Eric Lurry’s death was a mystery to his family until a police whistleblower leaked damning evidence implicating the Joliet, Illinois, police department. Now Sgt. Javier Esqueda, who came forward with the video evidence, is facing a possible 20-year prison sentence for exposing his fellow police officers. In this episode of the Police Accountability Report, we examine the mechanics of a police coverup and the ramifications of holding police accountable, and ask Sgt. Esqueda what he witnessed that made him risk his career and his freedom by becoming a whistleblower.
Pre-Production/Studio: Stephen Janis
Post-Production: Stephen Janis, Dwayne Gladden
Taya Graham: Hello. My name is Taya Graham, and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I always make clear, this show has a single purpose: holding the politically powerful institution of policing accountable. And to do so, we don’t just focus on the bad behavior of individual cops. Instead, we examine the system that makes bad policing possible.
Today we will do so by showing you a video of police brutality that would’ve remained secret had not someone behind the blue wall of silence decided to make it public. It is a troubling tale of police brutality caught on camera that would never have seen the light of day had the man, that we will talk to later, not risked his career and freedom to leak it.
But before we get started, I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please email it to us privately at firstname.lastname@example.org and please like, share and comment on our videos. You know I read your comments and appreciate them. And of course, you can always reach out to me directly @tayasbaltimore on Facebook or Twitter. And of course, if you can, please hit the Patreon donate link pin below in the comments, because we do have some extras there for our PAR family. Okay. Now we’ve gotten all that out of the way.
Now, as many of you who have watched the show know, there is an underlying purpose behind what we do. We hope that by reporting on actual police malfeasance and revealing the underlying imperatives which drive it, eventually the institution of policing can be reformed. But the purpose comes with a caveat. That’s because, as we said from the onset, the system that enables bad policing can sometimes be worse than the behavior itself. In other words, the power and the imperative of policing ensconced in a system of rampant inequality flourishes because it has become systemic and therefore harder to expose.
There is no better example of this idea than the video we are showing to you right now. It is a video of a man who died in police custody, but whose death could have been prevented. It’s a stark example of how policing is ill-equipped to deal with the social ills that proliferate in this country, but well-suited to cover up their misdeeds when they occur. If you do not wish to see this police violence, please feel free to forward through the first few minutes.
The video you are seeing now shows Joliet, Illinois resident Eric Lurry in the back of a police car suffering from an apparent overdose. Police had placed Mr. Lurry in the backseat after charging him with drug possession. But after he was handcuffed and placed in the police vehicle, it became increasingly clear that Mr. Lurry was facing a medical crisis, which is the point of the show today. Because as you can see, instead of getting medical attention for him, the officers on the scene appear to make things worse. Let’s watch.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Officer: Hey, wake up. Open your mouth. Open your mouth. Open your mouth. Open your mouth. Open your mouth.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: For reasons yet to be explained, police appear to cut off Mr. Lurry’s ability to breathe for a minute and 38 seconds and only worsen the medical crisis he was facing with their inexplicable actions. Let’s watch.
[Video clip plays. No dialogue]
Taya Graham: As it becomes even more apparent that Mr. Lurry’s condition is getting worse, cops double down, apparently more concerned about the evidence in his mouth than the condition of his body. But while you’re watching this video, I’m going to have someone explain what we’re seeing who might surprise you. He’s not an advocate or a lawyer or a family member, but rather a police officer who, when he saw this in-car camera footage, did something extraordinary. He leaked it to the public, even though the department wanted to keep it secret.
His name is Javier Esqueda, and he is a veteran of the Joliet, Illinois, police department. He was also a training supervisor, a cop responsible for teaching other officers how to follow the law. But when he saw this video he was so shocked by the conduct of the officers involved that he did something that has had repercussions for his life that are hard to fathom. Before we get into what happened to him, let’s let the Sergeant describe what we’re seeing.
Javier Esqueda: [talking over video] The officers are assisting the drug unit on an arrest. Apparently they claim that Lurry struggled with them and they picked him up, put him in the squad. At that time, they were already saying that they thought he had drugs in his mouth, and that was 10 minutes from the station. A Sergeant comes on and says to them, don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it when we get to the station.
Our policy, when they know that immediately you are supposed to render aid. They should have called for an ambulance or did something. Instead, they transported him, drove him about five to 10 minutes to the station on the East side.
