Facing Felony Trial, Joliet Police Whistleblower Who Exposed Black Man's Death Retires
A Joliet police sergeant in the state of Illinois, who leaked footage to the press and blew the whistle on the death of Eric Lurry, has been pushed into retirement as a result of retaliation.
Sgt. Javier Esqueda has been on desk duty since he released video and faces felony charges for “official misconduct” that involve spurious allegations that he tampered with a computer and compromised evidence.
Police went outside of the county where the Joliet Police Department is located and convinced Kendall County State's Attorney Eric Weis to prosecute Esqueda.
"I was a good cop while I was there but became the whistleblower to reveal something horrific,” Esqueda told CBS2, a local news affiliate in Chicago. He added, “I never ever fit in to that culture because I was different.”
“Do you think this video would have been destroyed had you not come forward?” CBS2 Chicago reporter Dave Savini asked Esqueda.
“Oh, there's no doubt in my mind it would have been destroyed,” Esqueda replied.
Esqueda is one of a small number of police officers to defy the Blue Wall of Silence in US police departments.
The Government Accountability Project (GAP) in their 2022 report on police whistleblowers defined the Blue Wall of Silence as a “social control within police culture that deters reports of misconduct and enforces conformity through fear of retaliation."
Video that Esqueda disclosed shows Joliet police officer Doug May trying to remove a bag of drugs from Lurry, a Black man, who was cuffed in the back of a police car. May pinches Lurry’s nose for 98 seconds. The officer also slaps Lurry and curses at him until he is unconscious and dead.
May was not disciplined until five months after the incident when Esqueda exposed the horrific incident.
A federal lawsuit against the city of Joliet and police involved in Lurry's death was filed by Nicole Lurry, who is Eric's widow.
One officer recognized that Lurry was in “medical distress and not fully conscious,” however, no one was called to provide emergency medical attention. Instead, May restricted Lurry’s breathing, slapped him, and yelled, “Wake up, bitch!”
Yet another officer, Officer McCue, was instructed to stick a baton in Lurry’s mouth, which further obstructed his airway. He also reached into Lurry’s mouth to remove the bag and that resulted in the ingestion of narcotics.
Cameras around the perimeter of the Joliet Police Department parking lot recorded portions of the incident, but footage was apparently not preserved.
"[Esqueda] believed that the city of Joliet and/or employees of the Joliet Police Department, including defendants, attempted to and/or had in fact destroyed incriminating material," the lawsuit from Nicole Lurry alleges.
Each of the officers involved in the deadly incident still work for the Joliet Police Department, yet Esqueda has a criminal trial scheduled for November.
According to Esqueda, what that says is “you can kill a man and get away with it. It tells the citizens of Joliet to be careful. Because if they can get away with killing a man, that could happen to them.”
That the police went out of their way to make sure he was slapped with felony charges sends a message to other officers that if you come forward with the truth you will be fired. “They're going to charge you with felonies that aren't even real. They're going to lie, do anything to discredit you. So why should you come forward?”
To add insult to injury, Chief William Evans, the new chief of police for the Joliet Police Department, sent Esqueda a message to mark his retirement. “You should be proud of the 28 years you have unselfishly given to the citizens of Joliet. On behalf of the Joliet Police Department, I extend our very best wishes in your retirement.”
Esqueda was one of the whistleblowers profiled by the Government Accountability Project for their report. He was involved in training officers and became aware of the video because he had to review a “daily observation report” from a trainee.
He viewed the video because other officers were referring to the “grotesque abuse.” There was hope that since the department was shocked at what happened that some action would be taken against the officers responsible. But the “training captain” was more interested in why Esqueda accessed the video.
Esqueda attempted to discuss the brutality in the video, and the training captain did not want to hear any complaints about it.
As GAP recounts, what finally spurred Esqueda to blow the whistle was when Joliet City Council members requested to view the video. The former chief of the department called reporters, as well as a “political ally on the council,” to watch an “edited version.” The police’s actions were “camouflaged” and “interspersed with police editorial commentary justifying [the] taped behavior.” The audio was removed.
“I would never change a thing that I did,” Esqueda declared, when asked if he regrets becoming a whistleblower. “It was the right thing to do; the honest thing to do. Had I not come forward, they [never] would have told the family. They would have hid this."
The Lamplighter Project, a law enforcement whistleblower organization, honored Esqueda in July 2021 with their inaugural award for moral courage.