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Family Suspects Racist Policing, Foul Play in Mysterious Death of Daniel Barajas

Barajas was detained by Arkansas police, then found dead on a highway. Now his family is demanding answers.

Both of his sisters had recently given birth, so in January 2022, Daniel Adrian Barajas was driving from Kentucky to Dallas, Texas, to meet his new niece and nephew. Barajas, a 38-year-old specialty welder, did not make it beyond Saline County, Arkansas, where his family says local law enforcement detained, searched and then “abandoned” him on Interstate 30.

Daniel Barajas was fatally — and mysteriously — struck by two cars and an 18-wheeler outside of Little Rock in the early morning hours of January 15, 2022. Barajas was reportedly on foot on or near the interstate when the crash occurred, his vehicle apparently still sitting on a nearby on-ramp where a pair of sheriff’s deputies left Barajas after searching his belongings with a drug-sniffing dog.

No drugs were found, and crucial evidence from the local coroner’s report — along with Barajas’s car keys, wallet and cash box — has gone missing, according to Michael Laux, a civil rights attorney for the Barajas family.

“I have never encountered a mystery deeper, more perplexing and more tragic than the mystery that shrouds this incident involving Daniel Barajas,” Laux said in a press conference on Tuesday, adding that he has litigated multiple officer-involved deaths.

Initial police and local media reports identify Barajas as a “pedestrian” and suggest he suffered a tragic accident or perhaps a suicide, but his family says he was happy and healthy and they are pointing fingers at the police. After learning that law enforcement wrongly suspected Barajas of being a drug trafficker even after his death, the Barajas family and their attorney fear he was the victim of racial profiling and “foul play” by local authorities in Saline County.

To date, no body camera footage or photos from the scene of the crash have been released to the public. Now, 18 months after losing a devoted uncle and brother, the Barajas family has teamed up with a major civil rights group to demand answers.

“We believe that Daniel’s death was characterized as suicide so that the coroner would determine the manner of death was suicide, which makes it exponentially more difficult for this family to get the answers that they seek,” Laux said. “We suspect that there is a lot of people involved with this.”

According to Laux, two Arkansas state troopers reported finding Barajas asleep at the wheel in the middle of an on-ramp around 4:30 in the morning. This doesn’t make sense, Laux said, because Barajas was a seasoned traveler who often drove long hours to welding jobs. Badges for entering secure worksites were inside his car.

Laux suggested it’s more likely Barajas was pulled over by police, or he was parked on the shoulder and taking a nap when police awoke him with their flashlights and quickly called a K-9 unit to search the car for drugs. He noted that police reports on the incident were written and filed after his death and are likely “worthless,” besides a couple of statements accurately noting that Barajas had some trouble with his eyesight.

“Right from the first moment they thought he was a drug trafficker,” Laux said. “Why? Because he’s Latino.”

Laux said reports filed by Saline County Sherriff’s Office and local first responders are contradictory, with the cops reporting that Barajas was hallucinating and potentially suicidal. However, Laux said a medical team found Barajas sober and alert, and both a background check and drug search turned up no evidence of a crime.

“Right from the first moment they thought he was a drug trafficker. Why? Because he’s Latino.”

Instead of letting Barajas go, the police said they suggested Barajas wait for a ride from his “girlfriend” before leaving him on the on-ramp, according to Laux. The Saline County Sheriff’s Department and coroner’s office did not respond to requests for comment by the time this story was published.

“Why was he not free to leave? He was cleared by the paramedics,” Laux said. “What is the legal middle ground between arrest and freedom? The answer is: there is none.”

Without eyewitness testimony, details of what actually happened to Daniel Barajas on the fateful morning remain a mystery. Laux is encouraging anyone with information to contact the legal advocacy team.

We do know that law enforcement in both Arkansas and Texas looked for evidence that Barajas was a drug trafficker even after his death — evidence that his family said never existed, because Barajas was not a drug dealer but a victim of racist policing.

A few days after her brother’s death, Xexilia Barajas heard a knock at her door in Dallas. Daniel had never arrived to see his niece and nephew, and the Barajas family was worried sick. At the door was a Texas state trooper, who informed Xexilia Barajas that her brother died during a traffic collision in Arkansas.

That news was heartbreaking, but the rest didn’t make sense. The Texas trooper asked Xexilia Barajas if her brother was on his way to her house, as Daniel Barajas had presumably told the deputies who searched his car. Xexilia Barajas confirmed that her brother was indeed on his way to visit.

The trooper then asked if Daniel Barajas was a “drug runner,” his sister said. Xexilia Barajas was stunned and immediately pushed back. She insists Daniel Barajas was a loving family man and a successful professional, not a drug trafficker. Profiling him as such was racist and ultimately deadly.

“I have my ability to reason and question again, and I’ve realized that this story ends the way it does because they thought he was a drug runner,” Xexilia Barajas said, fighting back tears. “Imagine if they thought he was a doctor, somebody else, anybody else … he would not have ended up like this if he was a golden retriever on the side of the road.”

Months later, the Barajas family would learn that officers with the Saline County Sheriff’s Department detained Daniel for over an hour while they searched his car for drugs – they found nothing. Yet he walked onto the highway and was struck by multiple vehicles just minutes after police say they drove away from the scene.

The Barajas family is represented by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a civil rights group that is calling for a nationwide investigation into racial profiling of Latinos traveling U.S. highways, and demanding federal protections for interstate travelers. The group says Latinos are 2.5 times more likely to get stopped by police than white drivers and have much higher chances of being wrongfully searched, having possessions seized or being victimized by a false arrest.

“Let me be clear to all law enforcement officers who see Latino travelers on a section of an interstate crossing their jurisdiction: We will not be your ATM, easy targets, or abuse victims,” said LULAC National President Domingo Garcia.

Raquel Barajas said her brother was loved by friends and co-workers and would do anything for his family, which is exactly why he was on Interstate 30 early in the morning. He was excited to meet his niece and nephew, but the authorities in Saline County created a “nightmare” that no family should endure.

“Everyone wants to know what happened to Daniel Barajas,” Raquel Barajas said. “What the police say happened is not the truth … and we will do anything to get the truth.”

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