Tribes echo call for new probe of 2015 in-custody death

The family of Cecil Lacy Jr., of Tulalip, says officials conspired to protect law enforcement.

Cecil Lacy Jr. (Family photo)

Cecil Lacy Jr. (Family photo)

OLYMPIA — The Tulalip Tribes is advocating for an independent review of a local law enforcement investigation into a tribal member’s in-custody death in 2015, citing questions his loved ones have raised about the probe.

Attorneys for the family of Cecil Lacy Jr. allege that Snohomish County officials, the task force of detectives responsible for the investigation and lawyers for a deputy sheriff’s guild “conspired to doctor and destroy evidence and otherwise conceal the truth associated with Mr. Lacy’s death.”

“This was a cover-up, not an investigation,” said Gabe Galanda, of Seattle-based Galanda Broadman, an indigenous rights law firm representing the family.

Lacy’s family maintains that he died of asphyxiation while Sheriff’s Deputy Tyler Pendergrass put weight on his back and two other officers helped pin him to the ground — not of a heart attack, as the county medical examiner determined soon after Lacy’s death.

His last words were, “I can’t breathe,” Galanda said in a letter to state officials last summer. He was 50, mentally ill and in the midst of a medical crisis.

Craig Bartl, a Marysville police detective who led the investigation, took steps to change Pendergrass’ account of the incident and manipulate the medical examiner’s findings about how and why Lacy died, Galanda alleged in the July 14 letter.

The letter, addressed to Gov. Jay Inslee and other state leaders, came with more than 100 pages of supporting documents. Those records include a draft of Pendergrass’ sworn statement that was faxed to Bartl, testimony from the deputy’s attorney saying that statement was later changed at Bartl’s request and notes that the medical examiner took about delaying his final opinion until he saw Bartl’s report.

The Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on Galanda’s claims.

A civil lawsuit over Lacy’s death is still pending.

Lacy’s family is now pushing for an independent review of the probe by the Snohomish County Multiple Agency Response Team, or SMART, a cadre of detectives and other specialists from around the county that investigates use-of-force incidents.

“I would never have believed this if I hadn’t lived it,” Lacy’s widow, Sara Lacy, told The Daily Herald. “They did so many things wrong before and after his death.”

A SMART spokesman declined to respond in detail to the family’s claims.

“SMART is aware of the allegations and will be responsive to any inquiries from the Governor’s Office, the Washington State Attorney General or the Washington State Solicitor General’s Office,” spokesman Aaron Snell, an Everett police officer, told The Herald in an email.

Bartl did not return a reporter’s phone call requesting comment.

The attorney who represented Pendergrass, Alyssa Melter, said she “cannot talk about specific cases without consent.”

“However, it is common for involved officers to provide written statements to criminal investigators and for investigators to contact our office with additional questions or seeking clarification,” Melter said in an email to The Herald. “Involved officers usually provide the requested information and clarifications so the investigation is as thorough and complete as possible.”

In a March 3 letter to Inslee, the Tulalip Tribes echoed the family’s call for an independent review of the SMART probe.

“We all knew the victim. We all watched him grow up,” said the tribes’ vice chairman, Glen Gobin, during a recent interview. “We support a review just to ensure that things were done in the correct manner.”

Amid nationwide calls for an end to police brutality, the case provides a window into the inner-workings of a law and justice system that keeps secrets instead of learning from past mistakes, Galanda said.

“This exposes the systemic failures associated with police brutality, meaning it is not just the police who are complicit in the improper taking of life,” Galanda said. “It involves police guilds, it involves prosecuting attorneys offices, it involves coroners and medical examiners, and it involves many other law enforcement actors.”

“There should be no reason to cover up the truth,” he added. “Because how as a system, how as a society are we ever going to learn from the mistake?”

Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe said in 2016 that law enforcement officers’ actions that night were legally justified. None of them faced criminal charges, determined Roe, who has since retired.

County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Daniel Selove attributed Lacy’s death to a heart attack due to methamphetamine in the man’s system, as well as several other factors. Those include an enlarged heart, obesity, hypertension and mental health issues, as well as the struggle with police.

Selove, now retired, ruled the death an accident.

But the family commissioned an independent autopsy that found otherwise.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, former chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County in California, ruled the death a homicide and concluded that Lacy died of “mechanical and positional asphyxiation” as officers restrained him.

“If Cecil Lacy Jr. had not suffered from mechanical and positional asphyxiation, more likely than not, he would not have died on September 18, 2015,” reported Omalu, who is a clinical professor at the University of California Davis. “It is pertinent to note that his asphyxiation was caused by three adult men lying on top of his trunk and placing the weights of their bodies on his trunk while pressing him prone onto the ground, crisscrossing his lower extremities and handcuffing his upper extremities.”

Lacy’s death bears the hallmarks of other high-profile in-custody deaths that have sparked outrage and calls for accountability among American activists.

