A Gulf War veteran was taken off life support late Tuesday after being critically injured in a scuffle with guards at the jail of embattled Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio, who calls himself America's toughest sheriff.
Ernest Atencio, 44, was found unresponsive in a cell after fighting with deputies on Friday, the same week the U.S. Justice Department accused Arpaio's department of widespread civil rights violations against Latinos. He had been kept alive for days at a Phoenix hospital.
"His entire family was by his bedside when he passed," the family’s attorney, Mike Manning, told Talking Points Memo. He added that the veteran's parents, two brothers and three sons were there to make the decision to end life support.
The Associated Press reported that Atencio's family has contacted an attorney, the leader of a Hispanic rights group and a Latino lawmaker about what they believe happened to Atencio while detained at the Maricopa County sheriff's jail in Phoenix. Latino activists said the case raises new questions about the controversial sheriff.
Daniel Ortega, a Phoenix attorney who is board chair of the National Council of La Raza, told the Associated Press that he was in touch with Atencio's family and that they might sue if an independent investigation finds wrongdoing.
"People aren't supposed to die when they're in jail," he said.
Atencio was hospitalized following a scuffle with Arpaio's jail guards late last week, the Phoenix New Times reports.
The incident occurred on the same week that the U.S. Justice Department released a scathing report alleging rampant discrimination by the Maricopa Sheriff's department, which Arpaio has used to catapult himself onto the national stage with his hardline against immigration and controversial detention practices. His endorsement is coveted by GOP presidential candidates.
The latest charges against Arpaio surfaced Friday night after Scottsdale Police Lieutenant Mike Stauffer, Arpaio's only rival so far in the 2012 election, wrote on his Facebook page that a "Latino inmate at 4th Avenue Jail is brain dead due to excessive force by detention officers."
Phoenix Police Department spokesman Steve Martos told the New Times that there "was some kind of scuffle" between Atencio and jail guards after police handed over the inmate to the sheriff's department.
Jack MacIntyre, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, said in a statement that the inmate was a U.S. citizen who was booked on assault charges, the New Times reported. He described the prisoner as "abusive" and said the man had been placed in "a safe cell" under medical observation.
"Approximately 15 minutes later medical personnel rechecked the arrestee and initiated CPR and other rescuscitive [sic] efforts," MacIntyre said in a statement, according to the New Times. "The arrestee was transported to a local hospital for additional treatment. The case is currently under investigation."
According to the CBS affililiate in Phoenix, KPHO, Atencio's family described him as a "sweet and loving" Gulf War veteran with an unspecified "mental condition" which caused him to behave oddly at times.
Relatives told KPHO that Atencio possibly suffered a heart attack after being "tasered" and was left "fighting for his life." That station showed photos of what the family said were marks on his chest from the taser.
The incident is just the latest bad news for Arpaio, who last week was accused by the Justice Department of carrying out a blatant pattern of discrimination against Latinos and displaying a "systemic disregard" for the Constitution.
The feds have accused Arpaio of a laundry list of civil rights violations against Latinos, including racial profiling and strong-arm immigration patrols based on "racially-charged citizen complaints." The report was the culmination of a three-year federal investigation of the sheriff's office.
The Department of Homeland Security on Thursday said it was ending an agreement with Arpaio's office that allowed trained deputies to enforce immigration laws.
A defiant Arpaio called the Justice Department report a politically motivated attack by President Barack Obama's administration.
The administration, he said, "might as well erect their own pink neon sign at the Arizona-New Mexico border saying welcome illegals to your United States, my home is your home."
Around the nation, newspaper editorials have blasted Arpaio's ways. The Los Angeles Times said "he can't be America's sheriff if he can't play by the rules."