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More details emerge about one of the first heat-related deaths in Valley

Posted at 10:15 PM, Jul 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-03 01:15:22-04

Newly released documents are helping piece together what happened in the days, weeks and months leading up to first reported heat-related death in Maricopa County in 2021 after an electricity disconnection.

In a filing docketed on July 2, Arizona Public Service (APS) acknowledged that the "possible location" where 63-year-old Benito Ruiz De Lara was found was in APS service territory but he was "not a customer of record" and they had not been able to verify whether he lived at the address.

A medical examiner's report obtained by ABC15 showed that Ruiz De Lara was found dead and decomposing in a "small makeshift shed on someone else's property" in West Phoenix on May 13. His cause of death was determined to be hypertensive cardiovascular disease with a contributory cause of death of environmental heat exposure. The report noted that electricity had been shut off approximately two days prior.

In the filing APS said the disconnection actually happened on May 10.

Emails between the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC)staff and APS about the death began hours after an inquiry from ABC15 on June 23. That same day Commission Chairwoman Lea Marquez Peterson docketed a letter requesting that utilities provide heat-related death and illnesses in their service territories.

A June 24 email from APS shows the utility learned of the death after being contacted by "a local news station" which we have confirmed was ABC15.

By June 25 APS had put submitted a preliminary timeline of "the Customer of Record's" interactions and summary of communications to Commissioners.

It showed the account had been in arrears for much of the 15 months that it was open and had "benefitted from not being disconnected for non-payment during the Commission-ordered moratorium that ended October 15,2020" and through the APS voluntary extension which lasted through December 31, 2020.

By the end of the voluntary moratorium in January the bill, including arrearages, had risen to $678.70. A payment was made on January 8 but left a remaining balance of $118.70 which was automatically put on payment plan to spread the payments over eight months.

APS records show no additional payments were made on the account, despite repeated bill inserts, emails and phone calls to the account holder on record.

A final notice was mailed on April 20. A door hanger was left on May 5, and an additional call was made the morning of May 6.

Service was originally scheduled to be disconnected on May 7 but was postponed due to an excessive heat warning according to the timeline.

May 10 at 10:48 a.m. service was disconnected due to non-payment of a $401.83 delinquent balance.

The forecasted high on that day was 95 degrees but the official high topped out at 97 degrees according to data from the National Weather Service.

RELATED: ACC set to hear public on disconnection rules as heat-related death investigations rise

The temperature at which it is safe to allow utilities to disconnect powers is currently being considered by the Commission.

Proposed rules would allow regulated companies to choose between two policies:

  • no shutoffs between June 1 and October 15 or,
  • no shutoffs on days forecasted to be more than 95 degrees

The rules would not apply to Salt River Project which is not regulated by the ACC.