Galanda says Lacy succumbed in the same position as George Floyd, who died last May as a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck while he was handcuffed and pleading that he couldn’t breathe.

Lacy’s reported last words — “I can’t breathe” — became a universal rallying cry for racial justice during a wave of protests that swept the nation last summer. The same plea was made by Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after a New York City police officer wrapped him in a chokehold. Manuel Ellis also yelled those words before he died in March 2020 while being restrained by Tacoma police.

Last summer, Inslee ordered an independent investigation into Ellis’ death after learning that at least one deputy from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, the agency conducting the initial probe, was on the scene when he died.

At the governor’s request, the Legislature is considering House Bill 1267, which would establish a new entity within Inslee’s office to investigate instances of lethal force by peace officers.

The Office of Independent Investigations would be able to review incidents occurring after July 1, 2022, as well as other cases prior to that date if new evidence is brought forth that wasn’t included in an initial investigation.

Lacy’s case could be eligible for review if the bill becomes law, depending on what policies and criteria the new office establishes, said Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for Inslee’s office.

In 2018, Washington voters passed Initiative 940, which requires “completely independent” investigations of all instances when use of force by law enforcement results in death or substantial bodily harm.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is now reviewing use-of-force events from last year to determine whether those investigations are meeting criteria established as a result of I-940.

“Since the project is focused on providing transparency to the public about compliance with a new set of standards regarding the independence of criminal investigations — standards that were not in place when Cecil’s death was investigated — it is not possible or appropriate for us to include the investigation into Cecil’s death,” Brittany Gergory, a deputy legislative director for the attorney general’s office, told the Galanda Broadman firm in an Aug. 13 letter.

Lacy’s family sued the county in King County Superior Court in 2016, accusing the sheriff’s office of negligence and excessive force.

The case was dismissed before reaching a jury when a Superior Court judge concluded there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show that the sheriff’s deputy used excessive force.

Then, last fall, a state Court of Appeals ruled that the family’s attorneys can argue the case at trial. The Court of Appeals wrote that the trial judge was correct in dropping the negligence claim but erred in dismissing the allegation of battery.

Lacy was on a nightly walk when law enforcement officers found him near the 6400 block of Marine View Drive at about 10 p.m. on Sept. 18, 2015, according to the SMART investigation’s case summary.

Two Tulalip police officers and Deputy Pendergrass, who were called there after a man was reported waving his arms in the street, offered Lacy a ride home to get him off the dark roadway.

They suspected Lacy was drunk or high. He was “sweating profusely, talking rapidly, could not stand still, and appeared to be agitated,” says the case summary, which SMART provided to The Herald.

Lacy told the officers he had previously been institutionalized for mental health issues. He became upset after the officers told him he would need to be handcuffed during the ride home for their safety. As the officers tried to close the door of the patrol car, he escaped from the back seat.

A struggle ensued in the grassy area beside the vehicle, and Pendergrass used a Taser on Lacy while trying to control him. The device was ineffective, according to the case summary.

“During the altercation Cecil became unresponsive and Officers attempted to revive him with CPR until medical aid arrived,” the case summary says. “All medical efforts failed and Cecil died at the scene.”

The full SMART investigation was not available as of Friday afternoon. However, the family’s attorneys provided excerpts of transcribed interviews and other records from the probe with their letter to state officials.

Pendergrass told investigators in his statement that Lacy was on his side when his body went limp.

“I used the weight of my upper body to lay on top of Cecil to prevent him from standing up,” he said in the sworn statement to SMART investigators.

The sergeant involved, though, told investigators Lacy was on his stomach. Less than 30 seconds before he stopped moving, he said he couldn’t breathe or made a comment to that effect, the sergeant recalled to a SMART detective.

SMART ignored those red flags in its investigation, said Galanda.

After the detective saw a draft of Pendergrass’ sworn statement, he asked the deputy’s attorney, Melter, if three clarifications could be made, Melter later said in a signed declaration submitted to the court in the civil lawsuit. Specifically, Bartl asked that Pendergrass specify whether Lacy Jr. was on his back or stomach after falling, Melter said.

“My primary contention with Galanda Broadman’s assertions in its letter, as it relates to our representation of the deputy, is that it assumes a cover up is occurring simply because the deputy reasonably exercised his right to be represented and advised by counsel,” Melter told The Herald in an email.

“Police officers are citizens of the United States and do not give up their constitutional rights by virtue of their employment. Any allegation that the statements the deputy provided were not his own and consistent with his memory is false,” Melter wrote.

Bartl later denied directing that any changes be made to Pendergrass’ statement, court records in the civil case show.

Lacy, a Tulalip native, spent years working as a commercial fisherman, said his widower, Sara Lacy. In his free time, he volunteered at his daughter’s school and served as a bus driver for tribal youth group activities.

“We don’t want him to be forgotten. And we’re not going to stop fighting until we get justice for him,” said Sara Lacy. “It’s not just for him — it’s for everyone. We raise kids in this community. I’m not willing to pass this all along to them.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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