Texas deputies put man in ‘drunk tank' for 21 hours with injuries that left him quadriplegic and lead to death, lawsuit states

Family of Jorge Gonzalez Zuniga files wrongful death lawsuit

Left: Jorge Gonzalez Zuniga pictured with his family; Center: Zuniga's mugshots; Right: Zuniga at the hospital following his arrest. (Zuniga family)

HIDALGO COUNTY, Texas – The family of Jorge Gonzalez Zuniga, 22, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against four Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office deputies after they claim he died as a result of injuries sustained during an arrest on Easter Sunday that left him a quadriplegic.

Zuniga’s mother, wife, and son filed the lawsuit, The Monitor reported, after Zuniga died on July 15. The lawsuit alleges that injuries he sustained from an early morning arrest on April 12, and lack of care after his arrest, led to his death. San Antonio attorney Thomas J. Henry filed the lawsuit on behalf of the family.

The deputies named in the lawsuit are Steven Farias and Marco Guerrero, along with two unidentified deputies referred to as John Doe 1 and 2.

An email sent to KSAT by Preston Henrichson, the lawyer representing the County of Hidalgo and the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, describes the defendants as “the three arresting deputies, and a detention center deputy that handled some of the booking.”

Jorge Gonzalez Zuniga and family. Pictured with his wife Johana Acosta and son Jason Gonzalez. (Zuniga family)

According to the lawsuit, Zuniga “was at a friend’s house in a trailer park celebrating Easter with a barbeque" when police were called to the trailer park in an unrelated incident because two women, who were not attending the barbecue, got into an altercation.

When HCSO deputies arrived at the trailer park, located on FM 88 in the Delta Lake area, Zuniga was asleep in the yard of this friend’s house, the lawsuit alleges. Deputies approached Zuniga “and when they discovered he lived elsewhere they told him to go home.”

A statement from Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra states that “deputies gave Mr. Zuniga multiple chances to go inside and safely sleep off the intoxication or to call someone to pick him up.”

The lawsuit alleges that Zuniga started to go home when deputies “decided to arrest him for violating the emergency management order and public intoxication; two minor non-violent misdemeanors." The charges were later dropped and dismissed.

Guerra’s statement claims Zuniga “began to walk around aimlessly and knocked on at least one door without success. The owner [of the home] said Zuniga was not a resident and did not want him at the park.”

This aligns with what Farias wrote in his report, obtained by The Monitor, which states that Zuniga wasn’t able to find his friends after being awoken by deputies and was “walking around the mobile home park not knowing where he was going," before he was told he would be arrested. Zuniga “resisted arrest and was finally handcuffed and transported," according to the report.

No time of day is listed on the report and no details were provided on how Zuniga resisted arrest, only that Zuniga “was highly intoxicated and resisted arrest” before he was handcuffed and taken to the Hidalgo County Adult Detention Center.

“Zuniga insisted that he was going to walk home which would have involved walking along the highway by a canal in a highly intoxicated state. He was then told that he was going to be placed under arrest and taken into custody so that he could ‘sober up’ in jail,” Guerra said.

Part of the statement Henrichson sent to KSAT states that “a thorough, lengthy, and independent investigation by the Texas Rangers determined that any injury to Mr. Zuniga resulted [in] his unfortunate decision to strenuously fight to prevent his arrest and transport to the County detention facility. His efforts to prevent the arrest and transport exhausted three Deputies.”

The lawsuit, however, alleges that Zuniga was “tackled and assaulted” by the arresting deputies, in addition to being “tazed multiple times, pushed to the ground, [having] his neck crushed, was handcuffed and placed in ankle restraints” and “intentionally tripped when he would not stand up while fully shackled” before being placed in a patrol car and taken to Hidalgo County Adult Detention Center.

Guerra refuted this in his statement and said “Zuniga refused to cooperate and became physically agitated, verbally abusive, and strongly resisted efforts to be taken into custody. Pepper spray, tasers, and three deputies were required to accomplish his physical restraint and placement into the backseat of the police cruiser. As he was placed into the car, he made several statements claiming that he had been hurt in the process.”

