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Anaheim police struck homeless man in chest with Taser, causing his heart to stop, attorney says

Homeless man killed
Fermin Vincent Valenzuela Sr., right, rubs his eyes during a news conference regarding the death of his son Fermin Vincent Valenzuela Jr., a homeless man who died within days of an altercation with Anaheim police.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The attorney for the family of Fermin Vincent Valenzuela Jr., a homeless man who died days after an altercation with Anaheim police, said Monday that officers struck the 32-year-old in the chest with a Taser, causing his heart to stop.

“The Taser company does give a warning to police departments not to Tase citizens in the chest area because it can capture the heart’s rhythm and stop the heart from pumping,” said Garo Mardirossian, the attorney representing the family.

At a news conference, Mardirossian said Valenzuela’s heart stopped after he was hit with the Taser.

He said Valenzuela suffered three cardiac arrests: one in the ambulance and two at the hospital, eventually causing him to slip into a coma. Mardirossian said that although an autopsy is pending, hospital records and markings on Valenzuela’s chest led them to believe the use of a Taser to his chest may have contributed to his death.

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Anaheim Police Chief Raul Quezada said during a separate news conference Monday that Valenzuela was struck once in the back with a Taser and that an autopsy would reveal if he was hit in other parts of the body.

He said that under the department’s policies, officers are told to try to avoid targeting the head, neck, chest and groin area, but are still permitted to use a Taser anywhere on the body when they have to.

The confrontation between Valenzuela and the officers took place on the morning of July 2, when they responded to a report of a man following a woman to her home in the 2600 block of West Broadway Avenue.

Valenzuela was inside a self-service laundry when the officers approached and began questioning him. Quezada said the officers moved to arrest him when Valenzuela threw a glass narcotic pipe on the ground and began reaching into a blue duffel bag.

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Surveillance footage from the laundry and a 7-Eleven store shows Valenzuela punching the officers as they attempted to arrest him.  

At one point, Valenzuela is seen running from the laundry across the street to the convenience store, where he collapsed and was taken into custody. Quezada said one of officers shot Valenzuela with a Taser as he was exiting the laundry.

Police said the incident lasted about 25 minutes, from the time of  the 911 call from the woman who thought she was being followed to Valenzuela’s arrest. 

Quezada said Valenzuela repeated ignored the officers’ commands. He said a preliminary toxicology report showed there was  amphetamines in Valenzuela’s system. The incident is being investigated by the Orange County district attorney’s office, which is standard in fatal use-of-force cases.

Valenzuela was in a coma for about a week after the confrontation and died Sunday at West Anaheim Medical Center after being removed from life support. Mardirossian said he plans to file a wrongful-death lawsuit against Anaheim police and the Taser company.

“There should be standardized rules and regulations about the kind of training our officers get so they’re not trained to use the level of force that was used against Vincent and others," Mardirossian said.

He said Valenzuela was walking in the direction of his aunt’s house when he was stopped by police. He said officers beat and Tasered him. He said Valenzuela did not have any preexisting conditions that would have caused his heart to fail.

He said he doesn’t know if Valenzuela was under the influence of drugs or whether he had a history of drug abuse.

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“Does that matter?” Mardirossian said. “You don’t take a man’s life because he happens to smoke some pot or something. You just don’t.”

He said Valenzuela -- who had a 5-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son -- suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He said Valenzuela was homeless and was known to stay at Maxwell Park, not far from where the run-in with police took place.

“It’s very hard for the whole family right now,” said his ex-wife, Patricia Gonzalez. “It’s hard to tell your children that their father will no longer be part of their lives. That they’re just going to have to push through it on their birthdays, on Christmas, on anything.”

Mardirossian likened Valenzuela’s case to that of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man with schizophrenia who died after being beaten in a confrontation with Fullerton police. A jury acquitted Officers Jay Cicinelli and Manuel Ramos of murder and manslaughter charges in January 2014. 

Mardirossian represented Kelly Thomas’ father, Ron Thomas, who reached a $4.9-million settlement with the city of Fullerton in November 2015 in a wrongful-death lawsuit. It was the elder Thomas who connected Valenzuela’s family to the attorney.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

anh.do@latimes.com

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