Among the most famous quotes in sports is a line from boxer Mike Tyson: "Everybody has a plan 'til they get punched in the mouth."
This philosophy is at the heart of a just-filed lawsuit in the July 2014 death of Ryan Ronquillo, an alleged car thief who was killed by Denver police outside a funeral home, where he had traveled to attend the viewing of a friend who'd taken his own life.
Police maintained that they fired at least eleven rounds at the unarmed Ronquillo to protect a fellow officer, who was injured when the suspect backed up his vehicle into her, as well as other funeral attendees in the vicinity. This story line was subsequently echoed by Denver Chief of Police Robert White and Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, who found the actions that led to Ronquillo's death to be legal.
But the lawsuit, on view below, maintains that Ronquillo was merely trying to get away from an unprovoked assault marked by multiple punches in the face that left a major laceration on his mouth, as shown in a postmortem photo seen here. As such, the suit argues that police unnecessarily prompted Ronquillo's self-defensive actions and then used them as justification to kill him.
The complaint, filed by attorney John Holland, who's representing Ronquillo's mother, April Sanchez, on behalf of her late son's estate, names seven Denver police officers as well as the City and County of Denver, which is deemed responsible because of what the document describes as "deliberate indifference in training and supervision in a recurring situation" — namely excessive force.
"The right to be free from excessive force is predicated on the fact that citizens who are suspected of crimes have the right to surrender," Holland says. "But the police surrendered the life of Ryan Ronquillo because they didn't give him the right to surrender."
The lawsuit also accuses the police and DA Morrissey of engaging in a coverup in order to make sure the officers involved were exonerated and to keep the ugly facts about the punch-out and the decision to stage the bust at a funeral from the public.
"Car thief is not a world-class crime of violence, and Ryan Ronquillo was unarmed when the police assaulted him," Holland emphasizes, adding, "The district attorney, the police chief and multiple levels of the police department never make any mention that the case began with an assault."
Although Ronquillo has been frequently characterized in the media over a span of nearly two years, April Sanchez says no one has yet captured her Ryan, whom she continues to talk about in the present tense.
"He's funny, he's outgoing, he's got a sense of humor, he makes people laugh," she says. "He's a loving son."
He also loved spending time with family "when he was home," she adds.
Yes, Ronquillo had numerous scrapes with the law over time, Sanchez concedes; he first got into trouble around age thirteen. But she says his offenses were mostly "minor things.
"I understand that he allegedly stole cars," she says. "But that doesn't give anyone the right to kill somebody over it."
For Sanchez, the pain she continues to feel over Ronquillo's loss is intensified by a policy change implemented at the Denver Police Department well after his death. In July 2014, officers were allowed to shoot into moving vehicles, as they did outside the funeral home. But a year later, following the uproar over the January 2015 killing of seventeen-year-old Jessica Hernandez, another accused car thief, the DPD announced that "firearms shall not be discharged at a moving or fleeing vehicle unless deadly force is being used against the police officer or another person present by means other than a moving vehicle."
"It kind of hurt my feelings that they made it so they couldn't shoot into vehicles after Jessica Hernandez was shot, but not after Ryan was shot," she says. "It made me kind of hurt that it wasn't about my son" — and that what she considers to be the same mistakes made in the funeral home incident were repeated in the Hernandez case.
If the current rules had been in place before July 2014, she says, "my son would still be alive."
According to the lawsuit's "statement of facts," Ronquillo, who was wanted on arrest warrants related to car theft, was killed outside the Romero Funeral Home, located at 4750 Tejon Street, at around 6 p.m. on July 2, 2014 — but he'd been at the facility prior to that time. Witnesses say they saw him as early as 4:15 p.m., more than an hour after members of the Safe Streets Fugitive Task Force first put him under surveillance. Police reports say he was being tracked by GPS coordinates as early as 2:45 p.m.
Far from being surprised that Ronquillo showed up at a funeral home, numerous officers told investigators they knew about the location in advance — defendants Ernest Sandoval, Brian Marshall, Jeffrey DiManna and Daniel White among them, the suit states. On top of that, multiple police calls from Detective Adam Lucero, part of the Denver gang unit, made mention of the funeral. And in a post-shooting interview, Sandoval said he "learned over the radio that Ronquillo had backed his vehicle into a parking spot at a funeral home and they were going to attempt to arrest him there.”
A surveillance camera captured images of Ronquillo parking and what happened afterward; the video was obtained by the Denver Post, which published the clip earlier this year. Unfortunately, the altercation inside the passenger compartment of the vehicle Ronquillo was driving is partly obscured in the clip by two police SUVs, which zoom toward him in an effort to prevent his escape.
Nonetheless, screen captures from the video shared in the lawsuit clearly show officers rushing toward Ronquillo's vehicle....
...and then converging on the passenger compartment, with one appearing to have drawn a weapon:
The video indicates that the officers made their move before Ronquillo could get out of his vehicle or even turn it off — decisions that the lawsuit says contradict "proper procedures for a high-risk felony stop." And that's not to mention the speed with which the SUVs were traveling, particularly in light of the number of funeral attendees in the vicinity. A witness said the police vehicles "almost hit two little girls" — and one of the defendants, Officer Tina Trujillo, stated that she was almost struck by them, too, the lawsuit says.
Trujillo parked directly behind Ronquillo's vehicle, and after she exited her ride, she approached from the rear — a tactic the lawsuit deems reckless. She also admitted during post-incident testimony that she never heard any of the other officers give Ronquillo a command to give himself up, and numerous other witnesses said likewise. But Holland doesn't see this question as key, given the suddenness of the attack against Ronquillo that followed.
"If I yell at you to stop the car while punching you in the face, you don't really have an opportunity to surrender," he says.
In his sworn statement, Sandoval admitted to doing the pounding. He said he "ran up to the driver's side of Mr. Ronquillo's vehicle," "ripped the suspect's shirt-collar area," pulled a lanyard from around the neck and "punched [Mr. Ronquillo] several times in the head."
Sandoval stressed that his punches had no effect on Ronquillo: "It didn't work it all," he said. The lawsuit rejects this claim based on a postmortem photo that showed a laceration to the suspect's mouth.
Note: This photo was cropped so as not to show a bullet hole in Ronquillo's head. However, Sanchez gave us permission to publish it. She sees the image as conveying what really happened on the day her son died.
In the meantime, another defendant, Luke Ingersoll, broke out the passenger-side window of Ronquillo's car and grabbed him by the hand or arm as he drove backward. The tools used on the windows included batons, flashlights, gun butts and clubs, the lawsuit says.
In light of the attack, the lawsuit brands Ronquillo's contact with Trujillo as "accidental."(He also struck two vehicles while backing up, one of them a police car.)
Another excerpt reads: "At the time he was shot and killed, Mr. Ronquillo did not pose an actual and imminent threat to the lives of any officers or civilians present at the scene. In backing up, Mr. Ronquillo was not targeting the car at any officer, but rather was positioning his vehicle in the natural direction of the road to escape the continuing assault.
"These officers also had no reason to believe that just letting Mr. Ronquillo drive away would pose a threat of serious physical harm to the officers or others, if it was even possible given the position of surrounding cars and the wedge," the lawsuit continues. "Mr. Ronquillo never displayed any violence, nor did he display any tendency to drive dangerously throughout the day. In fact, by their own accounts, officers were peacefully following him for hours."
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Ronquillo's loved ones began getting messages about his death. But at first, Sanchez didn't believe them.
"My ex [Ryan's father] called me and said, 'Have you heard from Ryan?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'I've been getting phone calls saying he got shot.' I said, 'That wasn't Ryan. It was some other guy who was at a park.' [Shortly before Ronquillo was killed, Denver police officers killed another man, Joseph Valverde, during an undercover drug bust near the intersection of Platte River Drive and Florida. Officers in that case were also cleared of wrongdoing.] He said, 'Are you sure?' I said, 'I'm positive. I'm watching the news right now.' But then the little lines on the bottom of the TV came up and said someone was shot at a funeral home, and I just fell to the ground. I knew it was my son, because he had been to a funeral."