As you’re watching the video, you see Eric slumped over. He’s facing that way – You remember, the camera’s reversed. So he’s chewing on something. The officers acknowledge, look, he’s chewing on something, Still do nothing. Get him to the station. The officer goes back there. There the recruiter officers then say, let’s not do this. Come on, and they start giving him a chest rub. He goes and tells the supervisor of the Drug Unit, which is Doug May, that, hey, it looks like he’s not responsive. Sergeant May comes around on the other side, says, hey, hey, and he winds up, slapping Eric Lurry, and says, hey, wake up, bitch! At the same time, goes for his throat, looks up at the camera. And as he looks up at the camera, the audio gets cut out. He goes for Lurry’s nose and he’s holding his nose.
Well, if you got something in your throat, what’s going to happen if I cut off your airway? You’re either going to try to open your mouth or you’re going to suck in what’s in your throat. What’s obvious, he doesn’t open his mouth because whatever was in his mouth is now down his throat. A minute and 38 seconds, you see him go incoherent. Officer comes in, which is a recruit at the time, which is McCue, and sticks a dirty baton in his mouth, an ASP, and they’re sweeping his mouth and all the baggies or whatever it is is dropping out.
Now, there’s no way that they knew it was fentanyl. It wasn’t tested. It could have been crack cocaine, heroin. They right away said it was fentanyl. There’s no way. They’re assuming what the drug was in his mouth. The baggies drop out, and the next thing you know you see the glove reach in and this huge long baggie comes out. But where do you think that was at? In his mouth or down his esophagus?
Taya Graham: Tragically, Mr. Lurry died, but that’s not where the story ends because, not surprisingly, the leak was apparently more troubling for the department than what occurred on the video itself. That’s because once the video was made public by him, action against the sergeant was swift and vengeful. He was charged with multiple felonies of official misconduct and the police union turned on him even while publicly and vocally supporting the officers seen abusing Mr. Lurry. But it gets worse, much worse. That’s because elected officials didn’t speak up either. The people put into office to control or otherwise manage the police kept silent. And so, the city of Joliet stood by as an important whistleblower was turned into a potential felon.
That’s right. They charged Sergeant Esqueda with four counts, felony counts, of official misconduct. In fact, they twisted the law so that what would’ve been administrative violations ended up being indictments by a grand jury, which threatened to put him behind bars for 20 years. And for what, you ask? Just the fact that he leaked a video that shows how horrifyingly cruel American policing can be. That’s because not only does Sergeant Esqueda face criminal charges, but the police union, the institution that generally runs to the aid of cops, literally abandoned him. That’s right. Sergeant Esqueda was discarded by the very power structure which we have cited again and again as the primary instigator of problematic American policing.
Police commanders, politicians didn’t reward Sergeant Esqueda for ensuring the circumstances surrounding Mr. Lurry’s death would not remain secret and that he gave the Lurry family a chance at closure. Instead, they condemned him and they indicted him. So now we can see in all its ugly clarity how American policing continues to perpetuate bad behavior and destructive policies.
Now, we are going to hear more from Sergeant Esqueda later, but before we do, I’m joined by my reporting partner Stephen Janis who has been delving into the details of this case. Stephen, thank you for joining me.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: Stephen, what are the indictments for, specifically? What are the charges and how many years is he facing?
Stephen Janis: Well, it’s a four-count indictment that goes from two to five years. They’re charges of official misconduct, which is part of the Illinois Criminal Code. They’re pretty much specifically related to conduct in office. If you’re like a police officer or a politician or someone who holds an official office, it’s related to that.
Taya Graham: Stephen, you have been reaching out not just to the police department, but the political leaders in Joliet and asking them about the case. What did you find out?
Stephen Janis: Well, I specifically reached out to the prosecutor’s office who did send me the indictments, but my question was very specific. If you look at the Illinois Criminal Code, it says that police officers can be charged with misconduct in office for leaking or revealing information pertaining to a criminal case. I asked the question, what was he doing that was related to a criminal case? Was this related to criminal charges pending against the officers who had led to the death of Mr. Lurry? I have not heard back, but it’s a very interesting question because if you look at the Criminal Code, it’s very specific that it has to do with releasing information pertaining to a criminal investigation, and that’s clearly not the case here.
Taya Graham: We did a documentary about a Police Chief in Pocomoke City who actually instituted community policing, but when he was fired and later prosecuted, the same police unions abandoned him. Do you think these two cases have anything in common?
Stephen Janis: Absolutely. It shows that, I think, one of the scariest things about law enforcement in this country is that unlike other types of entities or political organizations, they have the tools of criminality to retaliate against people that speak out against them or buck against their business. I think in the case of both Kelvin Sewell in Pocomoke City and in this case, you have officers who have revealed damning information or fought back against the economy of policing, and policing has used the tools of criminality to retaliate. It’s terrifying. It’s not like if you or I have a business and someone charges less for pizza down the street I can go arrest them and steal their equipment, but that’s essentially what police can do. They’ve robbed them of their careers, their livelihoods, and they’ve criminalized them. The tools that police have, and white police, have to be held accountable at a different level than other agencies, institutions, or corporations. It’s terrifying.
Taya Graham: Now we are joined by Sergeant Javier Esqueda who will discuss how this entire ordeal has affected his life. Javier, thank you for joining me.
Javier Esqueda: Like I said, I just wanted to make sure that the story gets out and that they don’t forget Eric Lurry. It seems like through the shuffle of everything, they’re making it about me and they’re forgetting about what they did to him.
Taya Graham: When did you know that you had to release this video? When did you make this decision?
Javier Esqueda: May 30, I’m at the station. I’m doing my FTO work in the watch commanders office where sergeants and lieutenants hang out to do their stuff, read reports and stuff like that. I decide I’m going to log in and do my field training work. As I’m logging in to the computer like normal, I decide I’m going to watch videos and I’m going to watch that video finally. I click on it, go to watch it. I fast-forward it to the back seat of the squad because that’s what I was told was disturbing. I watched it. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t pay attention to who the recruit was, the officer sticking the ASP in the mouth, because I was too fixated on what was going on. So behind me – Say I’m on the computer with you right now – Behind me is my Lieutenant at time, which is Lieutenant Malec.
She’s looking over my shoulder and she says to me, I’ve never seen the video, but I’ve heard about it, but I’ve never seen it. She could hear what was going on and I looked at her. I said, I can’t believe this. That day I was very disturbed by it, and I didn’t know what to do. I’m telling myself, this is wrong. How come I haven’t heard of any internal being done on the officers involved? Something’s wrong here. So I wait on it. I wait on it. I talk to several officers. Hey, have you guys heard about this video? Yeah, I tell them it was disturbing for me. It was disturbing. I saw it. Other people had already seen it. Other people at the department. However, the logs don’t show anybody else watching the video except for me. And I’ll explain that.
You fast forward to June 10. That’s the second time I watched the video. I go in my car, go home. I then go to my squad car and I get my computer out of my squad car. Got to unlock it with the key. I go in the house and I start. I watched the video from beginning to end and I realize, wow, it is my recruit, McCue, who had the ASP in his mouth. No wonder that Sergeant Blackburn was telling me I needed to watch this video. I was like, wow, that is just bad. I started crying. I said, I can’t believe this.
When I heard again that the video got cut out, I knew right away there was some type of tampering. I copied the video. Then at that time, June 12, two days later, I go back to work. I’m in the watch commanders office, a little after eight in the morning, and I’m doing FTO work, signing in this new stuff. I get called in by a captain saying, hey, the other captain wants to see you, who’s the captain in charge of the field training program.
I walk in. I say, hey captain, what’s going on? He said, hey, I wanted to let you know that Deputy Chief Rosado wants an interoffice memorandum in reference to why you watched a flagged video. I’m like, flagged? Him being my superior officer, the captain in charge of the FTO program, I go back and I say, hey, Captain Larson, I need to talk to you about what I saw in this video. It’s very disturbing. You need to close the door. He says, oh no, stop right there. Whatever you do, don’t tell me anything. Write your interoffice memorandum, make it short and brief and to the point. I said, Captain, you’re my superior officer. I need to tell you what’s on that video. It’s very disturbing. It involves my recruit and his FTO. Shut the F up right now. Don’t say anything else, write your to-from again, make it short and brief. I walk over to the computer that I was sitting at originally doing my FTO work. I type up a short interoffice memorandum and give it to him.
Then I’m contemplating on what I’m going to do. Remember I got a copy of the video now. I copied the video because it looked like there was something very disturbing, like it was a cover up. To preserve the evidence because it looked like it was being tampered with. So I was right in what I said that they were trying to tamper with the video.
