Antonio Valenzuela, 40, a Mexican-American, died literally in the arms of Las Cruces, New Mexico, police officer Christopher Smelser. Smelser was holding him in a vascular neck restraint at the time, a type of restraint banned by the department.
Now, seven months after Valenzuela’s death, the city of Las Cruces has agreed to pay Valenzuela’s family $6.5 million in a settlement. However, the city denied all liability in the agreement. While the Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI) ruled Valenzuela’s death a homicide, the autopsy showed he also had methamphetamine in his system, which played a role in his demise.
A Deadly Traffic Stop
When police pulled Valenzuela over for a traffic stop on February 29, they learned there was an outstanding warrant for a parole violation. The stop occurred because the car left a spot where an alleged burglar lived. It is about 2:30 in the morning.
Valenzuela was a passenger in the vehicle. An officer asks Valenzuela if he were wearing a seatbelt, which he was not. When asked for identification, Valenzuela says he did not have any but gives the officer his name. Based on that and his birth date, the officer discovers the outstanding warrant.
Valenzuela fled the vehicle with police in close pursuit. Although he was tasered twice, it appeared to have no impact on him. The chase lasts just 24 seconds.
Smelser then tackled Valenzuela. Within minutes, Valenzuela was dead.
Second-Degree Murder Charge
Smelser was fired from the police department the day after the incident and was later charged with second-degree murder. The OMI ruled Valenzuela’s death a homicide on June 4, and Smelser was charged the following day. He has not yet entered a plea and is due in court on September 3.
The charging document states Smelser killed Valenzuela “without lawful justification or excuse, and without sufficient provocation, upon a sudden quarrel, or in the heat of passion,” with the defendant knowing these acts would cause a “strong probability” of severe harm or death to Valenzuela.
According to a video released by the police department, Smelser is heard telling Valenzuela that he would "f****** choke you out bro." The police officer then placed Valenzuela in a vascular neck restraint. Valenzuela keeps moving and makes loud grunting sounds. The officer’s cameras record Valenzuela gasping for breath.
At 2:50, first responders arrive, and they cannot find a pulse. Valenzuela receives CPR, but is unresponsive. By 3 a.m., the officers are concerned that Valenzuela is going to die. The video catches Smelser saying, “I really hope we didn't f***ing kill somebody right now.” At 3:40, Valenzuela is pronounced dead.
Twice Officer of the Month
Smelser graduated from the Las Cruces Police Department Academy in 2016. Before Valenzuela’s death, he received several commendations for his police work, including twice serving as officer of the month.
However, one Dona Ana County man alleged that Smelser had put him in a vascular neck restraint in September 2018, leaving him with a broken collar bone. The man did not file a formal complaint against Smelser.
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