Sheriffs And County Boards Hit With $7 Million Claim For Cartel Connected Inmate’s Death

Aaron M. Estrada-Buelna [Photo courtesy Cochise County Sheriff's Office]

The death one year ago of a Nogales man being held in the Cochise County Jail is the subject of a $7 million claim against Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, then-Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, and the board of supervisors in both counties.

Aaron Michael Estrada-Buelna, 29, was found hanging in his jail cell shortly before 2 a.m. Feb. 22, 2020. He died the next day at a Tucson hospital.

In response to the death, Estrada-Buelna’s mother filed a Notice of Claim last year offering to settle all claims of behalf of herself, Estrada-Buelna’s his two minor children, and any “yet identified heirs.” Such a claim is required by state law before a lawsuit can be initiated.

The Notice of Claim drafted by attorney Homero Torralba contends jail officials in the two counties displayed “extreme deliberate indifference” for the pretrial inmate’s safety.

Estrada-Buelna was taken into custody by Nogales Police on Dec. 9, 2019 for the murder of Berenice Aguirre, 31, who was reported to be his girlfriend. An infant boy held hostage by Estrada-Buelna for several hours after the shooting was eventually released unharmed. Bail had been set by a judge with the Santa Cruz County Superior Court at $3 million.

According to the claim, the Santa Crux County Jail kept Estrada-Buelna in “solitary confinement” before deciding to transfer him several days later to another facility for safety and security reasons.

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Torralba acknowledges Estrada-Buelna had a history of violence, including a 2010 domestic disturbance involving a minor. And in 2011, Estrada-Buelna was sentenced to four years supervised probation after being convicted of felony charges involving threatens to use his cartel connections to have seven Nogales area police officers “murdered, disappeared, or decapitated.”

A 2012 felony aggravated assault incident then landed Estrada-Buelna in state prison as did a 2014 criminal offense out of Navajo County. He was released from prison in June 2018, only to be returned in January 2019 due to a probation violation.

In July 2019, while back in prison, Estrada-Buelna was served with notice that the Santa Cruz County Attorney’s Office filed felony charges for an old incident in which Estrada-Buelna was accused of impeding Aguirre’s breathing. That charge was still pending at the time of his death.

Estrada-Buelna was formally discharged from prison Nov. 2, 2019, five weeks before Aguirre was murdered.

But much of the Notice of Claim centers on fallout from the 2011 conviction and how it led to Estrada-Buelna being moved from the jail in Nogales to Cochise County pending trial. It also comments on his treatment while there.

“He reported to his family that he was regularly described to other officers and jail staff as the ‘guy who threatened to kill us,’” the claim states. “He was endlessly taunted by jail staff who challenged him to try and kill them while consistently physically mistreating him during routine officer contact situations.”

The claim further alleged Estrada-Buelna was given “the absolute lowest priority for meals, recreation, hygiene, clothing and visitation” and that his meals were often “denied or delayed until his food was cold, stale or almost indigestible.” He also reportedly told his family he was served what he was told was dog food at the Cochise County Jail and was “threatened with punishment should he not eat it.”

“Ms. Buelna recalls how Mr. Estrada-Buelna complained about his treatment and pleaded with her to have him transferred,” the claim states. “He later informed his mother that guards threatened him that should he continue to complain, other inmates would be allowed access to his cell to ‘shut him up.’”

The family also questions why Estrada-Buelna was transferred to a jail in Bisbee -over two hours of travel time from Nogales- instead of the much closer Pima County Jail in Tucson. And the claim mentions the fact the Cochise County jail has had several suicides in recent years.

According to the claim, Estrada-Buelna “was strategically placed in an environment that fails to meet minimum requisites to house a ‘unique’ inmate competently, humanely, and safely.” It contends detention staff perpetuated Estrada-Buelna’s status as a “cop killer,” resulting in incessantly “cruel treatment at the hands of his supposed protectors.”

It also alleges the treatment of Estrada-Buelna “parallels the tragic deaths of several inmates before him…In no uncertainty was his death either a unique or isolated event.”

A notice of claim must normally be filed within six months of when an incident occurs, but Torralba contends Estrada-Buelna’s family was not aware of various concerns with his suicide and incarceration until May 2020. The timeliness of the claim served in October 2020 will likely be challenged by the defendants if the family follows through with the threatened lawsuit.