Taya Graham: What were the repercussions? I mean, did you have any idea how bad the retaliation might be?
Javier Esqueda: I knew what was going to happen to me. I knew that if I did the right thing, they were going to come back and try to do horrible things to me. I prayed for so long as to what I was going to do. I needed the strength to do this.
Taya Graham: Oh, okay. Well, you also share with me a personal story about you standing in a grocery line and having a chance encounter with a little boy that was pivotal?
Javier Esqueda: As I’m standing in line, there’s a young woman behind me. The young woman taps me on the back. She says, hey officer, my son wants to say something to you. I said, oh, I’m sorry ma’am, I thought I was a little girl because of the dreads. We all had masks on so I couldn’t tell. I said, hey little man. I get down on one and I say, hey, little man, what’s going on? Well, how could I help you? And he says to me, he reaches over in my ear and he whispers, thank you.
When that happened, I knew what I had to do. That’s why I had to tell the story. I look up at his mother and I say, ma’am, do you mind if I hug him? You don’t know what you guys did for me today. I hugged him and I said, ma’am you and your son are my angels. I know what I have to do. I said, you guys don’t know what you did for me today, but you guys have been my angels today. I know what I have to do. I said, I’m here for people like you, the people of Joliet I swore to protect. If you only knew what I’ve been going through. So I pay for my Combos. I go and sit in the squad what I normally do and I pray to God, you know what, God? I know it’s going to be hard, but I have to do this.
Taya Graham: Exactly what kind of charges are you facing? I know you’re facing four counts of misconduct in office. I hate to ask, but how much time in prison are you looking at?
Javier Esqueda: They charge me with four counts of official misconduct, and it has to do with, they claim I tampered with the computer to watch this video that was locked. They claim the video was locked.
Taya Graham: Do you have any regrets about coming forward?
Javier Esqueda: I thought this was going to be a good thing to do the right thing. And don’t get me wrong. If I knew then what I know now, would I have changed anything? Nope. I’d have still done it.
Taya Graham: What do you think this says to the public about how difficult it is to hold police accountable when a cop does the right thing? I’ve seen this happen to other whistleblower cops. They get kicked off the force. They get ostracized. They face criminal charges, face legal fees, and the police union abandons them. I mean, what does this tell you about holding police accountable?
Javier Esqueda: Through all this, it was hard of course, but knowing what they were going to do, everything that happened, how it was treated, they did it for a reason. They wanted to show other officers in our department this is what happens to you if you cross that line. Yes, it’s honest. Yes, it’s integrity. But guess what? We’re not going to make it that way either. We’re going to make our own narrative.
Taya Graham: Now, the story of a police officer whose career is in ruins and faces 20 years of prison time over revealing a startling case of apparent police misconduct is more revealing than it seems to be on the surface. I mean, we all remember the old phrase “don’t shoot the messenger.” Well, in this case, they’re actually trying to lock him in the cage so the world never hears from him again.
But what does it say about policing as an institution if its very essence is inimical to transparency? I mean, what do we think about a form of governance that when wrongdoing is exposed, actually turns on the person who brought it to light in the first place? Well, I think there’s a lot to learn from this case.
What do I mean? Well, as I’ve discussed on this show before, Stephen and I actually spent six years documenting a very similar case of retaliation against a police officer. His name is Kelvin Sewell and he was the first Black police chief of a small town on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore called Pocomoke. Sewell was a former Baltimore City homicide detective who left his job and took over the department of a town of roughly 4,500 residents in 2011. But when he got there, he did something very different from the way the cops usually approach policing.
He ordered his officers to get out of their cars and walk and talk to the community. But that wasn’t all. Because he also tried to not just arrest people, but to help them. In other words, he worked to assist troubled kids by helping them apply for college. He tried to defuse the war on drugs by pushing back against a drug task force that constantly raided the town and hauled people off to jail for minor drug infractions. He tried to provide opportunity for a community that had been previously abandoned by the powers that be. I mean, Stephen and I spent days driving around the town’s poorest neighborhoods. And like many similarly situated communities in the US, the residents there told us they were accustomed to two things from the government: arrests and social neglect.
