Law Enforcement

Coroner Spurns Broomfield After Elijah McClain Autopsy Questions

Elijah McClain went into cardiac arrest after a 2019 encounter with Aurora police officers; his autopsy report states that the cause of death is undetermined.
Elijah McClain went into cardiac arrest after a 2019 encounter with Aurora police officers; his autopsy report states that the cause of death is undetermined. McClain Family Photo
Before renewing a contract with the Adams County Coroner's Office, Broomfield City Council members had some questions about how that agency had conducted its 2019 investigation into the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain — a case that drew national scrutiny and has spawned several subsequent investigations.

But coroner Monica Broncucia-Jordan wasn't inclined to chitchat. Complaining that the public airing of the concerns at a recent council meeting was "completely unprofessional" and showed a lack of confidence in her office, Broncucia-Jordan declined to renew her annual contract to provide death investigations and autopsies to Broomfield — leaving stunned city staffers scrambling to enlist another coroner by the end of December.

This was the latest sign of tetchiness over official handling of the high-profile case, which has put Aurora police and fire officials on the defensive and sparked widespread protests. McClain was on his way home from a convenience store on August 24, 2019, when he was detained by Aurora police officers responding to a "suspicious person" report. Police body cameras captured only pieces of the eighteen-minute ordeal that followed, during which McClain was taken to the ground, placed in a chokehold and injected with a massive dose of ketamine, a powerful sedative, by parademics. He went into cardiac arrest a few minutes later and never regained consciousness.

Although the Adams County district attorney declined to file charges against the officers and others involved, the case has triggered a panoply of federal, state and local probes of police policies and practices, possible civil-rights violations, and the use of ketamine to sedate agitated suspects. One area of continuing controversy is the autopsy report released by Broncucia-Jordan, which an attorney for the McClain family has denounced as "tainted."

As Westword first reported a few months ago, the official autopsy conducted by forensic pathologist Stephen Cina has drawn criticism from other experts. In concluding that the cause of death was undetermined, Cina raised the possibility that McClain was mentally ill, on drugs, or suffering from "excited delirium" — speculations supported by little or no physical evidence. His report also downplayed the role that ketamine might have had in McClain's death, as well as statements McClain made about having difficulty breathing shortly before his collapse. In addition, the report raises at least the appearance of a conflict of interest, since Broncucia-Jordan, who attended the autopsy and signed off on Cina's findings, is married to a Denver police officer who was involved in another high-profile fatal encounter with a young person of color in 2015 — the shooting death of seventeen-year-old Jessie Hernandez.

At the December 10 Broomfield City Council meeting, Councilman Deven Shaff stated that he was troubled by media accounts he'd read about the McClain autopsy and wanted to ask Broncucia-Jordan about a possible conflict of interest in the case, why a second opinion wasn't sought, and other matters. The video recording of the meeting indicates that councilmembers expected that Broncucia-Jordan would be online for the discussion. But the coroner subsequently complained that she was never contacted directly about the concerns; other councilmembers have pointed out that the entire controversy is outside Broomfield's jurisdiction.

The council ended up approving a new $364,000 contract with Broncucia-Jordan's office. But then Broncucia-Jordan decided not to renew the arrangement.

Broncucia-Jordan has declined media requests for comment on the McClain autopsy. "I look forward to having the opportunity to discuss this case in the future," she told Westword in July. "However, it would be inappropriate to do so at present due to the ongoing investigations."

Updated December 26: According to a December 23 release, Monica Broncucia-Jordan has agreed to the 2021 Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) to provide coroner services for the City and County of Broomfield; she'll attend a Broomfield City Council meeting on January 12. “We are eager to nurture this long-standing partnership,” said Broomfield Mayor Pat Quinn in a statement. “We are working from a place of positive intent to ensure our lines of communications are open and enhanced.” See more here.
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast