Death in a Shopping Aisle: Jonathan Sorensen’s Fatal Encounter with Kmart

At Carlisle and Indian School NE in Albuquerque, New Mexico, different worlds, borders and seemingly even dimensions collide, clash and literally intersect. On one side of Carlisle upscale shoppers peruse the selection of pricey delicacies at a Whole Foods store, while working-class families pulling in across the road still find meals for less than ten bucks at a Burger King.

A short jaunt up Carlisle the boulevard passes over Interstate 40 and its roaring, cement stomping big rigs, the modern mug of old Route 66 that linked the Midwestern heartland with  the West Coast wonderland. Gas stations, restaurants, hotels and the Duke City offices of the New Mexico State Police sprinkle the zone. Here hungry passerby can find breakfast tacos alongside Southern-style barbeque or All-American hamburgers sprinkled with classic New Mexico green chile.

Darting in and out of traffic and stationing themselves on a median, homeless folk hold signs telling sad stories and begging for food and money. Perched on high ground, almost lording over the landscape, stands a branch of Kmart, an outpost of the once-thriving department store chain with an iconic USA logo that is now owned by Sears Holdings and experiencing hard times.

At Kmart, the squeeze is on. Last month, the chain’s parent company announced 68 more stores would close this summer in a measure to help “restore Sears Holdings to profitability,” according to Chairman and CEO Edward S. Lampert. The Albuquerque Carlisle Kmart escaped the axe-at least for now.

Jonathan Sorensen wasn’t so lucky.

It was at the Carlisle store late on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 3, 2016, that 25-year-old Sorensen died on the ground after a violent encounter with K-Mart employees known in industry jargon as loss protection personnel.  Local media accounts of the deadly incident portrayed the young man’s death as the possible result of a “medical episode” after Sorensen was allegedly caught shoplifting and subdued, as if he was mortally ill and would have died anyway without the violent confrontation. Reportedly, Sorensen suffered from schizophrenia.

Sorensen’s friends and supporters, however, view the tragic end of a troubled but unforgettable life akin to murder, the ultimate elevation of the rights of property over people.

“We’re fighting a system that now includes Kmart, which has an unlimited amount of power,” said Dinah Vargas, Albuquerque human rights activist and producer of the independent media site Burquemedia.com. “They’re acting like agents of the State, like they’re police officers. They have no authority to arrest him,”

Vargas added, “Our own state doesn’t do capital punishment. We don’t send anyone to death. I’m an American citizen, and I’ll be damned if a loss prevention officer is going to be judge, jury and executioner.”

Albuquerque attorney George Bleus represents members of Sorensen’s family. In a phone interview with FNS, Bleus said Sorensen was originally from Arizona and given up by his biological parents as a baby, adopted by a family that brought him to New Mexico, later abandoned to the foster system, and eventually a entrusted to caretaker.

Shortly after Sorensen’s death, Burquemedia ran an article that quotes an eye witness to the incident who recorded a video of an exchange with apparent Kmart employees as Sorensen lay unmoving on the floor. Posted on YouTube, the video shows Sorensen in the background as K-Mart employees attempt to stop the witness from taping and order her to leave the premises. A man with a black t-shirt imprinted with an image of an assault rifle tells the witness that Sorensen was “resisting.”

In an example of possible evidence tampering, a voice is heard urging the clean-up of the area. An Albuquerque Police Department (APD) officer then appears and asks the witness to step aside. No Kmart employees were immediately charged with a crime.

“Obviously police are extending the blue line if they don’t charge,” Vargas said.

The witness, Chantel Trujillo, later said she arrived to Kmart with her mother on a shopping excursion for shoes. At first, Trujillo said she was preoccupied with checking election news from CNN on her phone, and didn’t pay much attention to a sound similar to “wrestling” she heard rising from a back section of the store, thinking the noise was of kids roughhousing.  But when her mom turned down an aisle, Trujillo’s world changed.

In an interview with FNS, Trujillo described a scene in which two men and a woman were on top of a man who was face down and handcuffed, not struggling but moving his legs somewhat. One of the men was dressed like other Kmart employees, while the other man and the woman were in plain clothes with no visible identification badges, she said.

A professional who works with behaviorally troubled children and is trained in proper restraint techniques, Trujillo said she was struck by the manner in which the trio was conducting the restraint, noticing suppression maneuvers that could endanger breathing, especially in a panic situation.

After about ten minutes the young man on the ground, whom she thought was about 18 years old, began apologizing and weeping, saying ‘I’m scared. I’m sorry,” the recent University of New Mexico graduate said.  At one point, Trujillo’s mom heard the man ask for water, she added.

In what Trujillo recounted as an almost surreal lapse of time, she estimated 25 or 30 minutes passed with the men and woman on top of the man- far too long to maintain a safe restraint, based on her school of training.

“When it comes to restraints, I’m very, very picky about time,” she said.  “I wanted to keep track of how long they were on top of him.”

During this time, before the first police and fire department paramedics arrived, the apparent Kmart employees succeeded in shooing away most passing customers from the scene, but Trujillo said she held her ground. But when the two men and woman were told to get off Sorensen by the first cops to respond, it was too late.

As police and paramedics began trickling in, Sorensen’s body was already soiled with the waste of death, Trujillo recalled. The witness added that she gave a written statement to APD, and was extensively interviewed by APD Detective Leah Acata.

“I’m just glad that I was there. I’ve had a chance to speak on (Sorensen’s) behalf, because he doesn’t have a chance to speak on his behalf,” Trujillo summed up.

As for media reports that Sorensen might have succumbed to a “medical episode,” Trujillo offered a different opinion: “I know he was suffocated. I saw it happen.” Asked if she considered Sorensen’s death a homicide, Trujillo replied “absolutely.”

The 28-year-old New Mexican also had a few questions of her own. “Where do loss prevention officers get their training? she questioned. “What happens behind closed doors? Are they certified to restrain people?” Closed early the same afternoon of Jonathan’s death, the Carlisle Kmart reopened the next day for shoppers, Trujillo noted.

Phil Sisneros, spokesman for the Bernalillo County District Attorney, said a representative from his office arrived to the scene, but was not part of a law enforcement investigation, which is the responsibility of APD.

In an e-mail to FNS, Sisneros said some assistant district attorneys are called out to police investigations not as observers or witnesses “but attend to facilitate their role in the prosecution.”

Any reports or memos that are generated from call-outs of this nature are internal, covered by attorney-client privilege and “not a part of any police investigation,” Sisneros wrote.

So far, APD hasn’t sent a case to the DA for prosecution, he said.  Sisneros added that he wasn’t aware of any previous cases of similar violence involving Kmart in Albuquerque that were handled by the DA.

Bleus told FNS that Sorensen’s death is not an isolated incident involving Kmart and its employees. Stressing that he is still in the preliminary stage of research, Bleus cited two previous episodes in Albuquerque alone, one dating back to 2003 and the other to 2006.

“I think Kmart has run amok with their policies for protecting their merchandise…one loss of life is far too many,” Bleus said. “Hopefully this brings more awareness to mental illness.  Loss protection should not involve the loss of life.”

“We are working with the authorities to understand the details of this unfortunate incident,” Howard Riefs, spokesman for Sears Holdings, e-mailed FNS. “Due to the ongoing nature of the police investigation we cannot provide further comment at this time.”

Sorensen’s violent end was duly registered at the top of a list of deaths occurring from shoplifting incidents posted on the Internet by LPT Security Consulting, a firm which bills its mission as providing “guidance and expertise for both plaintiffs and defendants involved in security related matters.”

According to the Houston-based company, at least 80 shoplifting-related deaths have been tallied in the U.S. from 2000 to early May 2016, with more than half the incidents involving four large retail chains- Wal-Mart (28), K-Mart (7), CVS (4), and Rite Aid (4).

For Chantel Trujillo, the sight of Sorensen’s death at the hands of private individuals conjured up a militarization “that branches out a lot farther than we can see…it’s scary, it’s really scare to me.”

Trujillo takes the matter very seriously. Hailing from a family that’s grappled with poverty and other issues intimately familiar to many New Mexicans, Trujillo once worked with KUNM’S Generation Justice when she was in college.

On May 3, 2016, the issues of poverty, mental health, official violence and other social concerns that Generation Justice producers probe and dissect suddenly whirled together in living, ugly form for the young woman.

Trujillo contended that justice means closing down the Carlisle store, and holding the people responsible for Jonathan’s death accountable. “I don’t care what he took or if he took anything,” she said. “I don’t think he should have to pay with his life,” she said.On Friday, May 13, family, friends and supporters of Jonathan Sorensen gathered on one end of Kmart’s parking lot to remember his short but intense life. Several costumed protesters picketed the store’s entrance, while employees nervously stared back and several APD units circled in the vicinity. A remote, mobile video and audio surveillance unit was visible in the parking lot.

About three dozen people congregated around a tent canopy where large portraits of a young man with curly hair, a wide smile and a thin mustache were displayed.  As music drifted into the early evening, one sign hoisted by an individual declared “Human life is more precious than property.”

A Native American man who claimed North Dakota as home dedicated words in Lakota and a song to Jonathan.  Witnessing death meted out by “American enterprises brings back what happened to my Native people,” he told the crowd.

In remarks to FNS, friends described Sorensen as a very intelligent, creative and impulsive soul who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Liz Caldwell said she met Sorensen at the University of New Mexico, when he was about 17 and the two were students.

“He was just a cool kid” who loved to play piano, sing, attend plays, and dance in the park, but who also dabbled in the scourge of meth, Caldwell said. “He was always a lot of fun to be around.”

Friends reported playing a big role in taking care of Sorensen, especially after his condition worsened. Caldwell recalled co-signing for an apartment, only to see Jonathan “just take off” and later “pop up again.”

Not long before his death, Jonathan lived with Caldwell’s mother in Montana for eight months. “He couldn’t maintain a job, much less a house,” Caldwell sighed.

In 2014, trying to plug in the cracks of the severely-strained social services system, friends turned to online crowdfunding and raised several hundred dollars for Jonathan. Despite the struggling young man’s instability, labeling him as homeless isn’t exactly accurate, according to Bleus. “With mental impairment or disease one is not making the best decisions,” Bleus said. “He always had a place to stay.”

Clutching her infant, Ramona Teo stood at the edge of the Kmart parking lot holding a sign that bore words reminiscent of Eric Gardner’s famous plea, “I can’t breathe,” as he was choked to death by New York City cops in 2014. Teo’s sign conveyed Jonathan’s reported last words- “I’m scared!! I’m sorry!!!,”

“He was a complete stranger that walked into my home, and I loved him from day one,” Teo said, reminiscing about the day Sorensen showed up with a mutual friend and wound up spending the entire evening.

But Teo noticed something very different about Sorensen: one part of her new friend would talk to the other. “’Wow, you have two personalities’,” she remembered concluding. “’Tell Jonathan to be careful,’’ Teo quoted her challenged buddy warning himself-or the other Jonathan. Teo added that friends looked after “a peaceful, non-violent, smart, fun-loving kid” who nevertheless was a handful. “A bunch of us, we’re the big sisters. We took care of him,” Teo said.

Some demand indictments against the Kmart personnel they hold responsible for Sorensen’s death, vowing more protests that will go up the corporate ladder if necessary. “If Kmart doesn’t listen, we’ll go to Sears and the shareholders,” Dinah Vargas said. “They’ll listen.”

A talented artist by trade, Teo shared with FNS a sampling of Jonathan’s writings authored when he was 18 years of age.

Perhaps appropriately posted on Couchsurfing.com, Sorensen defined himself as a “crazy and sporadic person” who loved or appreciated the ocean, people, music, kids, animals, reading, and writing. We learn that Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” was his favorite book.

“Never in my whole life have I felt I should just settle down. Working seems like institutionalization to me and I am hoping one day we can all just sit around and drink Long Island Ice Teas on me…,” Sorensen wrote. “I love all music. I believe it is a gate way to another realm. I am tired of hearing about money or what people wish they could do. Feeling is the most important thing that we can do. Never say never is what I want to show people.”

In a strange revelation of fate, Trujillo said she later discovered that Jonathan Sorensen attended her high school, but their paths did not cross in good times because he graduated ahead of schedule and went on to UNM. Years later, stumbling across a young man who could have been her friend but now was having the life sucked out him has been a traumatic experience, “the hardest” in Trujillo’s lifetime, punctuated by a nagging guilt for not attempting to do more and one that is taking time for recovery.

“For some reason I was meant to see something like that,” Trujillo pondered. “(Sorensen) will always have a special place in my heart even though we didn’t know each other or personally. I was there for his last breath. I feel like he was one of my brothers.”

Readers interested in an earlier article that appeared in Burquemedia.com can go to:

http://www.burquemedia.com/index.php/2016/05/11/exclusive-witness-alleges-deadly-excessive-force-by-kmart-loss-prevention/

For viewing Chantel Trujillo’s Kmart video as well as a recording of the May 13 vigil:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsVigU2XTSA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6cBQCKnWzI


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