A police sergeant in Joliet, Illinois, has been stripped of his police powers and placed on administrative leave after he blew the whistle on the cover-up of the killing of a man who was effectively tortured by his fellow officers.
Community members are hailing the actions of whistleblower police Sgt. Javier “Butch” Esqueda, who was moved to reveal the grisly nature of the in-custody death of Eric Lurry, a Black man from Joliet, who was choked to death in the back of a squad car in grueling footage captured on video.
On Tuesday, protesters rallied around the Joliet Police Department calling for justice for Lurry while praising Sgt. Esqueda, a 27-year veteran of the force who has faced retaliation after breaking the code of silence regarding what he sees as the criminal actions of his colleagues, reports CBS2 Chicago.
Cop who blew whistle on death of #EricLurry is stripped of his badge. “That’s what you get,” says one source for going against the “blue wall of silence” Lurry had nose pinched shut for 98 seconds in cuffs. Police Sgt Javier Esqueda, a 27 year vet fighting for job. @cbschicago pic.twitter.com/E61I1pGqcQ
— Dave Savini CBS (@davesavinicbs2) July 7, 2020
Joliet City Manager Steve Jones quit following a Tuesday City Council meeting where the brutal events surrounding Lurry’s death were discussed. During the session, Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk remarked that he had “grave concerns” over the footage and subsequent cover-up by Joliet PD.
Eric Lurry Jr., 37, was arrested in an undercover drug operation after he was allegedly found to be hiding drugs in his mouth. Police claim that he suffered a medical emergency while he was in custody before he later died at St. Joseph’s Hospital. The Will County coroner’s office later ruled his death to be accidental and the result of h*****, f******l, and c*****e intoxication, with Lurry having over 10 times the lethal dosage in his system.
However, the facts that emerged from video recorded in the squad car depict a far different picture.
In the video, Joliet Police Sgt. Doug May and another officer can be seen shaking a handcuffed Lurry and beating him while holding his nose shut in an attempt to force the drugs out of his mouth. Lurry was motionless as the officers held him down.
At some point, one of the officers placed his baton in Lurry’s mouth before officers shined a flashlight in his mouth and he slumped over.
Internal investigators later found that Esqueda gained unauthorized access to the video from the Will-Grundy Major Crimes Task Force before he handed the footage over to CBS2.
The ensuing scandal has outraged community members and led to calls for an independent investigation of Lurry’s death.
“He was suffocating,” Esqueda said. “In my opinion, anybody would suffocate in that situation.”
For five months, the video never saw the light of day while the officers who killed Lurry were cleared of any wrongdoing. Additionally, the video was stripped of all sound – meaning that police tampered with the footage to remove any incriminating audio.
“It was almost like the supervisor looks off and says something to somebody, and then you hear the sound cut out,” Esqueda added. “That’s what alerted me that possibly, they were trying to get rid of evidence.”
“There had to be” a deliberate attempt to remove the audio, he added. “There’s no way that can happen.”
Esqueda was stirred by the shocking footage to reveal it to the public, knowing full well that Lurry’s family would never come close to attaining justice for their lost loved one if he didn’t act.
Esqueda knew that his superiors would come down on him hard if he broke the unofficial “code of silence” by which police officers are bound.
“There’s some fear [of retaliation],” Esqueda said. “[But] when you see stuff like this, you have to come forward. You can’t sit there and be quiet, because then, we’re just part of the problem.”
On Monday, Esqueda was placed on administrative duty in the Joliet PD records section as the department launched a criminal probe and internal investigation.
“The video that was accessed was shared outside the police department, violating chain of custody and potentially evidence in the criminal matter,” JPD Chief Al Roechner told the Joliet Herald-News. “When this was found out on June 18 of 2020, I immediately opened a criminal investigation.”
However, the local community and even the Black Police Officers Association, which has 30 members of various ranks, is backing Esqueda.
“He’s a member, and we’re going to back him,” Dave Jackson, president of the Joliet BPOA chapter, told Joliet Patch.
“If someone’s doing the right thing, we’re going to stand right there with them,” he added. “Sergeant Esqueda has been held as a well-respected supervisor and United States Marine and has served his country and his community proudly.”
“Without Sgt. Esqueda drawing attention to this death to city officials, this in-custody death may still be pending,” Jackson said.
For Esqueda, releasing the footage was crucial in terms of restoring trust with the community and sending the message that not all cops are brutal killers who abuse vulnerable civilians under the color of authority.
“In light of everything that’s’ been happening – you know George Floyd really had a lot of us police officers [upset],” Esqueda said. “When we saw that video, a lot of us cried. People don’t believe that.”
“But the thing is, there are a lot of good officers out of 750,000,” he added. “Not everybody is a bad cop. Most cops that I know were upset by George Floyd.”
Watching the grueling and painful death of Eric Lurry at the hands of his brothers struck an equally if not more powerful emotional chord with Esqueda.
“Seeing that video was so disturbing, I cried,” Esqueda said. “Every day, having to live with that was a hard thing, knowing this administration was probably going to do nothing about it.”
In the meantime, Lurry’s loved ones have been left to pick up the pieces after his fatal run-in with the law.
“That was my soulmate, my best friend,” widow Nicole Lurry said. “For him to just be gone in a blink of an eye, it just tears me up inside.”
However, Lurry’s family is deeply grateful to Sgt. Esqueda for his brave and selfless act.
“He’s supposed to tell,” said Lurry’s cousin, Effie Lee. “That’s what police officers are supposed to do. He’s supposed to lead by example, and he did … He said he cried for days seeing my cousin treated like that.”
Community members are now circulating a petition on Change.org titled “Immediate and Full Reinstatement of Police Sergeant Javier Esqueda.”
“[Sgt. Esqueda]’s one of the few honorable police officers,” the petition reads. “The rest are corrupting the force. Those are the ones who should be fired.”
“Sgt. Esqueda stood up for what is right,” it added. “He is now being scapegoated by the JPD while they’re trying to cover their *****.”