Family of man who died in police custody fights two years for records and video of his arrest
EL PASO, Texas - Gabriela Miranda and her husband Benjamin Miranda took her brother Daniel Diaz to the Lunch Box for menudo. Two days later he was dead after police tried to arrest him at the east El Paso restaurant.
“Lack of transparency, lack of communication. “That’s what killed Danny,” Miranda said.
The city of El Paso has paid nearly $2 million to settle wrongful death lawsuits over the past two years involving police officers. The Erik Salas Sanchez and Daniel Ramirez cases date back to 2015. In June, the city announced they had created a crisis intervention team, added training and reviewed the work of their discipline review and shooting review boards over the last several years.
The El Paso medical examiner’s office ruled Diaz’s cause of death a homicide. The autopsy found Diaz had blunt force injuries to his head, torso and extremities.
“This 40-year-old man, Daniel Diaz Jr., died of a sudden death during law enforcement subdual and restraint with acute methamphetamine toxicity as a significant contributing factor,” the report states. “The manner of death is homicide.”
The police department’s Internal Affairs unit and the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Texas Rangers investigated his death. Officers involved in Diaz's April 26, 2021 Arrest provided written statements to the Rangers.
Investigators also examined physical evidence, videos and gathered witness and police statements.
El Paso Police Department public information officer Robert Gomez said Diaz’s case was also referred to the disciplinary review board or DRB made up of 12 civilian volunteers and on-duty police officers.
“The officers were exonerated,” Gomez said. “That is something that did go before the DRB, it was presented and the board unanimously decided to exonerate the officers of any wrongdoing.”
As Diaz’s relatives struggled with their loss, they tried to get answers about how he died.
During an interview, Gabriela Miranda talked about her younger brother. “He always had faith. But unfortunately his drug addiction was stronger.” The Eastwood graduate went to rehab but continued to struggle with drug addiction and depression, she said.
“In his way he always tried to seek help,” she said.
For nearly two years, the family tried to get information from the El Paso Police Department about the night he died. Multiple members of his family have worked in law enforcement and knew police reports should be available.
Benjamin Miranda, a retired military chief of police, said the department told his father-in-law, a former detective with the county sheriff’s office, Diaz collapsed outside of the restaurant after he was arrested and died.
“We got a one page report from the city, with one paragraph,” Miranda said.
They filed multiple open records requests. After failing to get the information they sued in October to get access to documents and video that captured the arrest and Diaz’s last moments.
The city attorney’s office said a pending prosecution prevented them from releasing the information. Diaz’s family asked the District Attorney’s Office if prosecutors were pursuing a case. The DA’s office emailed they were not reviewing the case.
In January County Court at Law Judge Melissa Baeza ruled the city had to give the Diaz family the security video, audio recordings and other records required by the law.
Diaz’s family had three months to decide if they wanted to file a lawsuit since there is a statute of limitations. In Texas, civil lawsuits for wrongful death must be filed within two years from the day of the subject’s death. The family ultimately decided not to sue.
“What we believe is that the city was trying to stonewall us, leading us up to that statute of limitation for them to say ‘you can’t do nothing to us anymore,” Miranda said.
KTEP News and KTSM 9 News also worked to obtain the documents, police reports, video and other recordings through the Texas Public Information Act and collaborated for an investigative report about what happened the night Diaz died.
It took the city two and a half months after a judge ruled the material should be available under the law, to release the material to KTEP News and KTSM 9 News. The timeline reveals how the police response escalated at the restaurant.
Police called to Lunch Box
After the call about a possible breakin, one officer arrived on the scene and encountered Diaz. The police dispatcher recording that night says there’s call about a possible fight at the restaurant
Officer Alexis Maldonado said Diaz told her he was having a panic attack. He was talking to himself and said he was hearing voices that told him to hurt her, according to her statement to Texas Rangers.
“I tried talking to him to calm down and build a rapport with him so I can get him medical attention,” Maldonado told investigators. “I observed him take a fighting stance by clenching his fists and taking multiple steps towards me.”
