Coroner: Death Of Man At Zoo Was Homicide

Coroner Says Alonzo Ashley Was Likely Suffering From Excited Delirium

The coroner on Friday said the death of a man in a struggle with police at the Denver Zoo in July was a homicide..

The coroner issued the ruling in the death of 29-year-old Alonzo Ashley.

"Physiologic stresses involved in subduing and restraining the decedent (together with his own ongoing resistance) were contributory to his death," said Denver's Chief Deputy Coroner Michelle Weiss-Samaras.

On July 18, police and zoo security surrounded Ashley after he made several irrational comments, attacked a security guard and threw around trash cans.

Zoo security was forced to call police to report a domestic violence incident because the man was shouting, thrashing about and his girlfriend appeared frightened, zoo officials said.

"The decedent's agitation, combativeness and unexpected strength are consistent with descriptions of "excited delirium,'" Weiss-Samaras said. "Individuals exhibiting such behavior are (in the great majority of cases) under the influence of drugs (such as cocaine or methamphetamine) or suffer from a mental illness (such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder), or both."

She said extensive toxicology testing concluded that he didn't have any drugs in his system except marijuana.

Weiss-Samaras said Ashley had no known past psychiatric history, but it is possible, although unlikely, that his behavior was the initial manifestation of undiagnosed mental illness.

Ashley's girlfriend has confirmed the man was upset and offering to fight zoo security officers, but she also told 7NEWS that Ashley appeared to be suffering from heat distress on a hot day. She said he was trying to cool off his head under a drinking fountain when a security guard told him to stop.

The coroner said there was no proof of heat stress in his system, but that it's likely.

"Extreme environmental heat may also cause confusion, poor judgment and irrational behavior. Heat possibly contributed to the decedent's initial behavior, and to the physiologic stresses of the subsequent altercation with zoo personnel and police," the coroner said.

"While analysis of vitreous fluid electrolytes was normal, heat stress, exhaustion and stroke can occur quickly, before dehydration is reflected in the vitreous electrolyte levels," Weiss-Samaras said.

Police said Ashley stopped breathing as they physically restrained him on the ground. He died later at a hospital.

Family Wants Officers Charged With Murder

The family of Ashley met with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and the district attorney's office Friday afternoon. The family was told about the autopsy results and the decision to not file charges.

"For one, I want to see them suspended while this investigation is going on. For two, I want to see criminal charges against them," said Ashley's brother Lendell. "I will do everything I can do to make sure these officers go face charges, criminal charges and (have) justice served."

"He didn't do nothing wrong that day at the zoo. He was hot and he was trying to cool himself down," said Ashley's cousin Talisha Redd. "They're saying it's OK to kill."

The eight officers involved in the arrest are still on the street. Chief Gerald Whitman never took them off their assignments and said he has no plans to change that now.

"There's nobody being held accountable for their actions," said Lendell Ashley. "They need more training. They need to go to the police academy and learn how to defuse the situation."

Zoo Officials Explain What Happened That Day

The incident began around 5 p.m. on July 18 when a zoo staffer radioed security "that a man appeared to be passed out near the elephant exhibit," said Zoo spokeswoman Tiffany Barnhart.

A senior security officer responded and "found Mr. Ashley standing with his head under the drinking fountain," Barnhart said.

"Concerned for the well-being of Mr. Ashley on this hot day, our security officer approached him and asked if he was OK," she said. "He asked this several times and got no response."

"Mr. Ashley then began making irrational statements to the security officer," she added.

"Mr. Ashley claimed several times that he was lion," Barnhart said.

The security officer spoke with a woman nearby who said she was Ashley's girlfriend. Suddenly, Ashley began yelling at the girlfriend and knocking over trash cans, Barnhart said.

Concerned for the woman's safety, the security officer backed off and called a supervisor, Barnhart said.

Security staffers decided to call police. But as the security officer called 911, Barnhart said Ashley ran after the security officer.

"Mr. Ashley chased our security officer, tackled him to the ground and began punching him," said Barnhart. "During the incident our security was beaten and suffered several scratches and bruises."

Ashley's girlfriend, Elaina, described seeing her boyfriend go after the security officer.

"The security stepped out from behind the bushes. That's when my boyfriend was like, 'I'm going to get him.' And that's when he told me to just sit at the bench," Elaina told KHOW-AM. "He started running toward the security."

