Inside Elijah McClain Indictment That Led to Charges Against Cops, Paramedics

A portrait of the late Elijah McClain.
A portrait of the late Elijah McClain. Family photo
On September 1, two years after the death of Elijah McClain following a violent encounter with Aurora police officers, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced that a grand jury had handed down a 32-count indictment against five people involved in the incident: Aurora police officers Randy Roedema and Nathan Woodyard, former Aurora police officer Jason Rosenblatt (who was fired after he texted "Haha" in response to a re-enactment photo of the McClain incident), and Aurora Fire and Rescue paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec.

Hours later, the indictment was made public — and its account of what led the grand jury to accuse the defendants of offenses that include manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and second-degree assault is absolutely chilling.

The "Essential Facts" section of the document sets the scene in a seemingly benign fashion: "On August 24, 2019, Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, was walking home from a convenience store. Mr. McClain was carrying a plastic grocery bag and listening to music using earbuds connected to his phone. It was a warm night, although Mr. McClain, who was frequently cold, was wearing a black mask and a jacket."

A person driving near the Aurora intersection of East Colfax Avenue and Billings Street called 911, allegedly because McClain was "acting strangely." Shortly thereafter, Roedema, Rosenblatt and Woodyard were dispatched to the scene. Roedema had been with the Aurora Police Department for five years following six years with the Denver Sheriff's Department and eight years as a U.S. Marine. Woodyard, another former Marine, had been with the APD for just shy of three years, while Rosenblatt had been with the department for two.

Upon his arrival, Woodyard ordered McClain to stop; according to the indictment, the officer noticed that the young man carried no weapon but considered the grocery bag to be "suspicious." He and Roedema grabbed McClain's arms and hustled him to a grassy area against the wall of an apartment building. As the grocery bag was tossed aside (it contained cans of iced tea), McClain is said to have struggled, and Roedema claimed he reached for "your gun"; it was unclear whether he meant Woodyard's or Rosenblatt's. Rosenblatt and Woodyard then tried to execute a carotid hold, during which an officer "uses his or her bicep and forearm to apply pressure to the carotid arteries on the sides of the subject's neck, thereby cutting off blood flow to the subject's brain and causing temporary unconsciousness for the purpose [of] gaining compliance or control."

Rosenblatt's attempt at the hold on McClain is described as "unsuccessful," but Woodyard's "resulted in Mr. McClain going unconscious and snoring." In the process, however, McClain "suffered hypoxia, and his physical and mental conditions were impaired." Nonetheless, Roedema also placed McClain in a "bar hammer lock," characterized as a "physical defensive tactic whereby a subject's arm is held back behind their back to gain control of the subject." Roedema told investigators that he "yanked pretty hard" on McClain's shoulder and heard it pop three times.

Woodyard briefly released his carotid hold after McClain lost consciousness, and Rosenblatt radioed Aurora Fire Rescue. But then McClain woke up and "the struggle resumed," the account continues. McClain tried to pull away from the officers while on the ground, but was restrained as Roedema put his entire body weight on the slight "suspect" while his comrades applied a pair of handcuffs — all while McClain was saying "that he could not breathe." He subsequently vomited multiple times, including inside his mask. The officers' body-worn cameras supposedly became dislodged during the incident and failed to capture most of what happened, but the audio on the recordings was marked by McClain's "gurgling sounds."

Around this time, other officers arrived, but none of the police personnel on hand "checked Mr. McClain's pulse or monitored his airway, breathing or circulation," the indictment states. Instead, Roedema remained positioned on McClain's back even though he was handcuffed, and Rosenblatt and Woodyard spent time on top of him, too. As McClain requested help, Roedema responded: "Well, chill out! You've already been told several times to stop."

This order appears to have been largely unnecessary, given that "Mr. McClain was in a hypoxemic state with decreased cerebral oxygenation" and also "suffered from metabolic acidosis from the physical struggle with police." All of these conditions "constitute serious bodily injury," the indictment notes, "and collectively, they pose a substantial risk of death or a substantial risk of protracted loss or impairment of the function of any part or organ of the body."

When paramedics Cooper and Cichuniec showed up, they were told that McClain was "definitely on something." But instead of immediately leaping to McClain's aid, they concluded that he was suffering from "excited delirium" — a dubious and controversial diagnosis. Cooper told police, "We'll just leave him there until the ambulance gets here and we'll just put him down on the gurney."  Additionally, Cichuniec ordered ketamine from the ambulance without asking for consent from McClain — although two of the officers approved. "Yup, sounds good," Rosenblatt said, while Roedema replied, "Perfect, dude, perfect." A short time later, Cooper injected 500 milligrams of ketamine — a much higher dose than should have been administered to someone of McClain's size — into his "right deltoid."

The officers discussed removing McClain's handcuffs after the medication "kicks in" but left them on until he was put on a gurney, to which he was secured using "soft restraints." By this time, McClain "appeared unconscious, had no muscle tone, was limp, and had visible vomit coming from his nose and mouth," and when the paramedics discovered that he "had no pulse and was not breathing," they performed CPR, intubated him and "administered epinephrine directly into his shinbone." But while his pulse returned, he never regained consciousness.

Elijah McClain was declared brain dead on August 27. Afterward, "life support was removed and Mr. McClain became an organ donor." He died on August 30.

The "Essential Facts" section of the indictment concludes: "Mr. McClain was a normal, healthy 23-year-old man prior to encountering law enforcement and medical response personnel. A forensic pathologist opined that the cause of death for Mr. McClain was complications following acute ketamine administration during violent subdual and restraint by law enforcement and emergency response personnel, and the manner of death was homicide."

Click to read State of Colorado v. Randy Roedema, et al.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts