Editors Note: Updates to this story can be found here.
DENVER -- FOX31 Denver has obtained video of a Denver Police officer punching an unarmed suspect in the face six times, then moments later, tripping the man’s seven-and-a-half-months pregnant girlfriend.
A witness who recorded the August arrest on his Samsung tablet said police then seized his tablet, over his objections, and when they returned it to him, the video of the arrest was missing.
However, the witness said he was able to recover the 55 second video clip because his tablet had stored it in the cloud. The witness then provided a limited-use copy to FOX31 Denver for our investigation.
Undercover drug arrest leads to struggle
Police and witnesses agree on at least one thing: When a suspected drug user saw Denver undercover narcotics officers approaching his vehicle at West 5th Avenue and Federal Boulevard on Aug. 14, he stuffed a white sweat sock in his mouth.
According to police reports, the subject refused to respond to requests that he show his hands.
A pair of plain clothes officers “assisted” suspect David Nelson Flores out of his car and they all “fell to the ground.”
Public records said uniformed Denver Police Officers, Charles “Chris” Jones IV and his partner, Christopher Evans, arrived as back-up to assist with the arrest.
The videotape shows Evans holding down the suspect’s legs. A burly undercover officer can be seen bear-hugging Flores, lying on his side on the asphalt parking lot. Flores has his hands pinned behind his back.
Jones can be heard yelling at Flores to, “Spit the drugs out! Spit the drugs out!”
When Flores fails to open his mouth, Jones punches him with a closed fist six times in the face.
The video shows the suspect’s head bouncing off the pavement as a result of the force.
We also obtained exclusive pictures of Flores inside an ambulance a short time later, which show obvious trauma to his head and face.
Levi Frasier is the bystander who videotaped the arrest.
“Those were the hardest punches I have ever heard," Frasier said. "I’ve seen some people get punched in the ring and on TV and whatnot, but the sound of those resonating, I mean, it was scary. I’ve never heard anything louder than that and I used to cage fight for quite a while and I’ve never seen punches harder than that.”
According to police reports, Jones’ reasoning for the punches were twofold:
- Trying to retrieve what he believed was a bag of heroin from the suspect’s mouth (and preventing Flores from choking)
- Fear that one of the other officer’s arms was injured after being trapped beneath the suspect’s body
We showed the video clip to Mark Carlson, a former Brighton detective sergeant hired to analyze this video for the drug suspect’s potential criminal case.
Carlson said, in his opinion, Jones used excessive force.
“There’s no obvious and immediate threat of a weapon,” Carlson said. “I just don’t see how either swallowing evidence or they’re worried about him choking is justifying that degree of force. I mean, you’re risking, ‘We don’t want you to choke, so we’re going to fracture your face instead?'”
FOX31 Denver offered to show Denver Police Frasier’s videotape several days prior to the release of our investigation, but Cmdr. Matt Murray declined.
“We would love to talk with him (Frasier) if he has further information," Murray said. "We want that information and if there is misconduct we will happily investigate that and report that to the community."
"This is about transparency, not cover-up like you were intimating in your teaser," Murray said. "We are not covering anything up. There is no cover up whatsoever, so let me just put that to rest. That’s irresponsible and baseless.”
But officer-thrown punches were not the only actions in that parking lot at 5th and Federal that shocked Frasier.
While Jones was punching Flores, the video captures the loud sounds of a woman screaming in Spanish for police to stop.
A few seconds later, a visibly pregnant woman approaches the area where the officers are on top of Flores. Jones reaches out and sweeps her feet out from under her.
It appears on video, the woman, 25-year-old Mayra Lazos-Guerrero, falls hard on her stomach and face.
Jones reported to a superior he thought the woman was going to kick him.
Frasier didn’t see it that way.
“She was screaming like, ‘What are you doing. Let him go! Let him go! Stop hurting him! What are you doing?,'" Frasier said. "She was just concerned for him. You could clearly hear that and as she got closer.”
Police expert Carlson said as bad as tripping a pregnant woman looks to the public, officers’ are usually given wide latitude when outside interference presents itself.
“I’m sure I would react similarly, Carlson said. “Whether it’s pushing her, jumping up to confront her, grabbing her, whatever it is, because you’re not sure what the threat is.”
According to court records, the injured suspect, Flores, faced a charge of resisting arrest and two felony drug charges.
Mayra Lazos-Guerrero faced charges for obstruction, drugs and child abuse because there was a child in the car when this arrest went down. Guerrero was also allegedly caught with drug paraphernalia in her purse.
Neither of the accused showed up for their last court appearance. The Denver County District Attorney’s Office, Denver Police, plus both Flores and Guerrero’s respective defense attorneys are asking they turn themselves in.
The case of the disappearing video clip
Levi Frasier was on his way to work when he saw police activity and pulled over his van to get a better look.
At first, he said, undercover narcotics officers asked him to “help them” get the suspect under control.
Frasier said that before he could react, Jones and Evans arrived. They told him to get back.
Frasier said he grabbed his Samsung tablet and started recording video.
It is apparent from the video that at least one of the officers saw Frasier. The word “camera!” can be heard on tape shortly after Jones punches Flores.
Frasier said, officers on scene threatened him with arrest, demanded he turn over all photos and videotape to them and then seized his tablet over his objections.
“When he took it, I said, ‘Hey! You can’t do that. You need a warrant for that!’ and he said, ‘What program did you take the video with? Where is that?’” Frasier said.
He said police ignored his objections and dug through his personal photos without obtaining a court order.
“The first officer that comes up to ask me about my witness statement brings me to the police car and says we could do this the easy way or we could do this the hard way," Fraser said. “It was taken as ‘You can either cooperate and give us what we want or we’re going to incarcerate you.’”
Although official police reports mentioned an officer thought Frasier took video, there is nothing written about taking, searching or possessing his tablet. That's something Frasier swears occurred.
By the time the officer returned his tablet, Frasier said, the video file was gone.
“I couldn’t believe it. My heart dropped. I know I just shot that video, like it’s not on there now?" Frasier said.
After Frasier got home, he said he synched his tablet with his electronic cloud. Within a few moments, the video file reappeared.
Frasier said it's “possible” both he and the police officer who looked through his tablet “missed seeing” the clip inside his files.
However, Frasier said he suspects, in reality, the clip was deleted either with intention or by mistake.
“It was very well known that the video was shot and things were done on the video that shouldn’t be leaked out, that it would be bad for the reputations of the police officers,” Frasier said.
Murphy pointed out that records showed Frasier filled out a report at the arrest scene and during that time he didn’t report seeing officers do anything inappropriate.
Frasier said he did sign a witness statement, but did so only under “duress.”
“It was survival mode. It was like, 'Okay, I’m going to make it out of here. Not going to go to jail today for something I didn’t have anything to do with,'” Frasier said.
Frasier said his friends encouraged him to delete the clip for good after they realized what he had captured, suspecting Denver Police might not take too kindly to him turning the videotape over to either the media or defense attorneys.
He said he has faith that police commanders will do the right thing and target their next investigation toward cleaning up what appears to him to be a group of officers using excessive force.