Grieving family of man who died in police custody sues Progreso

Sister: ‘My brother deserved to live and my mom should not have had to bury him’

Dawn Stapleton was 14 years old when her younger brother Joshua was born in 1984. She had given up hope of having a sibling at all but then he came along.

“It was a real blessing to finally have a sibling,” Dawn said. “I was thrilled to be a sister and having him for a brother.”

He meant everything to her, she said, but now she’s an only child again.

Joshua, from Edinburg, died at 36 on Feb. 26, 2021 after he was found unresponsive in a holding cell at the Progreso municipal jail.

Now, his family including Dawn are suing the city of Progreso, two of its police officers — Ernesto Lozano and Justin Lee Becerra — and then-police Chief Cesar Solis.

In their complaint filed last week in federal court, attorneys representing the family argue the city’s practices and customs enabled Joshua’s death.

An attorney for the city did not return a request for comment on Friday.

The lawsuit argues they deprived Joshua of his Fourteenth Amendment rights when they “ignored his serious medical needs and refused to treat his serious medical needs as he lay doubled over on the floor of a holding cell in the Progreso City Jail,” according to the complaint.

The complaint adds that this deprivation was caused by the city’s policies, customs, and practices which allegedly allow officers to leave inmates unattended when responding to calls in other locations, allow inmates to be supervised by the city’s fire department personnel, and led to officers failing to check on inmates at least once each hour to ensure their safety and health.

The complaint also alleges Progreso police would arrest drivers suspected of driving while intoxicated on a charge of public intoxication instead so that the city could reap the revenue from those arrests, as opposed to having to transfer them to the Hidalgo County jail.


In this undated photo, Joshua Stapleton of Edinburg smiles as he holds his Game of Thrones inspired birthday cake. (Photo provided in Dawn Stapleton vs. City of Progreso lawsuit)

Joshua and another man, Michael Guerrero, were arrested on Feb. 26, 2021 after Progreso police Officer Ernesto Lozano pulled them over for an alleged traffic violation.

Joshua, who was driving the vehicle, was arrested on the charge of public intoxication — believed to have been upgraded to driving while intoxicated after his death, according to the complaint. Guerrero was arrested on the charge of public intoxication.

During his search of the vehicle, Officer Lozano found what he suspected to be narcotics, ultimately charging both Joshua and Guerrero with possession of a controlled substance. Lozano then transported both men to the Progreso Police Department where they were booked on the charges at about 6:30 p.m.

Based on video footage of the jail, the attorneys representing Dawn provided a detailed timeline of what occurred that evening.

Upon entering the city jail, Joshua informed Officer Lozano that he was not feeling well but he did not receive any medical treatment at this point. The complaint states that as Joshua was being put into the holding cell, he was clearly and visibly swaying and slightly unsteady on his feet.

“He removes his belt and clearly has a dark substance on the fingertips of both of his hands,” the complaint states.

In the minutes that follow, Officer Lozano comes to the cell on multiple occasions to speak with the two men and, at one point, to provide what appears to be hand sanitizer.

At approximately 8 p.m., the cameras show Joshua sitting on the floor of the cell and 20 minutes later, Officer Beccerra comes to the cell and takes Joshua’s temperature and is believed to have checked Guerrero’s temperature as well. The complaint notes Joshua is still swaying and generally unsteady on his feet.

Later, three women are placed into a holding cell adjacent to the one Joshua is in.

After Officer Lozano escorts the first woman into the cell, he passes back to Joshua and observes him seated on the floor.

About a minute and a half later, Joshua “begins to fall forward slowly, remaining bent over his folded legs for nearly ten minutes time, while (slowly) rocking back and forth,” according to the complaint, and he is still bent over in distress 11 minutes later when the next two women are escorted into the adjacent cell.

He is said to have remained in this position for the next hour.

“Ten or so minutes into that hours’ time, Mr. Guerrero, noticing Mr. Stapleton’s distress, removes his shirt and drapes it over Mr. Stapleton as a makeshift blanket,” the complaint states.

About another 16 minutes later, Guerrero walks to the door of their cell and seems to be looking for someone to help. Another 23 minutes go by and Guerrero is seen speaking with the women in the adjacent cell. He, again, seems to be seeking help for Joshua.

Approximately 71 minutes after an officer last checked on the inmates, Guerrero begins to try to get Joshua’s attention and is seen touching him, attempting to wake him.

Just minutes later, the man believed to be Guerrero picks him up and tries to sit him up. Joshua appears unconscious or otherwise unable to hold himself up.

At this point, the women in the adjacent cell begin screaming for help. They look on “in shock and horror” and Guerrero tries to rouse Joshua. One woman even climbs the bars of the cell door to get a better look at Joshua.

Then finally, more than an hour after a Progreso police officer last checked on the inmates, Officer Lozano appears on video approaching the cells and appears to be speaking with someone on his shoulder-mounted radio.

At about 9:55 p.m., Officer Lozano and another man presumed to be a firefighter or paramedic enter Joshua’s cell and begin tending to him.

Eventually Officers Lozano and Becerra, an unknown officer, and two men presumed to be firefighters or EMTs crowd the area.

The paramedics then look to be attempting chest compressions on Joshua. They do this for several minutes and as they do so, Officer Becerra administers Narcan, an opioid overdose treatment, to Joshua. Chief Solis then approaches the cell and seems to be using a cellphone.

Then, Weslaco Fire Department personnel wheel in a gurney and load Joshua onto it. As this happens in Joshua’s cell, the women are removed from their cell as they are visibly distraught and unnerved, the complaint says.

At 10:09 p.m., Joshua is wheeled out of the cell on the gurney.

He was transported to Knapp Medical Center in Weslaco where medical staff were unsuccessful in saving his life. They determined he had experienced cardiac failure, circulatory failure, and central nervous system failure. His estimated time of death was between 10:44 and 10:53 p.m., when critical care stopped being administered.

Within a half hour of his death, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office showed up to the hospital to investigate Joshua’s death.


On March 1, 2021, an investigator, identified only as “Investigator Cantu” in the complaint, interviewed Officer Lozano with his attorney present regarding Joshua’s death.

He discussed the initial traffic stop of the car Joshua was driving and how Chief Solis assisted him in that. During the inventory search of the car and the discovery of the suspected prescription drugs in the vehicle.

In response to a question from the investigator, Lozano said that once a subject is booked, he and possibly other Progreso officers, then go to a room outside of the area of the holding cells to draft their reports.

Lozano said that he usually goes to start writing his report, and leaves the station if he gets a call.

When asked who stays there to supervise the inmates when he leaves the station to respond to a call, Lozano shook his head from side to side “to indicate that no one is looking after the inmates,” according to the complaint.

“Investigator Cantu asks ‘Nobody?’ Defendant Lozano replies, ‘Maybe the fire department’s looking at ‘em,’” the complaint states.

Lozano explained to the investigator that on that evening, he got a call for a reckless driver and assisted Solis with a traffic stop. That traffic stop was of the three women who were booked into the cell next to Joshua and Guerrero.

After that, Lozano said he returned to the police department to continue his report. From the room where he was drafting his report, Lozano said there’s a computer there “where he can ‘kinda’ monitor the inmates.”

The investigator asked if he could hear the inmates from the computer to which Lozano said no and that they would have to yell.

“Investigator Cantu: ‘If somebody yells from the jail to where you’re typing your report, can you hear it?’ Defendant Lozano: ‘You should [be able to].’”

Lozano said he heard the women yelling, saying that Joshua had died and so he went to the area of the holding cells and found Stapleton lying on the floor. Lozano said he then radioed EMS and the fire department personnel began chest compressions. He explained that Officer Becerra administered Narcan and Lozano checked Joshua’s pulse, not finding one.

He then called Solis to let him know what was going on. Lozano also told another officer to take the three women out of their cell.

An autopsy report stated Joshua’s cause of death as combined drug toxicity with the manner of death noted as undetermined. The toxicology report indicated Joshua had alcohol, fentanyl, Narcan, Clonazepam, Alprazolam, Dihydrocodeine/Hydrocodone, Norfentanyl, and Mitragynine in his system at the time of his death.

Several of those substances were seized during the search of the car he was driving and the complaint states that should have given Officer Lozano good reason to believe Joshua had ingested those substances and therefore should have been kept under a watchful eye.

The attorneys representing Joshua’s family argue the city’s practices of leaving inmates unattended, allowing inmates to be supervised by the fire department, not checking in on inmates at least once per hour to ensure their safety and security, and the alleged practice of arresting drivers suspected of DWI with public intoxication instead all contributed to his death.

They also say the city is responsible for making sure its officers are trained in ensuring inmate safety and medical treatment; in recognizing the signs and symptoms of a drug overdose; and in ensuring inmates are consistently monitored.

“The training provided Defendants Lozano and Becerra was woefully inadequate and is essentially a failure to train them at all,” the complaint states.

In this undated photo, Joshua Stapleton of Edinburg, standing, right, is seen with family. (Photo provided in Dawn Stapleton vs. the City of Progreso lawsuit)


With the lawsuit filed against the city, attorney Matt Manning said the family hopes for accountability and a change in the city’s practices, policies and customs.

“A PI in the state of Texas is not a capital crime nor is a DWI, so the idea that somebody could be accused of low-level offenses and arrested thereupon and then not make it out of custody is unthinkable,” Manning said. “When that occurs, following the admission of officers saying they leave inmates by themselves in holding cells, somebody absolutely has to be held accountable and atone for that.”

On their allegation that Progreso officers would charge someone with public intoxication when they should have been charged with driving while intoxicated, Manning said they’ve heard this claim from multiple sources but hope that more people who’ve witnessed this practice or policy implemented will come forward.

But whatever charges anyone is facing, Manning stressed everyone in this country is innocent until proven guilty.

“Being arrested on accusation of a crime does not mean that you should be treated in the manner that Josh Stapleton was,” Manning said. “The fact that somebody is arrested is not in any way tantamount to them being a bad person or in fact being guilty of an offense.”

His law firm Webb, Cason, and Manning from Corpus Christi is serving as co-counsel in the case along with Hitesh Chugani of the HKC Law Firm in McAllen.

Dawn noted the difficulty she and her family faced in finding attorneys who specialized in this, noting that much of her experience with the legal system and the police in this case is not like what people see on TV.

“It’s not like it is on TV,” she said. “The actions of these officers were just cruel and inhumane.”

She lamented what the family lost and the future that Joshua will never get to live out.

“He was a father figure to his former girlfriend’s girls and he wanted kids of his own,” Dawn said, adding that her mother will never get to have those grandchildren and she will never get to have those nieces or nephews.

“All that was taken from us, it was taken from him and he deserves justice for it,” Dawn said.

Joshua received a degree in sociology and psychology from the University of Texas Pan-American, now the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and worked in home health. He was working on a teaching certificate when he died.

“He was really great with kids and he would have been an awesome teacher,” Dawn added. “I think if he was here, he’d laugh and make a joke that that was because he was just a big kid himself.”

She says family and friends miss their interactions with him — the phone calls every week, the holidays and birthdays.

With the anniversary of his death having just passed, Dawn said she’s been posting photos of candles they lit for him online and prayers they offer up in the hope they get justice.

“My brother deserved to live and my mom should not have had to bury him,” Dawn said. “That’s not something that any mother should have to do, especially not like this.”