PLATTEVILLE, Colo. — A woman has filed a lawsuit against a Platteville sergeant and two Fort Lupton officers — as well as both police departments — who arrested her and placed her in a patrol car that was then hit by an incoming train.
The 40-page lawsuit was filed against the Platteville Police Department, Platteville Police Sgt. Pablo Vazquez, the Fort Lupton Police Department, Fort Lupton Police Officer Jordan Steinke, and Fort Lupton Police Officer Ryan Thomeczek. It alleges that the defendants did not provide a safe environment and prevent foreseeable injury during her arrest, as they are required to do.
On the evening of Sept. 16, 2022, officers with the Fort Lupton Police Department pursued Yareni Rios-Gonzalez, 20, of Evans, after an alleged road rage incident involving a firearm in Fort Lupton earlier that evening.
Body camera video obtained by Denver7 showed that two officers pulled up behind her vehicle just off U.S. 85 near Weld County Road 36 at 7:49 p.m. Rios-Gonzalez pulled to a stop on the county road just past the railroad tracks. One of the officers, later identified as Platteville Police Sgt. Pablo Vazquez, stopped his vehicle directly on the train tracks.
Vazquez, with help from two officers from the Fort Lupton Police Department — later identified as Officer Steinke and Officer Thomeczek — detained Rios-Gonzalez.
Officer Steinke handcuffed Rios-Gonzalez and put her in the back of Vazquez's vehicle, which was still parked on the train tracks, according to the lawsuit. She was in the rear caged portion of the car and was unable to open the back doors from the inside or climb into the front seat.
According to the lawsuit, there is a blue ENS sign at the railroad crossing that has a phone number to call if there is police activity on the railroad tracks. The officers did not call, it continues.
As the investigating officers went through her vehicle after arresting her, a northbound train approached. The lawsuit reads that there were no view obstructions in either direction.
At 7:53 p.m. and 49 seconds, the conductor of the train blasted the horn to warn emergency personnel. At the time, it was traveling 48 mph and weighed 11,153 tons, according to the lawsuit. It was pulling 113 train cars, 77 of which were loaded. The horn is audible on the body cam footage.
As it approached, the patrol car's passenger side front door was open and Officer Thomeczek was standing next to the door on the tracks, the lawsuit reads.
The train horn is blasted again at 7:54 p.m. At this point, the conductor could see that the vehicle was parked on the tracks, according to the lawsuit.
At 7:54 p.m. and 2 seconds, the conductor released the train's emergency air brakes and blasted the horn again until the train hit the car. At this time, Officer Thomeczek turned to see the incoming train. He warned the other officers about the train at 7:54 p.m. and 8 seconds and ran away from the tracks, according to the lawsuit.
At 7:54 p.m. and 9 seconds, the train smashed into the cruiser that had been parked on the tracks.
Sgt. Vazquez asked Officer Steinke if Rios-Gonzalez was inside. "Oh my God, yes she was," she responded, according to the lawsuit.
The impact caused the vehicle to roll at least twice and travel about a half mile, the document reads.
At 7:54 p.m. and 42 seconds, Officer Thomeczek jogged over to the hit car and Officer Steinke radioed for "medical emergent, the suspect was in the vehicle hit by a train," the lawsuit reads. Sgt. Vazquez did the same about 20 seconds later.
The Weld County Critical Incident Response Team and Colorado State Patrol responded to the scene.
The patrol car's rear driver side door was removed in order to get Rios-Gonzalez out of the back seat. She is seen on body cam footage "bleeding from the head" and "semi-conscious," the lawsuit reads. She was then transported to the Northern Colorado Medical Center in Greeley.
Rios-Gonzalez suffered from a broken arm, broken ribs, broken teeth, fractured sternum, and injuries to her leg, back and head, according to Paul Wilkinson, her personal injury attorney. She was hospitalized for more than a week after the crash. Her family created a GoFundMe to raise money for her medical expenses.
Wilkinson said Rios-Gonzalez tried to escape from the vehicle, but it was locked. She also saw the train from a good distance off, he said, and was yelling at the officers and trying to get their attention before the train hit the car.
After the Weld County CIRT and CSP arrived, Officer Steinke left the scene to go back to her police department. Sgt. Vasquez told his supervisor about "a mishap" and later asked a friend if there was "somebody he could call" and that he needed to talk to the Fraternal Order of Police, according to the lawsuit. Sgt. Vasquez then left the scene before his information could be collected by investigators, it continues.
According to the lawsuit, Sgt. Vasquez was deemed a "significant liability risk by his previous employer, the Federal Heights Police Department." It continues to list examples of him failing to prepare for duty properly, failing to monitor his radio, failing to respond to calls, having a slow response time to calls, lying about his location, and lying about overtime hours. It also claims he "was a confrontational and accusatory leader," who created divisions in his police squad related to racial differences.
Sgt. Vasquez left the Federal Heights Police Department in March 2020 and was later hired by the Platteville Police Department.
Due to the crash, the lawsuit claims that Rios-Gonzalez suffered and continues to suffer from serious bodily injuries, severe head trauma, emotional stress, impairment of quality of life, temporary and permanent physical impairment and disfigurement, injuries, disabilities, and economic losses and damages related to healthcare, rehabilitation expenses and wage loss. This came as the result of neglect, carelessness and recklessness on part of the two officers and sergeant, it reads.
The lawsuit also accuses the police departments of negligent hiring, training and retention.
The document concludes by requesting a trial by jury.
In the weeks after the crash, in late September and early October, multiple videos were released, which showed the arrest, crash and aftermath. On Sept. 23, the Fort Lupton Police Department released an edited eight-minute video of several officers’ and deputies’ body cameras who responded to the initial call and subsequent calls after the crash.
Other bodycam videos were released on Oct. 7.
Following the crash, attorneys for Rios-Gonzalez said she planned to sue the Platteville and Fort Lupton police departments for several claims, including negligence and civil rights violations.
On Oct. 25, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation said it had completed its investigation into the case and presented their case to the Weld County District Attorney's Office for consideration of possible charges.
In November, prosecutors filed charges against two of the police officers — Officer Steinke and Sgt. Vazquez.
Officer Steinke was charged with criminal attempt to commit manslaughter, second-degree assault, and reckless endangerment. The first two counts are felonies. Vazquez was charged with five counts of reckless endangerment (class 2 misdemeanor), one count of obstructing a highway or other passageway, one count of careless driving and one count of parking where prohibited.
In addition, Rios-Gonzalez was charged with one count of felony menacing, a class 5 misdemeanor.
The trio were issued summons and not arrested.
In the wake of the crash, Dr. George Kirkham, a nationally recognized police standards and procedures expert, spoke with Denver7 about the incident.
“It's difficult for me to imagine how you would not be aware your car, or her car, were on railroad tracks, to a very close proximity to railroad tracks, and that would mean you put someone in the back of a police car,” he said. “You know, it's a Venus flytrap.”
Kirkham said it’s possible the officer had too much adrenaline from the chase and forgot basic procedures.
“You have to be conscious of what's going on and follow your training,” he said. “And this is so basic. It’s beyond me how any rational person could do something like this.”