In subsequent statements about the shooting, both DA Morrissey and police chief White sought to portray Ronquillo as the person who'd forced the officers' hand. Here's how Morrissey summarized his August 2014 decision letter clearing the officers in the shooting:
This incident is a direct result of choices made by Ronquillo: He first chose to steal a car. He then chose to flee despite almost no viable options — backing up and hitting two private cars, one occupied by several members of a family, then running into a police car. He then chose to drive forward toward armed law enforcement officers who had given him repeated commands to stop and repeated opportunities to surrender. As noted previously, the violence of his actions can be seen in the surveillance video; the fact that no civilians and only one officer was injured is remarkable.
As for Chief White, the lawsuit says that he "falsely reported" during a February 2016 press release and an April letter to Sanchez that "as uniformed officers approached, Mr. Ronquillo stepped on the gas and advanced in reverse at a high rate of speed." This statement, prompted by the belated decision not to discipline any of the officers involved in the shooting, is not only diametrically opposed to the lawsuit's interpretation of the video, but it ignores Sandoval's statement that Ronquillo's car backed up for the first time only after he'd punched him several times in the face.
By the way, Sanchez says she only received a copy of Morrissey's decision letter because a member of the media passed one along to her through an intermediary. Likewise, she reveals that no one from White's office contacted her in advance to let her know that Chief White had cleared the officers.
"One of the advocates called me at work and told me, 'You need to sit down,'" she says. "I thought it was going to be something good, some good news. But then she told me, 'They're not going to discipline the officers,' and I fainted. When I woke up, there were a bunch of cops around, looking through my purse."
The City of Denver is also castigated in the lawsuit for allegedly making it "appear that the police did not understand that Ryan Ronquillo was attending a funeral" even though numerous defendants say otherwise. Indeed, one witness says he overheard an officer who was married to a funeral attendee tell his wife and her father "to leave the funeral home because something was about to go down" at around 5 p.m., an hour before the Ronquillo shooting.
Holland, who's working on the case with Anna Holland Edwards and Erica Tick Grossman, his partners in the law firm Holland Holland Edwards Grossman, is incensed by what he sees as official obfuscation in the Ronquillo case.
"They've labored to make it appear that Ryan Ronquillo had taken off before police even got to his car, when they know he was physically assaulted," he says. "And no judge or layperson would know exactly how they'd behave when being punched in the face. It's normal for people being punched in the face to try and get away — and Ryan Ronquillo was killed because he reacted to being assaulted in an absolutely normal way.
"This kid wasn't doing anything to anyone," Holland goes on, his passion building. "He was grieving, and they attacked him — and this wasn't an isolated incident. There's something extraordinary going on in Denver, that we have had so much brutality, so many lawsuits, so many deaths, so many injuries, so many payments. We pretend like we're committed to cleaning it up, but we're not. We're committed to not getting caught, and that's what this case is about. This case begins with the pretense that Ryan Ronquillo took off at a high rate of speed before the officers even reached him, and no one in the world looking at the video will believe that. But the district attorney and the chief of police and all the other sub-directories of their investigative staffs and outside investigators they got to give their observations all forgot to notice.
"How did this happen? How was it allowed to happen? What is this culture about? It's one thing to say police have killed too many people, it's one thing to say, 'We have to have fewer shootings' and discuss the international frenzy that seems to be going around guns and violence, and the local and national frenzy of shooting people without cause, or sufficient cause. But most of these crimes are not deadly crimes. In rare circumstances, police come upon a deadly moment when they have to act with deadly force. Here, they created that moment. They created it, and now they've pretended through years and multiple investigations that Ryan Ronquillo took off immediately as they approached him. And he didn't."
A similar sense of frustration grips Sanchez. "I hear from the community, 'If your son hadn't run into a cop, this wouldn't have happened. He deserved to die for all that bad stuff.'"
She couldn't disagree more — and she hopes her lawsuit has an impact that goes beyond her son's case.
"I know that cops are very well protected," she says. "But when a cop does wrong, I just wish they would start charging officers and holding cops accountable. If they did, maybe this wouldn't happen so much.
"I feel like I'm never going to be the same. But I just want something to happen to make this better, before this happens again to somebody else's child. We need a change — and not just them talking about doing something, but not doing it."
Read the complete lawsuit here.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.