Colorado health care organization, security officers face lawsuit after alleged chokehold death

Nov. 30—Four hospital security officers and the health care conglomerate Catholic Health Initiatives Colorado are facing a wrongful death lawsuit after security allegedly choked a man to death in a Pueblo hospital lobby last year.

An ambulance transported Mathew Haskel Jones, 36, to Centura St. Mary-Corwin Hospital on Feb. 10, 2021, for gout treatment. Security officers placed him in a chokehold when he refused to wait outside in the cold after hospital staff said he chose to discharge himself against their medical advice, according to the lawsuit.

Jones died eight days later at a Colorado Springs hospital from a lack of oxygen to his brain, according to the El Paso County Coroner's Office, which determined his death was a homicide.

The civil case filed with the 18th Judicial District Court on Wednesday alleges that Catholic Health Initiatives Colorado falsified medical records, destroyed or concealed medical records, misrepresented facts to law enforcement and family, withheld and/or destroyed video evidence and intimidated eyewitnesses. The case also alleges the security officers negligently and recklessly restrained Jones despite knowing the risk posed to his safety.

"Mathew was taken to the hospital by ambulance for severe foot pain, he didn't go there to be killed," Dedra Jones, the plaintiff and Jones' widow, said in a news release from her attorneys. "Nobody should have to worry that their loved one will be harmed or killed at a hospital when they go in seeking help."

Hospital employees described Jones as confused and sweaty in the time leading up to his restraint, according to an arrest affidavit. A front desk worker told police his behavior was "completely erratic" and he was "complaining that they gave him something and they were trying to kill him." She said he was acting similar to patients who were on methamphetamine.

The autopsy report by the El Paso County Coroner's Office said his death resulted from anoxic brain injury in the setting of methamphetamine and "probable" cocaine intoxication.

The front desk worker also said Jones was shoving and spitting on officers, who handled the case "with grace and dignity."

Hospital staff told Pueblo police that they attempted to find Jones a ride home by contacting several family members, including his wife and mother, who could not provide a ride, according to the affidavit. His mother offered to pay for a cab, which the hospital was unable to secure for Jones.

Several staff members also said Jones ripped a phone cord out of the wall and was preventing other patients from checking into the emergency room, according to the affidavit. The security officers told police Jones had assaulted them before they placed him in a chokehold.

In hospital security camera footage released publicly Wednesday by Jones' lawyers, security officers are seen holding Jones to the ground for several minutes before a nurse hooks him up to a monitor.

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The nurse said Jones' oxygen levels were 30-40 percentage points below normal, according to the affidavit. She said he'd been yelling that he couldn't breathe, and she told security that the position they had him in was dangerous.

"Hey this looks a lot like the George Floyd incident, and we all know how that turned out," the nurse reportedly told security while they were restraining Jones, according to the affidavit. She told Pueblo police the security officers said if Jones can talk, then he can breathe.

In the full 35-minute video and according to the lawsuit, security officer Anthony Virant is seen putting his arm on the back of Jones' neck while Jones is on his stomach, officer Drake Castro lies across Jones' legs, officer Randy Vialpando holds Jones' left arm and officer Anthony Ruff puts his hands on Jones' back. Medical staff begin tending to an unresponsive Jones minutes later as the officers release their grip and back away.

Jones is not seen assaulting security before they lay hands on him or tearing a phone from the wall, although there are moments in which he walks out of frame.

Jason Jordan, lawyer for the Jones family, alleges Virant, Castro, Vialpando and Ruff are the four security officers responsible for Jones' death and captured in the video. The officers were charged with negligent homicide earlier this year in a criminal case, which the Pueblo District Attorney's Office later dropped for unknown reasons.

Pueblo police obtained a search warrant for all documents, surveillance footage and audio recordings relating to Jones' hospital visit. Hospital staff said they believed footage was only stored for about 15 days and that it had to be acquired from Centura's corporate office.

As of the affidavit's filing on Nov. 17, 2021, St. Mary-Corwin Hospital had not turned over all materials ordered by a March 3 search warrant; Centura Health had not provided any requested materials ordered by a March 8 search warrant.

Catholic Health Initiatives Colorado did not respond to The Gazette's request for comment.

Inconsistent reports surround the fatal incident.

Jones' wife, Dedra, told police the hospital had not informed her why her husband had been readmitted until she arrived at St. Mary-Corwin Hospital later that morning, according to the affidavit. She said hospital staff then told her that her husband "got really agitated" before his heart stopped and he fell to the ground. Staff did not mention an altercation, she said.

The nurse who compared the situation to Floyd's 2020 death at the hands of law enforcement told police that Jones was neither spitting on nor assaulting anybody, according to the affidavit. She also said Centura created a corrective action plan against her because the company "felt she was lying about the incident" and violated its integrity policy.

The company's criminal attorney advised her to stop talking to police, she said.