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New Mexico Police Officer Fired, Charged With Killing Man He Threatened To Choke Out
In footage of the arrest, Christopher Smelser can be heard telling Antonio Valenzuela, “I’m gonna f--king choke you out, bro.”
A New Mexico police officer has been terminated and charged with manslaughter after telling a man that he would “choke [him] out," authorities said.
Christopher Smelser was charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection to the Feb. 29 death of Antonio Valenzuela, the Doña Ana County District Attorney's Office announced on Friday in a release shared by the Las Cruces Police Department. Smelser used a “vascular neck restraint technique” during Valenzuela’s arrest, which resulted in Valenzuela’s death, officials said.
Officers encountered Valenzuela during a traffic stop, at which point they learned that the Las Cruces resident had an open warrant for a parole violation, the release stated. Valenzuela then fled the scene on foot, prompting officers to give chase and fire their stun guns twice. However, Valenzuela was undeterred by the tasers, and continued to struggle as he was taken to the ground.
It was then that Smelser used what police called a “vascular neck restraint technique” in order to “gain control” of the situation. In accordance with the use of force by police, first responders were called to the scene, but upon their arrival, Valenzuela was unresponsive and they were unable to revive him.
In video of the arrest that was obtained by local outlet KOB 4 and published on Monday, Smelser can be heard saying to Valenzuela, “I’m gonna f--king choke you out, bro.” Valenzuela can also be heard struggling to breathe.
An autopsy lists Valenzuela’s cause of death as “asphyxia injuries due to physical restraint." He was also high on methamphetamines at the time of his death, and the drugs played a significant role in killing him, NBC News reported.
Authorities received the autopsy report for Valenzuela on Thursday and issued a letter of intent to terminate Smelser that same day, police said in a separate statement. LCPD Chief Patrick Gallagher described the decision to fire Smelser as being in “the best interest of the department and the community.”
Smelser, who’d been on the force for four years, was first placed on administrative leave following the incident, CNN reported.
Gallagher offered his condolences to Valenzuela’s family in Friday’s statement.
“Words are insufficient to bring comfort to Antonio Valenzuela’s family, but I extend my sincere condolences for their loss,” Gallagher said. “It is a tragic day for everyone involved when there is an in-custody death or a death as a result of a police apprehension. Once we learned of the findings in the Medical Investigator’s report, we felt in necessary to immediate initiate termination proceedings.”
Following Valenzuela’s death, the department banned the use of the technique that killed him, police said. The New Mexico State Police is investigating the incident.
Valenzuela’s family shared their dissatisfaction with the charge Smelser faces in a statement from their lawyer obtained by NBC News, telling the outlet that they believe that Smelser should be facing the same charge as Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck.
“This police officer literally said, ‘I’m going to choke you out, bro,'” lawyer Sam Bregman said. “That is not involuntary manslaughter. That is second-degree manslaughter.”
Smelser’s lawyer Amy Orlando told the outlet that while Smelser “regrets” that Valenzuela died, he was “actively resisting” arrest, fighting officers, and had a weapon in his pocket. The neck restraint was a “last resort,” Orlando argued.
“What is happening in our nation surrounding the protests and riots is a serious issue,” she continued. “However, the facts of the incident in Minnesota that triggered the public’s outcry are vastly different than the facts in our case at hand.”
Orlando did not say what sort of weapon Valenzuela had on his person, but CNN reported that an arrest warrant affidavit states that Valenzuela had a “silver multitool” on him when he was arrested.
Following a hearing conducted by telephone, a judge ruled that Smelser was not a flight risk and thus would be allowed to await trial as a free man without posting bond, as long as he adheres to a 10 p.m. curfew, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported.