Skip to content Skip to footer

With New Lawsuit, Lawyers Suspect Police Cover-Up in Death of Daniel Barajas

Key details surrounding Daniel Barajas’s death are missing from police reports, civil rights attorneys say.

Daniel Barajas, a beloved family man, was on his way to Texas to visit his newborn niece and nephew when he was detained by law enforcement in rural Saline County, Arkansas.

Just before 6 am on a dark and rainy morning in January 2022, Regis Crenshaw was driving to work on Interstate 30 in rural Saline County, Arkansas, when he saw a man wrapped in blanket emerge onto the unlit highway on foot. Crenshaw slammed the brakes, but it was too late.

The collision sent the man tumbling onto the highway, and Crenshaw quickly pulled over and got out to help. He saw the man on his hands and knees looking up with his arm over his face as if to shield himself. To Crenshaw’s horror, a large truck then ran the man over, killing him.

The man was Daniel Barajas, a 38-year-old specialty welder from New Mexico who only five minutes earlier had been in the custody of Saline County sheriff’s deputies and local EMTs. He was reportedly left on the side of the highway alone in the cold and darkness with instructions to wait for a “girlfriend” to pick him up. His wallet, car keys, cell phone and a box of emergency cash he regularly traveled with are still missing, according to attorneys representing his family.

A seasoned road tripper, Barajas was on his way to Texas to visit his sisters and meet his newborn niece and nephew for the first time. He never made it, leaving his family desperate for answers that Arkansas law enforcement has failed to provide. Civil rights attorneys say key details surrounding his death are missing from police reports, which appear to be hastily written after Barajas was killed and include copy-and-pasted statements and unrelated information about separate incidents.

The thorough investigation and “reconstruction” of the collision that would normally follow a traffic fatality was not conducted. A photo released this week shows local volunteer firefighters hosing off the scene shortly after the deadly collisions and “obliterating” any hope of gathering evidence, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation’s largest civil rights group for Latinos.

Initially filed in New Mexico, the lawsuit was transferred to a federal court in Arkansas this week, naming Saline County and multiple members of the sheriff’s department as defendants. The lawsuit aims to force witnesses to testify and Arkansas law enforcement to provide any additional information and records it has relating to Barajas’s death.

“We don’t know if he was a victim of foul play by these officers, but we are going to get to the bottom of that, because unfortunately it is possible, it is plausible,” said Mike Laux, an attorney with LULAC, in a press conference on April 10.

What we do know is that Barajas was Latino, and the sheriff’s deputies who detained him reported that he was acting strange and wrongly suspected that he was trafficking drugs. An extensive search of the vehicle with a drug sniffing dog turned up nothing — his family says Barajas was not involved with drugs — but personal possessions remain unaccounted for, including the keys to his car.

We also know, according to LULAC, that Latinos are 2.5 times more likely than white people to be pulled over by law enforcement on U.S. highways, and they have 69 percent higher chance of being searched, falsely arrested, having their possessions seized, and/or suffering severe injuries or death while in police custody.

As a specialty welder from New Mexico who worked at secure government facilities, Barajas was no stranger to long drives on the highway. He was driving westbound from Kentucky to Texas and was about 45 miles from Little Rock when he encountered sheriff’s deputies Hunter Thompson and Sullivan Sulzberger. Besides a preliminary report from state police, reports filed by Thompson and Sulzberger are the only records of the encounter available to the public and were written after Barajas was killed, making it impossible for Barajas to contradict the claims, according to the lawsuit.

Laux said the story as told by law enforcement is full of holes. For example, the police reports claim Barajas was found asleep at the wheel of his SUV in the middle of an eastbound onramp. If true, that means the SUV was facing the opposite direction of the intended westbound destination. Laux said he believes it’s more likely that Barajas was pulled over, or that he was parked on the shoulder and taking a nap when the deputies arrived and woke him with flashlights.

Police reports indicated the pair of deputies suspected Barajas was a drug trafficker and quickly called a K-9 unit to search the car, bringing more police to the scene. Barajas was ordered out of the car and made to sit on the ground.

The police reports claim Barajas had bloodshot eyes, was suffering hallucinations and acting erratically. However, Barajas explained that he was having trouble with his contacts. Prescription medication and medical records detailing treatment for multiple eye conditions were inside his SUV, according to the lawsuit.

Barajas had no criminal record, as the deputies quickly learned by running his information. A clearance for working at secure federal facilities was also inside his SUV, providing proof that Barajas had passed the government’s extensive background check.

“These officers encountered Daniel and reported that he was acting strange, but the truth of the matter is, before they called EMTs or anything to reflect concern for health, because of [his] Latino heritage, they called a K-9 unit and checked his car for drugs,” Laux said.

In his police report, Sulzberger said that at one point, Barajas started walking and took a sharp turn toward highway traffic before being stopped and directed to sit down. Sulzberger called this a “suicide” attempt. If true, this would be critical information for investigators, but Thompson does not mention the “suicide” attempt in his own police report, according to the lawsuit.

Police reports state the deputies called EMTs to examine a man suffering from “hallucinations” as they searched the vehicle with the drug sniffing dog. The EMTs arrived and examined Barajas inside their ambulance due the rain. They asked him questions and performed a series of cognitive tests. The medical reports from EMTs show that Barajas was able to answer questions, and test results were normal.

Barajas told the EMTs that there “is nothing wrong with me.” For some reason, the medical reports make no mention of the apparent “suicide” attempt that only Sulzberger included in his report. Barajas refused medical transport because there was nothing wrong with him, according to the lawsuit.

At this point, the deputies knew that Barajas was not in possession of drugs, was gainfully employed with a federal security clearance, and that EMTs found him healthy and alert besides some irritation of the eyes, according to the lawsuit. However, according to their reports, the deputies instructed Barajas not to drive before they left the scene. Barajas could not drive without his keys, which remain unaccounted for.

A local coroner also named as a defendant in the lawsuit ruled the death a suicide, and the family had the body cremated as Barajas wished, preventing any further analysis.

“If this man was suicidal like they say, and having a mental health crisis like they say, if he was on drugs like they say, why on Earth would they leave him in the dark, piney woods on a highway where they wouldn’t leave their own dog or cat?” Laux said.

Laux said Barajas encountered a total of six or seven sheriff’s deputies before he died, but only the EMTs provided a blanket to put over his wet clothes on that cold and rainy January morning. The deputies were wearing body cameras, but no footage has been released.

Laux said that when he requested information from law enforcement, the Saline County Sheriff’s Office said that photos of Barajas’s SUV and the scene of the incident were taken but later lost due to a “computer glitch” that apparently only impacted files pertaining to Barajas.

“Why did they restrain him for so long, or is it a story made up after the fact? We don’t know the answer to that question,” Laux said. “All we know is that at 5:57 Daniel was struck on the highway just minutes after being in the protective custody of Saline County Sherriff’s Office.”

The Saline County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to inquiries from Truthout by the time of publication, and Arkansas State Police told media outlets it cannot comment on the case due to the litigation.

“If Daniel was beaten or injured in some way, if you accept that for just a minute, then all of a sudden everything falls into place,” Laux said, adding that police brutality remains hypothetical at this point. “That is the only scenario that makes sense.”

Laux believes Barajas was struck by oncoming traffic in cold darkness and rain while trying to reach a nearby truck stop for warmth. The evidence presented in the lawsuit, Laux said, suggests that the deputies and Arkansas State Police may be involved in an intentional cover-up.

Raquel Barajas, Daniel’s sister, said her family is heartbroken. His niece and nephew will never meet their uncle — the man who would do anything for his family.

“We wanted to get answers on our own, but the police won’t let us,” Raquel Barajas said through tears during the press conference. “It breaks our hearts, not only the way they treated him during his last hours on Earth, but the way they treat a grieving family, it’s horrible.”