This is the timeline of events including and following Zuniga’s arrest, according to the lawsuit:

  • April 12, 2:15 a.m. - Zuniga arrested by Farias, John Doe 1 and John Doe 2
  • April 12, 2:57 a.m. - Guerrero conducted a suicide evaluation of Zuniga
  • April 12, 3:07 a.m. - Zuniga was booked into the detention center
  • April 13, 12:11 a.m. - Zuniga was found unresponsive and EMS was called to transport him to the hospital
  • April 13 - Zuniga was taken to McAllen Heart Hospital then to McAllen Medical Center

Zuniga was transported to the detention center without medical evaluation sometime between 2:15 and 2:57 a.m., according to the lawsuit, which alleges that Zuniga’s booking photos were taken at 3:07 a.m.

Henrichson’s statement contradicts this fact saying that “the photos were not taken upon his 3 a.m. arrival at the jail because of his intoxicated condition. The photos were taken late in the evening of the day of the arrest, Easter Sunday.” No exact time was provided.

What is clear, is that deputies had to hold up Zuniga’s head for the booking photo.

Henrichson said after “the photo process, [Zuniga] was taken to the nurse who called an ambulance for transport to a hospital for care.”

The lawsuit, notes that Zuniga “was left in his cell for over twenty-one hours without medical attention” and that EMS was called on April 13 at 12:11 a.m. after he “was found to be non-responsive” when “someone at the jail checked on him.”

Guerra said “once in the jail, Mr. Zuniga was seen by a nurse, but because of his advanced state of intoxication, his spinal injuries were not discovered until many hours later that day. As soon as jail personnel realized he was seriously injured, an ambulance was called, and he was transported to the hospital for treatment.”

Among the injuries listed in the lawsuit, Zuniga was found to have a hyperextended, swollen neck and was “hypothermic, bradycardic and suffering other obvious injuries” when EMS arrived. Bradycardia is a slower than normal heart rate, according to MayoClinic.org.

At the hospital, Zuniga was found to have hematomas on his left eye, right chest, upper arm and nose, a deformity of his right elbow, deformity of his neck, laceration on his left finger and he was complaining of neck pain, according to the lawsuit. His temperature was 82.4 degrees and he was diagnosed “with severe cervical fracture, a swollen spinal cord and was a quadriplegic.”

He was also found to have rhabdomyolysis, a “breakdown of damaged skeletal muscle,” a “9mm anterolisthesis at C5-C6 in his neck (meaning his two vertebrae have been pushed over each other); bilateral jumped facet bones in his neck; bilateral laminar fractures in his neck and paralysis from his neck down.”

Zuniga underwent multiple surgeries during his hospitalization, according to the lawsuit, and was also placed on a ventilator.

A photograph provided in the lawsuit shows Zuniga prior to his release from the hospital on June 5.

Photograph from a wrongful death lawsuit shows the condition of Jorge Zuniga immediately prior to his release from the hospital. (State of Texas)

The lawsuit states that Zuniga was “hospitalized or sent to the emergency room on multiple occasions” after being released on June 5 and that he suffered a heart attack on July 8 before passing away on July 15. His cause of death is listed as “acute on chronic respiratory failure” which the lawsuit says was a direct consequence of his injuries and lack of medical care.

Guerra, said he and his deputies “are not in possession of the medical records required to confirm the cause of death,” but offered his sympathies to the family saying “on behalf of the County of Hidalgo and the Sheriff’s Office, I offer my heartfelt condolences to the family of Mr. Zuniga for their loss.” Guerra said the day after Zuniga was arrested that the sheriff’s office “requested an independent investigation by the Texas Department of Public Safety.”

Read Guerra’s full statement below:

“The Grand Jury considered the Report of the Ranger investigation and returned no bill of indictment. In other words, they determined that no probable cause exists to suggest that a crime was committed by the arresting officers,” Henrichson told KSAT. “The arresting officers are on administrative leave, with pay, pending the internal affairs investigation of the Sheriff’s Office."

Guerra said that once the internal affairs investigation is complete, he will “review and consider the recommendations of my staff.”

“Mr. Zuniga’s death is the direct result of violent actions executed by three Hidalgo County Sheriff’s deputies as well as the callous indifference displayed by all who observed Mr. Zuniga during his booking at Hidalgo County Detention Center and failed to call for immediate, emergency medical attention,” Henry said.

Zuniga’s family is seeking an unspecified amount of damages for medical expenses, funeral and burial expenses, past and future loss of support, loss of consortium and inheritance and several mental anguish, among other things, according to the lawsuit.

The next hearing for the case is a conference scheduled for Nov. 4, The Monitor reported.

About the Author:

Mary Claire Patton has been a journalist with KSAT 12 since 2015. She has reported on several high-profile stories during her career at KSAT and specializes in trending news and things to do around Texas and San Antonio.