Sheriff Joe Arpaio, others sued over inmate death

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX -- The family of an inmate who died after what his family describes as abuse behind bars filed a $19.5 million wrongful-death lawsuit Tuesday against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

The suit also names Maricopa County and dozens of other Phoenix police and MCSO employees.

Ernest "Marty" Atencio was booked into the Fourth Avenue Jail last year on non-violent misdemeanor charges. At some point, he was involved in a scuffle with officers inside the jail who tased the 44-year-old Army veteran.

Atencio had been diagnosed with various mental illnesses in 2006 and had gone off his medication, according to attorney Mike Manning, who is representing Atencio's family in the lawsuit.

"They knew he was mentally ill," Manning said. "He was just sick. He was never aggressive. He was never resisting. He was not combative."

In the past, MCSO has stated that Atencio was abusive, a claim denied by his family and by Manning. Instead, they claim he was attacked and taunted by two Phoenix police officers, as well as by Maricopa County detention officers.

"Detention officers with MCSO beat him with closed fists, kicked him in the face, back and groin, and tased him too close to his heart," Manning said.

After that, the lawsuit alleges that Atencio was placed nude in a holding cell.

"They beat him some more and tased him some more, and they killed him," Manning said.

MCSO released the following statement to 3TV Tuesday:

"The Sheriff's Office has already commented on our factual review at the time of Atencio's arrest. Today's complaint also named the City of Phoenix, Phoenix Police Officers, County Correctional Health Employees. Consistent with Phoenix Police Department and County Correctional Health's approach, we will not comment pending our review of the complaints raised today."

The lawsuit comes just two weeks before the general election in which Arpaio is up for re-election as sheriff.

When asked if the lawsuit was politically motivated, Manning responded, "Not in the least. We were required to wait a certain amount of time after the notice of claim."

The notice of claim was filed in June.

Atencio's family has requested a jury trial.