LAS CRUCES, New Mexico — Las Cruces police on Monday released a photograph of an officer accused of involuntary manslaughter as video of the deadly encounter with a man who led police on a foot chase also came to light.
“I’m going to f***ing choke you out, bro,” Officer Christoper Smelser is heard saying to Antonio Valenzuela before utilizing a vascular neck restraint, now banned by the police department, that the state medical investigator says resulted in a homicide.
District Attorney Mark D’Antonio announced late last week that his office was filing the manslaughter charge against Smelser for the Feb. 29 death of the 40-year-old Valenzuela, who had a parole violation warrant against him when he ran from officers following a traffic stop.
Authorities have said that police gave chase after Valenzuela fled on foot. They twice used their Tasers, but say Valenzuela continued struggling to get away. At one point, Smelser restrained Valenzuela by the neck to gain control. He became unresponsive and paramedics were unable to revive him.
After reviewing the autopsy report, Police Chief Patrick Gallagher said late last week that it was in the best interest of the department and the community to relieve Smelser of his duties and issued a letter of intent to terminate the officer’s employment. A four-year veteran with the department, Smelser had been on administrative leave since Feb. 29 pending the outcome of the autopsy report.
Following Valenzuela’s death, the police department said it began prohibiting the use of neck restraints during apprehensions.
New Mexico State Police and a regional task force investigated Valenzuela’s death.
According to the autopsy report, Valenzuela had hemorrhaging in his eyes and eyelids, which is indicative of asphyxiation and may occur when the neck or chest is compressed. His neck had a deep muscle hemorrhage, his Adam’s apple was crushed and his ribs were fractured. There also was swelling in his brain.
The report states methamphetamine played a role in his death, explaining that the presence of the drug can cause a rapid heart rate, high blood pressure and an increased demand of oxygen. The meth likely placed increased stress on Valenzuela’s cardiovascular system, according to the report.
The Las Cruces police custody death comes as advocates for police reform across the U.S. call for authorities to end the use of chokeholds in the wake of George Floyd’s death after a Minneapolis officer pressed his knee into his neck. Floyd’s death has sparked worldwide protests.
Sylvia Montoya, Valenzuela’s aunt, said she doesn’t want another family to go through what her family has gone through.
“I don’t want to hear of another death at the hands of an officer. It’s not right,” she said.
Valenzuela lived with his grandparents and was a father to four children. Court records show he had a history of drug possession charges and minor traffic violations. Police report Valenzuela was found with a crystal-like substance the day he ran from officers.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)