Autopsy: Inmate died after being held down - Albuquerque Journal

Autopsy: Inmate died after being held down

Vicente Villela, 37 (Courtesy Villela family)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Hours after he was arrested on Feb. 2, authorities reported 37-year-old Vicente Villela was “hallucinating and behaving aggressively.”

So Metropolitan Detention Center corrections officers took him to a cell and told him to lie down on the floor so his shackles could be removed.

The officers had Villela lie prone on his stomach, facedown, as “multiple officers” held his limbs and another knelt on his back.

“At some point in this process,” Villela stopped breathing and could not be resuscitated. He died in the early hours of Feb. 3.

These details are included in a recently released autopsy report that lists Villela’s manner of death as a homicide.

The Office of the Medical Investigator found Villela died of “mechanical asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint” with “toxic effects of methamphetamine” as a contributing factor.

And the report says the incident was captured by security cameras inside the jail.

In response to numerous questions about the incident and whether anyone has been disciplined for it, an MDC spokeswoman said she couldn’t answer until the MDC internal investigation is completed.

The investigation by the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, on the other hand, has been completed and will be turned over to the District Attorney’s Office for review, according to a department spokeswoman.

Evidence of trauma

According to the autopsy report, Villela had bruises and scrapes on his chest, abdomen, back, face, scalp, wrists and ankles.

The medical investigator also noted he had a history of drug abuse and his heart was slightly enlarged, which could have been caused by “chronic use of alcohol and some drugs.”

Villela had been arrested on Feb. 2 after a woman reported he broke into her South Valley home, stole her car keys and car and crashed in the backyard.

He told police he was on the run from the U.S. Marshals Service and believed he was being followed by law enforcement, according to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court.

A toxicology report says methamphetamine and marijuana were found in his system.

“Mr. Villela had ingested methamphetamine, which increases the heart’s demand for blood and oxygen,” the report says. “While he was in the detention center, Mr. Villela was held down in a prone position by detention center officers, one of whom was on Mr. Villela’s back. This positioning compressed the chest and abdomen, restricting the expansion of the chest during breathing and decreasing the supply of blood and oxygen to the organs and tissues.”

In regard to questions about inmates’s medical issues, Candace Hopkins, an MDC spokeswoman, said every inmate is screened by a medical professional when they arrive at the jail.

“Several things are evaluated including their current condition, any existing medical conditions or issues and if they appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” Hopkins wrote in an email.

She said she could not immediately provide the jail’s policy regarding restraining an inmate and it will have to be obtained through an Inspection of Public Records Act.

A few studies about “prone restraint” – in which a person is placed facedown and held there by his or her arms and legs – have found the technique is hazardous and potentially lethal.

A paper published by the Disability Law Center of Alaska in February 2017 lays out the case against prone restraint. It cites the New York Police Department and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction as agencies that advise against and prohibit the hold.

“Compared to most other forms of restraint, prone restraint significantly impedes breathing,” the paper states. “The natural response – struggling for breath – is often perceived as resistance to authority and met with more force. In many cases the result is death by asphyxia.”

Sandra Villela, Vicente’s sister, said she’s horrified about the way that he died.

“That makes me feel very horrible, awful,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday. “That makes me feel they murdered my brother.”

Record requests denied

A group of activists, family members, and friends gather in front of the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office on May 11 to demand answers in the death of an inmate last February. (Elise Kaplan / Albuquerque Journal)

Vicente Villela’s death first garnered public attention on May 11 when his family, including his 5-year-old daughter and wife who was 8 months pregnant, and friends held a rally at Civic Plaza to demand justice and answers about what happened.

Sandra Villela said authorities gave her conflicting stories about how her brother died and have not contacted her or given her any information since the day after he died.

Records requests previously filed by the Journal for the internal investigation, incident reports, and video recordings were denied on May 28 on the basis that the investigation is still active.

Melanie Majors, the executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said she found the denial troubling.

“The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government is opposed to any efforts that deny the public access to information,” she said. “The Inspection of Public Records Act allows for denials of records in crimes that are under investigation but it is clear that the denial is dependent on the status of the investigation and only with substantial justification. … Just saying it’s under investigation and denying the record doesn’t follow the letter of the act.”

Since a BCSO spokeswoman has said the investigation is now complete, the Journal has filed another records request.

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