The case of a Tijuana teenager who died screaming and going into convulsions after sipping liquid methamphetamine while in federal custody at the San Ysidro Port of Entry has been settled with a $1 million payment to his family members.
The agreement in San Diego federal court came more than three years after Cruz Marcelino Velázquez Acevedo, 16, was referred for secondary inspection after crossing into the United States through the pedestrian lanes on the evening of Nov. 18, 2013.
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He died more than two hours later, just before 9 p.m., in the emergency room at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, after taking as many as four sips of the amber liquid that he carried in two juice bottles inside his knapsack. Claiming initially that it was apple juice that he had purchased in Mexico, Velázquez drank the liquid in the presence of two U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, according to documents filed in federal court.
The lawsuit alleged that "the two agents told a young man to drink the liquid to prove to them that it was fruit juice and not a drug," said Eugene Iredale, attorney for the teenager's family. "He did that, and as a result, he died."
Attorneys for the two officers named in the complaint did not respond to queries about the lawsuit, which alleged wrongful death, assault and battery, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The settlement was reached in January.
Valerie Baird and Adrian Parellon, the officers named in the complaint, continue to be employed by CBP in San Diego, the agency said Friday in a statement.
"Although, we are not able to speak about this specific case, training and the evaluation of CBP policies and procedures are consistently reviewed as needed," the statement said.
Both Iredale and the Mexican Consulate in San Diego confirmed the monetary payment. Family members of the late teenager were reluctant to come forward and unavailable for comment, Iredale said.
"It's never enough when you lose a human life," said Marcela Celorio, the Mexican Consul General in San Diego, who called it a "high visibility case" for the Mexican government.
"The family lost their son, and the father was very committed to finding justice," Celorio said. "What's important is that the family is at peace … with the agreement that was reached."
At the time of his death, Velázquez was a high school student in Tijuana who did not have a previous criminal record. Iredale said that "we believe he was paid some small amount of money, the going rate is $100 or $200, that they gave the kids to cross the border" with drugs.
Evidence in the case included sworn statements as well as CBP video footage that showed the teen communicating through hand signs with the two CBP officers in the secondary inspection area.
"I don't think they deliberately set out to kill the boy," Iredale said. "But they did, in telling him to drink it in order to prove to themselves — or have him prove to them — that it was in fact what he said it was as opposed to a drug, which is what they suspected."
Iredale cited testimony from another CBP officer alleging that Baird had told her: "Oh my God, I told him to drink it, I asked him what it was, he said it was juice, I said, 'Well then prove it.'"
The incident began on a Monday night, at about 6:40 p.m., when the teenager reached the front of the San Ysidro pedestrian line. Velázquez told an officer in the primary inspection booth that he was crossing to visit an uncle in San Ysidro. The officer said he noticed the bottles filled with liquid, but "the primary reason I referred Velazquez to secondary is because of his rapid speech and due to the fact that he was shaking so uncontrollably."
It was in the secondary area that Velázquez drank the liquid. Iredale said that it was only after the teenager had taken sips that one of the officers, Baird, opted to test the liquid by putting drops on a screwdriver to see if they would crystallize — a test that is not sanctioned by CBP.
"They have many test kits … they are readily available" at the port, Iredale said, but those were not used.
It was minutes later that Baird noticed that the teenager began to sweat and appear nervous, according to a court document. She called for a canine officer and dog, which alerted to drugs on the teen's body. He was taken to a security office, where he admitted that there were "chemicals" inside the bottles, the document said.
As his condition rapidly deteriorated, he was taken by ambulance to Sharp Chula Vista Hospital, where he died.
The Medical Examiner's Office report stated that Velázquez died of "acute methamphetamine intoxication," and ruled the death an accident.
Attorneys for both Baird and Parellon argued that they are shielded by qualified immunity, which means reasonable officers shouldn't be held liable unless their actions were obviously incompetent or that they knowingly violated the law.
"Although it is obvious in hindsight that Cruz acted recklessly in drinking from the bottle and that may have been attributable to his age and poor judgment, that fact does not alter the analysis. … There must also be coercive or deceptive tactics employed by officers to exploit a suspect's vulnerabilities. No such tactics were used in this case," Perallon's attorney, Barton Hegeler, wrote in a motion for summary judgment.
Each officer denied allegations of forcing or egging on Velázquez to drink from the bottle, saying the other had prodded the teenager to do so, according to court documents.
In one document, Baird stated that Perallon "allegedly spoke to (Velázquez) in Spanish, asking him to drink from one of the bottles, 'to prove that it was juice.'"
But Perallon gave a different account, according to a statement. Perallon said he had been translating for Baird, and told her that the teen said he was willing to drink from the bottle. Perallon said Baird then responded, "if that's what you want to do."
When Velázquez "made what appeared to be hand signals seeking approval to drink … Baird responded with a similar gesture signaling 'it's okay,'" according to Parellon's statement.
Staff writer Kristina Davis contributed to this story.
Dibble writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
1:30 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect the entire story that ran on the San Diego Union-Tribune website.