Parents file suit against Galveston sheriff after son's death in county jail

John Suayan, Galveston Bureau Aug. 14, 2008, 5:13am

GALVESTON – The death of a 17-year-old illegal immigrant while in the custody of the Galveston County Sheriff's Department earlier this month has spawned a lawsuit by the teen's parents.

Arturo Chavez's parents are suing Galveston County, the city of League City, and Sheriff Gean Leonard for what they allege is failure to protect their son after his arrest Aug. 1 for driving without a valid license.

Chavez, who resided in Webster and worked as a busboy at the city's Dos Mas Mexican Restaurant, was found dead in a cell at the Galveston County Jail three days later.

Milcar Elizabeth Argueta Chavez and Juan Chavez Sontary of Guatemala filed the suit in federal court Aug. 13, alleging their son was assaulted before he hanged himself in his jail cell.

The former League City Clear Creek High School student's estate is represented by Houston attorney Randall L. Kallinen.

Law enforcement officials were warned that Chavez, who stood 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 125 pounds, was a danger to himself, but still placed him in solitary confinement, the Chavez family argues.

"Despite being conscious of the obvious signs and warnings Arturo was not protected from suicide," the lawsuit says.

At the time of his apprehension, Chavez identified himself as Juan Esteban Batentzun and stated he was 19.

The Chavezes assert police beat Arturo Chavez about three times with a baton and stunned him with a Taser at least twice after he reportedly led them on a foot chase from the League City Jail.

The lawsuit brands the alleged episode as "an excessive use of force."

Arturo Chavez was upset about his ordeal and his imminent deportation to his native Guatemala, according to court documents.

The Galveston County Medical Examiner's Office ruled his death a suicide. It is unknown as to what exactly prompted Chavez to kill himself.

The lawsuit states the county jail has a history of prior suicides and suicide attempts, criticizing the latter for not screening inmates for suicidal tendencies.

"The Galveston County Jail did not check on Arturo frequently enough to prevent the suicide nor provide any suicide prevention treatment," the original petition states.

In addition to an excess of $75,000, the plaintiffs seek burial expenses, changes to county policies on mental health and medical assistance for jail inmates, and an order for "proper force training" for League City officers.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Samuel B. Kent.

Case No. 3:08-CV-00181

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