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Officer injured by La Plata County Jail escapee sues county, jail and sheriff’s office

Elias Buck is accused of shooting Farmington cop 11 days after escaping detention center
Capt. Ed Aber, head of the sheriff’s detentions division and La Plata County Jail, shows where Elias Buck escaped the jail by scaling a fence. The county and Sheriff’s Office are being accused of negligence by a Farmington police officer who Buck allegedly shot before he was recaptured. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

A Farmington police officer who was allegedly shot in the elbow by a fugitive who had escaped from the La Plata County Jail is suing the jail, county government and Sheriff’s Office.

Joseph Barreto is accusing the county of negligence stemming from its operation of the jail in Durango, from which Elias Buck allegedly escaped on Dec. 27, 2021. Buck shot Barreto 11 days later while the officer tried to detain him, according to the lawsuit.

In a notice of claims sent to the county in March 2022, Barreto’s attorney offered to settle the lawsuit for $3.5 million. He then filed a formal complaint in 6th Judicial District Court in December 2023, and the county filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit last month.

Arrest, escape, arrest

Buck was being held at the La Plata County Jail in December 2021 on suspicion of auto theft when he allegedly scaled a fence behind the kitchen and escaped on foot the evening of Dec. 27. He was the second person to escape the jail that year.

Buck remained on the lam for over a week. On Jan. 7, 2022, Barreto was on duty in Farmington and was responding to a call of a possible drunken driver when he allegedly encountered Buck.

According to the lawsuit, Buck asked if he was being detained. When Barreto replied in the affirmative, Buck allegedly drew a handgun from his waistband and shot Barreto in the elbow.

The incident was captured on Barreto’s body camera.

Buck allegedly fled the scene and was arrested seven days later in Phoenix. He was sentenced in March 2023 to 10 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. State charges related the shooting were dropped to allow the federal case, which carried a longer sentence, to proceed.

Allegations of negligence

In the lawsuit, Barreto alleges that the county, the Sheriff’s Office and jail staff members breached a duty to provide a safe and secure jail facility and failed to maintain adequate surveillance and oversight of the inmates. It was that breach of duty that led to Barreto’s injury, he alleges.

The officer has suffered permanent injuries “as a direct result of the (La Plata County Jail’s) negligence,” the complaint says.

The county filed a motion to dismiss the case on multiple grounds.

First, attorneys argued, the county did not have a specific duty of care to Baretto, who was injured as a result of Buck’s actions. To whatever extent it did have a duty of care to keep the jail secure, Buck’s subsequent actions were “unpredictable and unforeseeable” given that he was being held (and had not been convicted of) an alleged auto theft.

Second, they argue that the county retains sovereign immunity. Generally, the government cannot be sued save for certain circumstances. Colorado law carves out several exceptions to this doctrine, including in circumstances when an injury occurs related to the operation of a correctional facility.


However county attorneys argue, citing case law, that Buck’s behavior in Farmington was too disconnected from any possible negligence in the jail’s operation for the county to be held responsible.

“Mr. Buck’s actions in absconding from custody, concealing himself from law enforcement for 11 days, traveling across state lines, stealing a firearm, and firing at Plaintiff resulted in Plaintiff’s injuries – the alleged operation of the jail is too attenuated,” the motion reads.

County spokesman Ted Holteen said he was limited in what he could say given the pending litigation.

“La Plata County extends its deepest sympathies to Officer Joseph Barreto for the injuries he suffered,” Sheriff Sean Smith said in a written statement. “However, the County does not have a legal duty to an officer injured by the unforeseeable criminal actions of an escaped inmate, particularly one who had traveled across state lines and caused the injury many days after the escape occurred. While we have tremendous respect for law enforcement, we cannot be held liable for the spontaneous violent acts of a third party under these circumstances.”

The Board of County Commissioners will hold an executive session Tuesday to discuss the matter.


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