Aurora, CO, Medic Sent to Prison for Patient's Death

March 2, 2024
Aurora Paramedic Peter Cichuniec, convicted of criminally negligent homicide, was sentenced to five years.


Mar. 1—Adams County District Court Judge Mark Warner listened Friday afternoon as the only first responder going to prison for the death of Elijah McClain was described as a husband, father, coach, field trip-dad, late night bottle feeder, treat sneaker, hero and scapegoat.

At the close of the two-hour sentencing hearing, Warner sentenced Peter Cichuniec — who was found guilty in the death of Aurora resident Elijah McClain, 23 — to five years in prison.

Warner said he took into consideration rapid decisions, which needed to be made on the scene the night McClain went into a coma and was rushed to the hospital, Cichuniec's rehabilitative potential, and the more than 100 letters written on the paramedic's behalf.

Warner said that he also heavily considered the aggravated circumstance of "the death of a young man who was simply walking home from the convenience store."

He said he also received letters on behalf of McClain.

Said Warner of McClain's distress that night: "Should more questions have been asked to ensure more medical treatment and assessment? The answer is simply yes."

Following a jury trial last year, Cichuniec was convicted of second-degree assault and criminally negligent homicide.

Warner sentenced Cichuniec to five years on the most serious charge — assault — and another year in prison on the criminally negligent homicide conviction.

Both sentences will be served at the same time. He received another three years of probation for the most serious charge, and a year of probation for the other. He got 70 days credit for the time he's served since the jury convicted him.

"Elijah will always be on my mind, along with all the others," Cichuniec said before he was sentenced. "I am very sorry that Elijah is no longer with us and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. Ms. McClain lost a son, but I lost a patient and I do not take that lightly."

As he spoke, some of his many supporters in the courtroom leaned forward in their seats. Others wiped their eyes and others simply listened somberly.

Cichuniec showed little emotion during the hearing. McClain's mother, Sheneen McClain, sat quietly, often lowering her head.

Cichuniec and paramedic Peter Cooper were tried at the same time late last year in the 17th Judicial District's Brighton courtroom by the state attorney general's office.

The jury found Cichuniec guilty of second-degree assault for administering drugs without consent and acquitted him of second-degree assault with intent to cause bodily harm.

Cooper was found not guilty of second-degree assault with intent to cause bodily harm and not guilty of second-degree assault for administering drugs without consent. Found guilty of criminally negligent homicide, he faces up to six years in prison.

Cooper's sentencing is scheduled for April 26.

McClain's mother said that ever since a hot grease accident while making French fries as a teenager, she wanted to be a firefighter. After the incident with her son, she said: "You are a local hero no more."

"Peter is the cause of his demise," she said. "Next time think for yourself and don't follow directions from a bunch of cowards."

She was referring to the Aurora police, who stopped and detained McClain and told the paramedics he fought back violently.

The courtroom was full of friends and family who supported Cichuniec — so many that Sheneen McClain had to ask some of them to move from the area reserved for her friends.

"If you're here for Elijah, sit behind the first two rows. If you're here for my son's murderer, you need to move," she told them.

Almost the entire row behind her got up and searched for a new spot to view the proceedings.

During impact statements, seven people spoke to beg for mercy for Cichuniec, including his wife, Katy, and his two sons Jack, 21, and Ryan, 26, who said his father — meaning the man sitting next to him in a yellow and white-striped jail suit — "is not a representation of who he is."

The Aug. 24, 2019, confrontation involving officers and McClain — and the Black man's subsequent death — sparked outrage in the community.

The incident began when a 911 caller reported seeing a man with a mask who seemed "sketchy." Officer Nathan Woodyard responded and confronted McClain on an Aurora street, as McClain walked home from a convenience store carrying a plastic grocery sack containing three cans of tea and listening to music on ear buds.

Officers Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt joined Woodyard moments later, and the three of them physically subdued McClain.

During the struggle, Roedema told the other officers that McClain tried to grab Rosenblatt's gun — an assertion that prosecutors repeatedly questioned. Rosenblatt and then Woodyard used a neck hold that restricts oxygen flow to the brain, as they tried to take control of him.

After that, according to multiple medical experts, McClain vomited and inhaled some it, then suffered a series of problems, including low levels of oxygen and high levels of acid in his body.

McClain said repeatedly, "I can't breathe" before two paramedics Cooper and Cichuniec injected him with the sedative ketamine.

McClain's heart stopped a short time later. Although paramedics successfully restored his pulse, he never regained consciousness and died three days later.

Roedema, 41, faces 14 months in jail and four years of probation after being convicted of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault for his actions in McClain's death.

He is expected to start serving the jail term March 22.

Cooper had authority for medical decisions at the scene, while Cichuniec had the administrative responsibility for scene safety. Cichuniec requested the ketamine dose from Falck Rocky Mountain, a private ambulance company that contracts with Aurora Fire Rescue, and Cooper administered the injection.

During the trial, testimony came out that the 500 milligrams given to McClain was the maximum authorized for anyone, and about a 50% overdose for his 140 pounds.

The trial for Cooper and Cichuniec began on Nov. 29, 2023 and lasted a month. Jurors began their deliberations on Dec. 21 and came up with a verdict Dec. 22. Both men were charged with reckless manslaughter and multiple counts of assault.

Prosecutors contended that neither Cooper nor Cichuniec assessed McClain before concluding that he was suffering from excited delirium, a condition that some insist is life-threatening and is marked by severe agitation and imperviousness to pain. Under the protocols, that prompted them to inject McClain with ketamine.

The medics gave McClain 500 milligrams of the sedative, which was the largest dose they were allowed to administer and one that was meant for someone weighing roughly 80 pounds more than McClain. Based on the weight-based guidelines within Aurora Fire Rescue protocols, that was an overdose. However, at least one expert testified that the dose would not have been fatal.

The defense insisted they had done a visual assessment — and said those things were not necessary.

"Can you do an assessment without putting your hands on somebody else? I think that's been proven beyond a reasonable doubt," said Michael Pellow, Cooper's attorney, in his closing. "We saw it. We saw it in action. They assessed Mr. McClain and saw that he was breathing. And he appeared here to be breathing too fast."

The paramedics were the last two of the five men indicted in McClain's death to go to trial.

During the sentencing statements, Cichuniec's attorney, Daniel Goddard called his client's conviction "exceptional and unusual" because "there is no comparable instance where a paramedic has been charged while going through duties."

In an emailed statement, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said: " Mr. Cichuniec disregarded his training and ordered Elijah McClain to receive a deadly dose of a powerful sedative while he was restrained and motionless on the ground, which killed him."

Weiser said that Cichuniec's sentence "sends a strong message that no profession, whether a paramedic, a nurse, a police officer, an elected official, or a CEO should be immune from criminal prosecution for actions that violate the law and harm people."

In the first trial, a jury returned a split verdict for Roedema and Rosenblatt. Roedema was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault and in January he was sentenced to 14 months in Adams County Jail, along with four years probation.

Last month, Roedema filed an appeal and asked judges to review nine aspects of the case. Lawrence Pacheco, a spokesperson for the Colorado Attorney General's Office, said there would be no comment regarding the appeal.

That same jury acquitted Rosenblatt of all charges.

Officer Nathan Woodyard was acquitted in a separate trial.

Warner told the court that Cichuniec has 49 days to file an appeal and 126 days to request the court to reconsider.

Former Denver Gazette reporter Julia Cardi and 9News contributed to this article.


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