Detention Death Ruled a Suicide; Protesters Disagree
Jose de Jesus Deniz-Sahagun ran into the pedestrian lane at the Douglas port of entry in mid-May, trying to enter the U.S.
The Mexican national had been deported before — twice within the last four years, including an expedited removal in April 2013.
Customs and Border Protection arrested the 31-year-old on May 15 and transferred him on May 18 to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.
Two days later, he was dead.
Last week, immigrant rights advocates called the death suspicious, alleging that he was beaten by guards and thrown into solitary confinement.
But as about 25 protesters gathered outside the ICE Phoenix headquarters Monday demanding an independent investigation, the Pima County medical examiner revealed to The Arizona Republic that Deniz-Sahagun committed suicide.
Pima County Chief Medical Examiner Gregory Hess said Deniz-Sahagun died on May 20 of asphyxia due to choking after he likely swallowed a sock. Deniz-Sahagun was held at the Eloy Detention Center while waiting for an immigration hearing.
He is the fourth detainee to pass away in ICE custody nationwide in fiscal 2015.
"All the circumstances that we've been able to review seems to point to (suicide)," Hess said, noting that Deniz-Sahagun had been on suicide watch while in ICE custody.
The preliminary autopsy findings appear to contradict allegations by the immigrant-rights group Puente Human Rights Movement that Deniz-Sahagun died after being beaten by guards at the ICE detention facility.
Francisca Porchas, Puente's organizing director, said she believes Deniz-Sahagun died under suspicious circumstances based on interviews made by other detainees held at the Eloy facility.
Porchas said 200 male detainees began a hunger strike Saturday morning demanding an independent investigation of Deniz-Sahugun's death.
"Strikers claim that he was beaten brutally, that he was maced, that he was thrown into solitary confinement," Porchas said. "We need answers."
The strikers were also protesting the denial of medical attention to detainees being held at the facility, she said.
Porchas also accused ICE of retaliating against some of the men participating in the hunger strike by keeping them in a recreation courtyard in the 100-degree heat for more than five hours without access to water.
Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, a spokeswoman for ICE, declined to comment on the the Deniz-Sahagun case, saying an investigation was still pending. She said she was unaware of the medical examiner's findings.
But O'Keefe denied there was a hunger strike at the facility. She said ICE files paperwork when detainees miss more than two meals in a row and, as of Monday, no paperwork had been filed on any of the detainees.
ICE issued a press release on May 21 saying that Deniz-Sahagun died the day prior due to "unknown causes" after being found unresponsive by facility personnel.
Hess, the Pima County medical examiner, said the autopsy found no evidence that Deniz-Sahagun died as the result of being beaten.
"Essentially it sounds a little like overkill to me," Hess said. "He did have some minor head injuries but he did not appear to be beaten. He didn't have any fractures or anything that would make me believe that he was beaten by guards to the point where he had some sort of injury because of it.
"Basically that was the main finding is he had a sock occluding his esophagus airway and based on the circumstances, it looked like he ate that sock with the intent to block his airway. That would be my guess," Hess said.
He said information provided by ICE officials indicated Deniz-Sahagun was being held in a single-person cell at the time of his death and a video provided by ICE showed no one else was inside the cell "so I don't know how else he would have gotten (the sock) in there."
The final autopsy was pending the results of a toxicology test, he said.
The Eloy detention center is a 1,596-bed facility operated by Corrections Corporation of America under contract with ICE.
According to a document posted on ICE's website, between October 2003 and December 2013, 13 people died at the Eloy detention center, or after being taken to a hospital or hospice center from the Eloy detention center.