She said she did not see what happened after he ran off.

"And that's when he came back with cuts on his hands and cuts on his knees," Elaina said.

Police have said that Ashley spun out of control, hitting one police officer and biting another. Police said a zoo employee was also bitten and suffered a head injury.

Chief Whitman: No Change In Response Today

7NEWS asked Whitman if the same situation presented itself today, would he expect his officers to act different.

"What I know right now without the administrative case and without giving up a lot of details, I would expect exactly this," said Whitman. "At this point I don't have any question about what they did. I think it exploded in front of them rapidly."

Denver Zoo Statement About Ashley's Death

The Denver Zoo released the following statement after learning the autopsy report for Alonzo Ashley had been completed:

    "We continue to extend our sympathies to Mr. Ashley’s family during this difficult time. For us, this was an unprecedented tragedy and we remain dedicated to the safety of our guests, staff and animals." -- Tiffany Barnhart, Denver Zoo Spokesperson

Denver District Attorney Statement About No Charges

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey released the following statement:

    "The review of the investigation of the death of Alonzo Ashley that occurred at the Denver Zoo, 2300 Steele Street, on July 18, 2011 has been concluded. To file criminal charges we must believe that we have a reasonable likelihood of proving the charge(s) to twelve jurors, unanimously, at trial, beyond a reasonable doubt, after considering reasonable defenses. The facts of this case do not support a finding of any criminal conduct by the involved citizens and law enforcement officers. Therefore, I conclude that no criminal charges will be filed.

    "The findings of Dr. John D. Carver, as described in the totality of his Autopsy Report, standing alone, make it very clear that a criminal prosecution is neither possible nor appropriate. Dr. Carver does not determine an anatomic cause of death. Therefore, Alonzo Ashley’s death cannot be proven to have been caused by any person under the specific facts of this investigation. Dr. Carver can respond to questions concerning his medical use of the word “homicide.”

    "Additionally, even if one or more of the involved citizens or officers could be proven to have caused the death of Alonzo Ashley, which as indicated above is not possible, we would not be able to prove their use of force was criminal, rather than a justified use of force under the applicable 'affirmative defenses.' This would therefore be a 'justifiable' homicide, if, in fact, it could actually be proven to be a homicide. Based on Dr. Carver’s Autopsy Report, there is no legal basis to label this or consider this to be a homicide. From a criminal law assessment of the facts of this case, the involved citizens and law enforcement officers were justified in using the degree of force used.

    "The Denver District Attorney’s Office is independent of Denver City government and its agencies. The Denver Police Department and the Denver Manager of Safety have jurisdiction to determine any non-criminal issues related to the procedures, policies and tactics employed by its officers. Those are administrative policy and training issues in which the Denver District Attorney’s Office has no jurisdiction."

Denver Police Chief Statement Denver Zoo Statement About Use Of Force

Denver Police Chief Gerald Whitman issue a statement that said:

    "We are saddened by the loss of Mr. Ashley's life during the incident that occurred on July 18. We are also thankful the injuries sustained by five of the officers involved were not more serious and that no other visitors to the Zoo that day were harmed.

    "Based on the evidence and witness statements, it appears the police officers and Zoo security officers acted with great restraint and professionalism while taking Mr. Ashley into custody.

    "... Our next steps will be to immediately proceed with the internal administrative review and investigation of the incident."

Safety Manager Statement On Investigation

Denver's Manager of Safety, Ashley Kilroy released a statement that said in part:

    "This office will conduct its own comprehensive analysis of the case. The Manager of Safety will review the case in detail to determine whether DPD policies were followed and, if not, take appropriate action."

Mayor Statement On Oversight

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock released the following statement:

    “I want to extend my condolences to Mr. Ashley’s loved ones. His death was an unfortunate loss to our community. I also want to express my sympathy and support for the Denver police officers who responded to this incident on July 18.

    “In light of the District Attorney’s decision not to pursue criminal charges, the Denver Police Department will now conduct a swift and thorough internal investigation. Additional reviews also will be conducted by the Manager of Safety’s Office.

    “In the short term, I have directed all city agencies to give these reviews the highest priority. And in the long-term, I will continue to work tirelessly to improve the relationship between our law officers and our citizens and to restore the public’s trust and confidence in our safety agencies.”

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