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Family of RGV man killed after arrest reach $1 million settlement


The family of John Ray Zamora, a Rio Grande Valley man killed in police custody last year, will receive $1 million from Willacy County in a wrongful death settlement, according to an attorney representing the family.

The settlement came from a federal civil lawsuit filed by Zamora’s daughters a month after he died. The suit, against Willacy County and the City of Lyford, alleged that officers brutally arrested Zamora, leading to his death at Willacy County Jail. Litigation against the City of Lyford is still pending.

Israel Perez, who represents Zamora’s four daughters, said the settlement money will go into an annuity for Zamora’s four young daughters to attend college.

“It's not so much about the money itself. It's what the money actually says,” Perez, a Dallas-area attorney, told TPR. “What it says is that the county is acknowledging that what happened here should not have happened, that there were systemic failures that occurred and that change needs to happen.”

A collage of John Ray Zamora with family.
Courtesy of Israel Perez.
A collage of John Ray Zamora with family.

Zamora called 911 on Feb. 11, 2022, for medical assistance while at his mother’s home in Lyford, Texas, according to Perez. A Lyford Police Department officer, Salvador Garcia, arrived. He then called for backup from three Willacy County sheriff deputies, identified as A. Vargas, M. Silva and J. Rivas in Garcia’s incident report.

According to the report, the Lyford PD officer left the scene, then returned to find the Willacy County deputies arresting Zamora for public intoxication. The report had numerous references to Zamora resisting arrest and his mother interfering with the arrest.

The lawsuit described how the officers had handcuffed Zamora, then beat and tased him. He used a pocketknife they found on Zamora as reason to exert unnecessary force on him. While being arrested, Zamora called out to his mother for help. As she attempted to record her son’s arrest, her phone was taken away by one of the officers, and she was arrested.

Zamora was then taken to Willacy County jail in Raymondville, where, according to witnesses, deputies stripped him naked then pepper sprayed him while they laughed.

Zamora then asked for medical help but was denied assistance by jail staff. He was later found unresponsive in his cell. Willacy County Sheriff's office staff attempted CPR and used a defibrillator until EMS arrived.

Zamora was then declared dead at Valley Baptist Hospital in Harlingen. Witness statements describing Zamora’s arrest and detention came from the lawsuit. An expert interviewed for their case said that the amount of pepper spray the officers used against Zamora could have caused his cardiac arrest.

Willacy County has not released body camera footage of Zamora’s arrest. The City of Lyford has attempted to dismiss the civil lawsuit against them. Earlier this year, Perez said the Willacy County District Attorney's office planned to bring criminal charges against the officers who arrested Zamora. When asked by TPR whether the deputies have been or will be charged, Willacy County District Attorney Annette Hinojosa said it was her policy to not comment on cases submitted to her office.

It was not clear what those charges would be and when the officers would be formally charged, but Perez believed this civil settlement will help facilitate criminal charges to move forward.

Hinojosa told TPR that her office did not handle the civil case that brought the settlement. She referred further questions to Willacy County Judge Aurelio Guerra, who could not be reached for comment.

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Gaige Davila is a journalist based in the Rio Grande Valley. He was TPR's Border and Immigration Reporter from 2021-2024.