Stillwater family files lawsuit, seeking answers to son's death in Mexico

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 30, 2009 - 11:14 PM

The mother of a Stillwater man who died in Mexico suspects foul play and has filed a wrongful death suit.

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Brian Gunderson, Josh Gunderson’s uncle, and Elizabeth Gunderson Koll, his mother, want the full story of how the young man died last March in Mexico.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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The portrait on display Friday of the young Stillwater man proudly showing off his hockey letter jacket seems out of character with his undignified death in a Mexico hotel room last March.

Josh Gunderson a 20-year-old University of St. Thomas student, died after a befuddling chain of events during a spring vacation in Puerto Vallarta. Mexican authorities ruled his death accidental, but Elizabeth Gunderson Koll thinks her son died from violence and hopes the wrongful death suit filed in Washington County District Court will force answers.

"We just want to know what happened," she said Friday. "He deserves that. I just want justice for my son."

The suit, filed Thursday, names 27-year-old Zachery Jensen of Hopkins, Jason Jones of Minnetonka and Sterling Systems Inc. as defendants.

Neither Jensen nor Jones could be reached Friday to respond to the suit's allegations.

Jensen, a presumed bodyguard for Jones' daughter, Ashley, was staying in the same hotel room as Ashley Jones and Gunderson, all reportedly in separate beds. Jensen alleges in court documents that Gunderson tried to sexually assault the woman the morning of March 24.

Jensen said that after she screamed, he pulled Gunderson away, but later found him unconscious and bleeding in the bathroom and tried to resuscitate him with mouth-to-mouth breathing, according to court documents.

Two autopsies showed that Gunderson died from choking on vomit and had suffered a concussion. Bruises and cuts were found on his head. He had some alcohol in his blood.

Stillwater attorney John Magnuson, who filed the suit on behalf of Gunderson's family, said the apparent struggle between Gunderson and Jensen raised questions because Gunderson, who played on the St. Thomas hockey team, was considerably smaller than Jensen, an ultimate fighter. Gunderson, he said, was 5 feet 6 and weighed 160 pounds, compared with Jensen at 6 feet 4 and 285 pounds.

Jensen appears on Spike TV ultimate fighting events under the name Zak Jensen, Magnuson said. A biography on the Spike TV website said Jensen, listed in that reference at 265 pounds, was a standout athlete at Hopkins High School and wrestled and played football at Northern Illinois University and later Augsburg College.

Magnuson said the Gunderson family filed the lawsuit in part because Jensen and Jones ignored requests for information. Koll said her son was friends with Ashley Jones, now 19, but she saw no signs of a romantic interest. They met in an art class at St. Thomas, Magnuson said.

Court documents show that the hotel's concierge, Lourdes Becerra Perez, went to room 1203 after observing a woman saying into a cell phone, "There is nothing I can do, he is not breathing." Perez then encountered "a young, strong-built guy," splashed with blood, asking for help.

When Perez went to the room, she found the same woman, presumed to be Ashley Jones, trying to shut a suitcase and talking on a cell phone. "I'm going to the airport now," the woman said. Jones also told Perez that "her parents are trying to get her a flight to go back home."

Minutes later, Perez found Gunderson dead in the bathroom, his skin blue.

"I was sleeping and I heard Ashley screaming and saying 'Get off of me,' so I got up and I saw Josh on top of her, he was attacking her, I took him away from her and he attacked me so I just defended myself and told him to go away, and he walked in the direction of the bathroom," Jensen is quoted as telling Perez. "We heard a strong noise in the bathroom, so I walked there and I found the boy right there," he told Perez, pointing to Gunderson's body.

Jensen later sat on the bed weeping, Perez said, and told her that he tried to talk Ashley Jones out of inviting Gunderson on the trip.

Gunderson's mother and his uncle, Brian Gunderson, said Friday that Josh was neither a drinker nor a fighter, that he was kind to everyone he met and that he wouldn't have attempted a sexual assault.

"What could Josh have done to make them mad?" Koll said. "My answer is nothing."

The suit contends that Gunderson was mortally injured and died from Jensen's negligence. Jensen was employed by Jason Jones and Sterling Systems, the suit said. Sterling Systems is an industrial and commercial cleaning firm, according to its website.

Ashley Jones isn't a defendant in the suit because no evidence shows her contributing to Gunderson's death, Magnuson said.

"We want the truth to come out. We want answers," he said.

Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432

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