Boulder, CO – Two veteran Boulder County deputies have been charged with manslaughter in the death of a 23-year-old man who died in the back of a transport van.
Boulder police arrested Demetrius Shankling for public intoxication at approximately 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 9, 2018, then contacted the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office for a prisoner transport, KMGH reported.
Boulder County Deputy Adam Lunn, 36, and James O’Brien, 49, responded to Canyon Boulevard and Ninth Street, and planned to take Shankling to an addiction recovery center, according to KDVR.
Court records indicated that Shankling was intoxicated at the time, having just celebrated his 23rd birthday, and was “verbally antagonistic” with the deputies and Boulder police at the scene, The Denver Post reported.
According to KDVR, the deputies handcuffed Shankling behind his back, then placed him on his stomach on the floor of a 4.78-foot cubicle in the back of the transport van, investigators said.
The intoxicated man was six feet tall, so the deputies bent his legs – bringing at least one of his feet into the air behind him, in order to shut the van’s back door.
The closed door pressed his head forward into the interior wall, pushing his head either backwards or forward.
When they arrived at the Addiction Recovery Center 16 minutes later, Shankling was unresponsive and was not breathing, The Denver Post reported.
He was rushed to a Denver hospital, where he was placed on life support, according to KDVR.
Shankling died 27 days later.
An autopsy determined that Shankling died from positional asphyxia in combination with the effects of amphetamine and alcohol, The Denver Post reported.
He had a blood-alcohol content of .352 on the date of the transport, according to KMGH.
A forensic pathologist ruled Shankling’s death as a homicide, KDVR reported.
Deputy Lunn and Deputy O’Brien were both placed on paid administrative leave on Sept. 9, 2018.
“The next business day after the incident, I observed the video from the jail van and body cameras, and it became really clear to me that the event was tragic and that it needed to be fully and independently investigated,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle told KDVR.
Investigators determined that the deputies did not position Shankling in the van in accordance with how they had been trained.
“I appreciate that Sheriff Pelle made the decision to activate the Boulder County Investigation Team to conduct the investigation into this tragic incident," District Attorney Michael Dougherty told KDVR in a statement.
"The members of the Team conducted a very thorough investigation, as did Coroner Emma Hall and her staff,” Dougherty continued. “When these difficult situations arise, it is important to have a shared and unwavering commitment to reaching the right result for the victim, law enforcement, and our community.”
He said that Shankling’s death is a tragedy for everyone, including the deputies.
"As part of our public safety mission, all deputies are responsible for safeguarding those in our care to the best of our ability and are accountable for the decisions and actions,” Dougherty added.
Deputy O’Brien has been with the department for over 20 years, and Deputy Lunn was hired in 2011, KDVR reported.
Sheriff Pelle confirmed that the deputies have received training regarding positional asphyxia, and said that they did not place Shankling into the van in accordance with how they’d been trained.
“These deputies are good guys,” he added. “They didn’t intend any harm.”
Deputy Lunn and Deputy O’Brien were both booked into the Boulder County Jail on Monday, the Daily Mail reported.
If convicted, the deputies could be sentenced to prison for two to six years, according to KMGH.