Perhaps that’s why the law enforcement community pushed back. Because in 2015, Sewell was fired without explanation and then state investigators launched a broad investigation into every facet of Sewell’s tenure in Pocomoke. They investigated his sex life and rumors that he got a drug dealer pregnant, which weren’t true. They put 24-hour surveillance on his home. They went over each and every ticket he issued. They interviewed dozens of people, turning over every rock they could, and still they found nothing. Except for one case: an accident where a driver hit two parked cars and drove three blocks home before calling the police. That’s the egregious case state investigators used to charge Sewell and destroy him. For not charging the driver, who they claimed Sewell knew from a previous membership of a Mason’s chapter, but evidence revealed he had no relationship with.
Now, the reason I bring up this case is because what I really think is going on here was not Sewell’s decision to forgo charges against the driver. I mean, think about it. Do we really want police to charge every single person they encounter? Do we want cops to go out and enforce laws to the letter to the point that everyone potentially commits a crime every day? At least, we don’t. But I think the rule Sewell really broke was an unspoken code of law enforcement that helping people is simply bad for business. I think that’s why I believe that the trial of Kelvin Sewell was not about not charging a man for running into a parked car. No, I think Sewell’s original sin was fighting back against the law enforcement-industrial complex by refusing to make poor people criminals.
So what am I trying to say here? One of the things we learned when we investigated the case was that the drug task force that had been going into Pocomoke and arresting people for minor drug violations were also some of the highest paid cops in the county. They were the typical plain clothes unit that we saw throughout the country, notorious for disrupting communities and making bad arrests. In fact, they were so notorious that a former member of the drug task force working in the same area actually told us they were so corrupt they would do financial workups on people before they raided their homes. Let’s listen.
[AUDIO CLIP BEGINS]
Speaker: A lot of times we were deciding upon what car to go after or what target to go after, what person to go after, we were making that decision upon the value of their assets. We do financial workups on people. Now, it wasn’t always about how much dope you’re bringing into the county.
[AUDIO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: Which is why Sewell’s case has so many similarities to the story we just reported on. When you push back against the business and power of law enforcement, police use the tools of criminality not to just silence you, but to destroy you. No institution has as much power in America to retaliate in ways that are as thoroughly devastating to the person they are focused on. No other government agency can put you in a cage or take your assets or force you to hire a lawyer. No other institution can literally comb through your life and find anything or any pretext to put you behind bars or destroy your career. That’s why law enforcement often seems so out of control in this country, because the tools they have to silence all of us are simply too powerful to be in the hands of any individual without vigilant accountability.
That’s why on the show we spend so much time investigating the mechanisms and the processes that keep policing both insular and, ironically, above the law. That’s why we ignore law enforcement rhetoric and investigate like we did in the case of Cody Cecil, who was arrested in the small town of Milton, West Virginia, a city where police wrote hundreds of thousands of dollars of tickets for a town of just 2,500 people. That’s why we took six years to do a documentary on what happened to Sewell in a film called The Friendliest Town – Which, incidentally, you can watch for free by clicking on the links pin in the comment section below. Not just because we want to document the legal travails of a police chief in a small Eastern shore town, but because of what it says about the project of policing as a whole, how it is in some ways antithetical to a democracy.
I mean, how can policing and our free republic coexist if the police who have done wrong can fight back with the devastating tools of incarceration and financial ruin? What public institution can be both productive and responsive to the community if they can literally rob the political agency of the people they purport to serve? That’s the problem we see in both these cases and that’s why it’s so critical to examine the power and the politics of policing in-depth. Because if we don’t, the story of a whistleblower cop being silenced is just the beginning of how a badge becomes a shield from the truth and a license to punish those who least deserve it.
I want to thank our guest Sergeant Esqueda for his time and for coming forward with the truth about Eric Lurry’s death. Thank you so much, Javier. And of course, I want to thank intrepid reporter Stephen Janis for his writing, research, and editing on this piece. Thank you, Stephen.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
Taya Graham: I want to thank friend of the show Noli Dee for her support. Thanks, Noli Dee. And I want to give a very special thank you to our Patreons. We really do appreciate you. I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately email@example.com and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram, or @eyesonpolice on Twitter. Of course, you can always message me directly at @tayasbaltimore on Twitter and Facebook. And please like and comment. You know I read your comments and appreciate them. We do have a Patreon link pinned in the comments below if you feel inspired to donate. We do not run ads or take corporate dollars, so anything you can spare is greatly appreciated.
My name is Taya Graham, and I am your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.