United States District Court, D. Colorado
THE ESTATE OF ROBERT VALLINA; JUAN J. VALLINA, personally; and MARTHA VALLINA, personally and as personal representative of the Estate of Robert Vallina, deceased; Plaintiffs,
THE COUNTY OF TELLER SHERIFF'S OFFICE and its DETENTION FACILITY; SHERIFF MIKE ENSMINGER, in his official capacity; DEPUTY IAN CHRISTIANSEN, in his official capacity; DEPUTY KEVIN JOHNSON, in his official capacity; and JOHN/JANE DOES 1-20, in their respective individual and official capacities; Defendants.
T. Varholak United States Magistrate Judge
matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for
Determination of Spoliation and Sanctions and Memorandum in
Support Thereof (the “Motion”). [#97] The Motion
was referred to this Court. [#98] This Court has carefully
considered the Motion and related briefing, the case file,
evidence and argument presented during the March 24, 2017,
evidentiary hearing, and the applicable case law. For the
following reasons, I DENY the Motion.
Robert Vallina's suicide and the weeks following that
Vallina committed suicide while in the custody of the Teller
County Sheriff's Office and its Detention Center at
approximately 1:11 a.m. on September 2, 2014. Deputies were
alerted to the suicide by another inmate. That inmate had
called the control room and said that the Deputies needed to
check on the inmate in the next cell (Cell A-13) because
something was not right. When they arrived, Deputies found
Mr. Vallina hanging by a bed sheet. Because the Deputies
could not untie the bed sheet from Mr. Vallina's neck,
Detective Christiansen cut the sheet so that they could lower
County Sheriff's Detective Dan Sloan investigated Mr.
Vallina's death. Detective Sloan went to the Detention
Center and was informed by guards that the death was an
apparent suicide. Upon arriving at Cell A-13, Detective Sloan
observed the sheet that Mr. Vallina had used to hang himself.
Half of the sheet remained attached to the top bunk, while
the second half was lying on the lower bunk's cot. Mr.
Vallina was lying on the cell floor.
the course of the investigation, Detective Sloan took several
pictures of the cell. He verified that the cell door had been
closed at the time of death and that no other individual had
been in the cell. He observed an apparent suicide note. Based
upon these factors, Detective Sloan's inspection of the
cell's contents, and a review of the deputies'
reports, Detective Sloan concluded that the death was a
suicide. He then called out the coroner and told the coroner
what he believed had happened. At that point, the coroner
conducted an independent investigation.
between 4:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m., Detective Sloan and a victim
advocate went to Robert Vallina's parents' home.
Detective Sloan spoke with Juan Vallina, Robert Vallina's
father. Detective Sloan told Juan Vallina that
Robert Vallina had died, and likely told him that it was the
result of a suicide. The possibility of a lawsuit was not
discussed. Following this conversation, Detective Sloan spoke
with the coroner and told the coroner that the only item that
needed to be preserved from the cell was the suicide note. As
a result, the bed sheet that Robert Vallina used to hang
himself was discarded.
that day, the coroner visited Juan Vallina. By that time, he
had also concluded that Robert Vallina's death was a
suicide. He told Mr. Vallina that everything was normal with
the autopsy and that the cause of death was strangulation.
Juan Vallina spoke about Robert being a fisherman, and the
coroner made a comment along the lines of “that may
explain the intricate nature of the knot.” Again, there
was no discussion about the possibility of a lawsuit.
three days later, Marcello Porcelli, a former Lieutenant with
the Teller County Sheriff's Office and former Public
Information Officer, came to the Vallina house and met with
Martha Vallina. Mr. Porcelli told Ms. Vallina that he had
been contacted by the press and wanted Ms. Vallina to approve
Mr. Porcelli's statement to the press. Mr. Porcelli
further stated that the Colorado Mental Health Institute in
Pueblo had informed the Sheriff's Office that Robert
Vallina was sane and not a threat to anyone, and the
Sheriff's Office relied upon those representations when
it placed Mr. Vallina in the prison's general population.
In response, Ms. Vallina said that she did not blame Mr.
the next two weeks, Ms. Vallina became suspicious about
Robert Vallina's death and whether the Sheriff's
Office bore some responsibility. During that timeframe, she
had a call with the Undersheriff. She told the Undersheriff
that she wanted to put some money on the books of the inmate
who had alerted the Deputies to Robert Vallina's suicide.
Ms. Vallina initially testified that she told the
Undersheriff that the family was looking into legal action,
but later stated that she was not sure that she did make such
during these first two weeks, Ms. Vallina went to the
Sheriff's Office to try to obtain medical records and
reports of the incident. She met with a secretary. The
secretary informed Ms. Vallina that she could not have the
medical records, though the rationale for not providing the
medical records was somewhat unclear as there was some
testimony that the Sheriff's Office did not have the
September 11, 2014, an article ran in the Mountain Jackpot
News with the headline “Investigation Continues Into
Teller County Jail Death” and a subhead entitled
“Mental Health System in Question.” Robert
Vallina's sister, Heather Vallina, was interviewed for
the article. She is quoted as saying: “I understand
[the Sheriff's Office's] stance, but just feel this
shouldn't have happened. There was a history here.”
Heather Vallina also states that she does not believe that
the jails are equipped to handle inmates with serious mental
addition to speaking with the Mountain Jackpot News, Heather
Vallina also contacted Channel 11 News in Colorado Springs.
Channel 11 began investigating Mr. Vallina's death.
Channel 11 interviewed the Undersheriff and sought medical
records. Despite having signed releases, the Undersheriff
apparently did not provide Channel 11 with the medical
The legal proceedings
January 2, 2015, Sergeant Sandefur of the Sheriff's
Office was advised to open an internal affairs investigation
into the death of Robert Vallina. On February 21, 2015,
Plaintiffs' counsel sent a notice of claim to Sheriff
Ensminger, the Board of County Commissioners for Teller
County, and to the Attorney ...