Denver, CO – Ten years after 29-year-old Black man Alonzo Ashley had a fatal encounter with Denver Police at the Denver Zoo, his family, friends, and the greater community finally received some justice. Although no criminal charges were ever filed against anyone involved, on October 1, 2021, a water fountain and cooling station were unveiled near the spot where Ashley took his last breaths, and the Denver Zoo finally apologized for the tragedy.
“This cooling station means so much to our family, especially Gail [Alonzo’s mother]. Everyone here, and even some not here, have fought so hard for justice, accountability, and for Alonzo’s death to not just become another statistic under various reports; to allow him to be remembered. Alonzo deserves this and for his name to live on in an empowering light verse a dark stereotype he was put under ten years ago.”Ashley Ashley, Alonzo Ashley’s sister-in-law
On July 18, 2011, Ashley was at the zoo with his girlfriend. The temperature that day was in the 90s, and by late afternoon, according to Ashley’s girlfriend, he was highly overheated and vomited. He then walked over to a fountain to try and cool down, and a zoo staffer confronted him asking if he needed help.
When Ashley declined help, the zoo staffer called zoo security and Denver Police. Eight police officers arrived on the scene, and Ashley ended up face down, tased, he vomited twice more, and began convulsing. He stopped breathing before paramedics arrived.
In the coroner’s report, Dr. John Carver ruled Ashley’s death was caused by cardiorespiratory arrest brought on by heat, dehydration, and exertion during the struggle.
Three days after Ashley died, then-Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey published a statement concluding “that no criminal charges will be filed.“
“Based on Dr. Carver’s Autopsy Report, there is no legal basis to label this or consider this to be a homicide. From a criminal law assessment of the facts of this case, the involved citizens and law enforcement officers were justified in using the degree of force used.”Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey
According to a statement issued by Denver’s Manager of Safety office on January 30, 2012 about Alonzo Ashley’s death, some witnesses claimed that Ashley was aggressive, said he was a lion, tackled and beat a zoo guard, and that zoo guests pulled him off the guard.
Unicorn Riot has not been able to corroborate those witness statements, however “confusion, altered mental status, [and] slurred speech” are symptoms of heat related illnesses as listed on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Irritability and heavy sweating are also symptoms of heat exhaustion.
Dr. Terri Richardson, co-founder of Colorado Black Health Collaborative, said during the October 1 unveiling that redness or flushing in the skin is also a sign of heat related illnesses, but if someone has never seen what redness looks like on Black skin, they may not be able to discern it easily.
“Most of the textbooks will show you redness and pinkness in white skin, so it’s very easy to see. In our training, even to this day, you see very little that mentions how diseases and things look in the Black skin.”Dr. Terri Richardson, co-founder of Colorado Black Health Collaborative
During the unveiling Denver Zoo President and CEO Bert Vescolani offered an apology, which hadn’t happened from the zoo, yet: “I’d like to extend my deepest sympathies. Alonzo was here on a day and it turned out tragic, and we are really sorry for that.”
Vescolani became the president and CEO in 2018, and it was him and his team who finally agreed to dedicate a space at the zoo to commemorate Ashley.
Because the city and county of Denver, along with the zoo, were not holding anyone accountable or helping the family seek or receive justice, in July 2012, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Ashley’s family. In April 2016, the Denver City Council approved a settlement with the family for $295,000.
With the water fountain, cooling station, and benches shaded by trees, the family and community hope the space serves as a reminder of what happened on that hot summer day in 2011, and that Ashley is remembered and honored for many years to come. They also hope it will help prevent anyone else from going through what Alonzo Ashley and his family did.
Below is a video of award-winning slam poet, and childhood friend of Ashley, Theo E.J. Wilson performing his poem titled Alonzo during the October 1 commemorative event.