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Activists: Inmate on life support after jail fight

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AMANDA LEE MYERS | December 19, 2011 05:20 PM EST | AP

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PHOENIX — A man found unresponsive in a jail cell after fighting with deputies over the weekend was on life support Monday, in a case that Latino activists say raises more questions about practices under Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

The family of Ernest Atencio has been speaking with an attorney, the leader of a Hispanic rights group and a Latino lawmaker about what happened to the 44-year-old while he was detailed at the Maricopa County sheriff's jail in downtown Phoenix. The three leaders told The Associated Press that Atencio's family is deciding when to take him off life support.

They said family members would speak to reporters to demand answers from the sheriff's office.

Phoenix police said Atencio was accused of kicking at the door of an apartment complex late Thursday and confronting a woman "in an aggressive manner." He was detained early Friday to be booked on an assault charge, Sheriff's Deputy Director Jack MacIntyre said in a statement.

MacIntyre called Atencio was combative when police brought him to the jail and said that he was placed in a so-called "safe cell" to calm him down.

State Sen. Steve Gallardo, of Phoenix, said that Atencio's treatment could be the latest incarnation of abuse by Arpaio's office.

A Justice Department investigation released last week found that Arpaio's office committed wide-ranging civil rights violations against Latinos, including a pattern of racial profiling and heavy-handed immigration patrols based on racially charged complaints. A defiant Arpaio has called the allegations a politically motivated attack by the Obama administration.

"In light of the DOJ's report and the cases of discrimination in the jail and the fact that (Atencio) is a Latino, I think raises an eyebrow," said Gallardo, who has been in close contact with Atencio's family since his hospitalization.

Lydia Guzman, an immigrant-rights advocate who has submitted allegations of abuse to the Justice Department, was in the touch with the family and said that they told her that Atencio has several marks from a Taser stun gun on his body but no signs of head trauma.

Sgt. Steve Matos, a police spokesman, said that based on early reports, officers did not use the stun gun on Atencio.

MacIntyre said that Atencio was being observed by medical personnel while inside the jail cell but that 15 minutes later, he was found unresponsive. He said they tried to resuscitate Atencio and took him to a hospital.

Sheriff's spokesman Jesse Spurgin said the office would not release details because an investigation was ongoing.

Gallardo said the family has "questions. How can somebody be booked into the Fourth Avenue jail and just hours later be sent to the hospital with severe complications and is now in ICU on a ventilator?"

Atencio's younger brothers and sisters and parents are angry, he added. Guzman said his family was waiting for two of his brothers to fly in from Minnesota to say their goodbyes before taking him off life support.

"His dad said he is thankful that he can still hold his hand and that he's still warm, kind of like he's still there," she said.

She said that Atencio used to be in the Army and served in Operation Desert Storm but did not know what his current job was.

Daniel Ortega, a Phoenix attorney who is board chair of the National Council of La Raza, was working with Atencio's family and said that they could sue the sheriff's office if an independent investigation finds that there was wrongdoing.

"People aren't supposed to die when they're in jail," he said.

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