas station said he appeared to be intoxicated, reports said.

Inside his truck police found a receipt for a motel room and a substance that appeared to be cocaine, but police won’t say if tests confirmed it until the board of inquiry is completed.

They also found two glass tubes with flowers in them and a metal scouring pad.

Such pads are used to strain cocaine while it’s cooked into crack for smoking, police said. Small glass tubes can be used as crack pipes, they said.

Moreno had $299 in his pocket.

They also found in the truck a copy of a missing person report his wife had made about him.

Moreno was a Nogales native and a Tohono O’odham Nation member who had family in the Tucson area. He attended schools in Nogales and served in the Army from 1984 to 1987, his wife said.

Moreno and Michelle were together eight years and have three young children. He lived in Idaho with his family but was in Tucson working a temporary truck driver job.

He had recently been disappointed by the loss of his long haul trucker job in early November after a minor collision while training a rookie driver, his wife said.

His sister helped him get a job here in mid-November driving a cement truck for a construction company.

She paid for his plane fare to Tucson and he started work around Nov. 18, his wife said.

He was staying with relatives here and planned to return to Idaho when the job ended, Michelle Moreno said.

At Christmas, he took a break and drove to Idaho to bring the family to Tucson to celebrate Michelle’s birthday Dec. 27, and to visit with family here and in Sells.

He told his wife he had been taking all his medications for asthma, high blood pressure and diabetes, she said.

On Jan. 16, during her visit here, the couple had an argument and “he got kinda wild and left,” she said.

When he didn’t call, Michelle and the children took a bus back to Idaho.

She filed a missing person report with authorities here.

On Jan. 24, Moreno resurfaced. He called her in Idaho to apologize, she said. She didn’t ask him where he’d been or what he had been doing. She still doesn’t know.

It was the last time they spoke.

“He told me he was sorry he made us ride the bus home, that he had one more job to do and then he was going to come home,” she said.

Michelle said her husband “was not an alcoholic.”

Nor was there any indication he was a drug user, she said.

She said he told her he took drugs “back in his younger, wild days. I never asked.”

In the hours before his run-in with police, he left his daughter’s home in Marana and checked into a motel in Tucson, according to police reports.

Michelle Moreno said she is baffled by police reports that say Moreno banged his head against the sidewalk repeatedly after officers had handcuffed him.

“I asked (police homicide Detective Lisa Miller) what he was saying and why they didn’t try to stop him from hurting himself,” she said.

“She said the officers couldn’t understand him,” and that officers try to keep people from hurting themselves, Moreno said.

“This doesn’t sound like my husband at all,” Moreno said.

The death and not knowing why he died is “just mentally and emotionally draining,” she said.

“Everybody is looking for a little closure. It’s hard, with all the doubt going on.”

“He was so happy he had a job down there. It’s sad when you can’t do nothing about it (his death).

Moreno is survived by his mother, who lives in Sells, his sister, an adult daughter in Marana and his children with Michelle, Kevin, 4; Quintin, 7 and daughter Dailyn, 6.

Moreno’s diagnosed chronic illnesses



High blood pressure

Sleep apnea

Moreno’s medications

Metformin: 500 mg

Prescribed twice a day for diabetes

Propranolol: 10 mg twice a day for high blood pressure

Aspirin: 81 mg. once a day to prevent blood clots

Lisinopril: 5 mg once a day for high blood pressure

Advair: two medications: a steroid anti-inflammatory and a bronchodilator for asthma control

Proventil: short-acting bronchodilator for emergency episodes of shortness of breath

Source: Michelle Moreno

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