Maldonado raised her taser at Diaz and he stopped and turned back toward the door, Maldonado said in a statement to investigators. She radioed for backup.
Shortly after, another squad car with two officers sped into the parking lot and arrived as Diaz managed to open the restaurant’s door.
They followed him inside and Maldonado tased Diaz in the back and he fell into the kitchen.
Security camera video in the dimly lit kitchen shows the three officers trying to grab Diaz’s hands and legs.. While struggling to handcuff Diaz, the officers began to hit him.
“It was unusual that even after being struck multiple times in the body the subject refused to give up his hands as I was attempting to pull them away with my left hand,” officer Joseph Sanchez said in a statement.
“Due to the body strikes having zero effect, I then delivered two closed fist strikes to the subject's face and an open hand strike to the face to gain control and cause him to release his hand.”
His partner, Lazaro Sanches said in a statement he also struck Diaz in the face three to four times.
Four more police arrived and a total of seven officers tried handcuffing Diaz.
Officer Arturo Lopez in a statement said he kicked Diaz’s inner right thigh.
“The leg strikes were ineffective to the subject because he continued to kick his legs trying to hit us,” Lopez stated.
Officer Sanchez said they had to use two handcuffs, one on each wrist and then attach them behind his back. The attempt to subdue Diaz inside the kitchen lasted just under three minutes.
The video then shows officers moving Diaz to the lobby of the restaurant where they remove one of the handcuffs and that’s when they noticed he had stopped resisting.
“It was like a light switch turning on and off,” Officer Juan Avila told investigators.
They carried Diaz outside to the front of the restaurant where Avila began doing chest compressions while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
Avila said he could no longer feel Diaz’s pulse.
No recommendations for disciplinary action
As is required by state law, in-custody deaths involving police require an investigation by an independent law enforcement agency, usually the Texas Rangers.
Their investigation of Diaz’s case found it was a “questionable death,” according to a copy of the agency’s report. The Rangers’ closed the investigation without recommending criminal charges, according to the report.
The El Paso police department’s internal affairs investigation recommended no disciplinary action for the seven El Paso police officers. The police department’s 12 member disciplinary review board which includes six officers and six “civilians” also looked at the case. The board voted unanimously to “exonerate” all seven police officers of any wrongdoing in Diaz’s death.
Officer Maldonado, the first to arrive on the scene, resigned about a few weeks after Diaz’s death. The other six officers involved are still on the job.
Robert Gomez, the police department's public information officer, said the strikes to Diaz's body during the arrest are techniques taught and authorized for officers to use when suspects resist arrest.
“What I believe is that the responding patrol person did not truly understand how to recognize the state Danny was in,” Miranda said. “Danny was showing no signs of being a harm to someone.”
Diaz’s brother-in-law Miranda said the family wants all the officers to be held accountable for his death during the arrest. He counted officers striking Diaz 19 times.
“Tell me that’s not excessive use of force,” Miranda said. “If it’s allowed by policy that responding police officers can strike people in the head, then we should probably be having a conversation about whether police officers should be allowed to hit people in the head.”
Texas civil rights attorney Randall Lee Kallinen reviewed the security video of the police officers’ actions inside the kitchen at KTEP and KTSM’s request.
“They’re using punch strikes, which is not necessarily the type of force that should be used if you’re trying to get somebody under control.”
Kallinen is representing an El Paso woman who alleges EPPD officers struck her in front of her children during a traffic arrest in 2021. The police department in that case said the internal affairs unit recommended suspending an officer involved in arresting Anna Marie Barnes. Barnes’ case had been presented to the EPPD’s Disciplinary Review Board.
“Most experts will agree, there’s no law enforcement purpose to kicking and stomping,”he said.
Diaz’s family plans to start a foundation in his memory to fund education and other help for men struggling with mental health. They said Daniel always talked about helping homeless people.
Miranda saved her last exchange with her brother. Hours before his death, they texted each other: “I love you, brother,” she wrote. “I love u WAYYY MORE,” he replied.