Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Vicente Villela, 37, repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe,” and at one point exclaimed, “He’s going to kill me,” as a jail officer knelt on his back and several others held him down in a cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center in February.
Moments later, he stopped breathing. Correctional officers tried to revive him for nearly an hour before he was pronounced dead around 11 that night.
Newly released video and reports of the incident give the first in-depth look at the final moments of Villela’s life. His death has been classified a homicide by the Office of the Medical Investigator. An autopsy report says he died of “mechanical asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint” with “toxic effects of methamphetamine” as a contributing factor.
Bernalillo County spokeswoman Tia Bland said two correctional staff members involved in the incident “have been reassigned to administrative work in the jail that does not require direct supervision of inmates.”
She said officials are still conducting a “comprehensive evaluation” of how the correctional officers and medical staff performed their jobs.
“When the internal review process is complete, the jail chief and his team will look at existing protocols and practices to determine whether policy changes and corrective action are warranted,” she wrote in a statement.
Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies also conducted an investigation into the death and have turned the case over to the 2nd Judicial District Attorney for review.
Matthew Vance, an attorney representing Villela’s family, said he plans to file a wrongful death suit.
“Vicente died struggling for air as officers held him down, knelt on top of him, and shoved his face into the mattress and concrete cell floor,” Vance wrote in an emailed statement. “At least six times, he told them he couldn’t breathe before he suffocated.”
Villela’s family had begun publicly seeking answers last month, holding a rally Downtown demanding justice for the father of two.
More than 150 pages of incident reports – as well as video taken from a handheld camera – were released to the Journal on Thursday in response to an Inspection of Public Records Act request. The records give a clearer picture of the circumstances leading up to Villela’s death.
Villela was arrested Feb. 2 after a woman reported he broke into her South Valley home, stole her keys, and then crashed her car in the backyard. When deputies found him, he was lying on the ground next to the car.
Villela told them he was on the run from the U.S. Marshals Service, had seen vehicles following behind him, and had entered the woman’s home to escape law enforcement, according to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court. He was arrested and charged with breaking and entering, burglary, strong-arm robbery, and unlawful taking of a motor vehicle.
Shortly after he arrived at the county jail, correctional officers said, Villela was acting disoriented, and they decided to place him into a clinical seclusion cell in the Psychiatric Acute Care, or PAC, unit. A lieutenant said it appeared Villela was “either high on a substance or has a serious mental illness.”
So the lieutenant ordered a correctional officer to start recording the encounter on a hand-held camera as they took him from the cell to the PAC unit. Bland said the jail’s policy is to record “certain disruptive incidents” on a hand-held video camera.
Because of that, the entire incident – from Villela being handcuffed and escorted to the shower, strip-searched and then taken to the cell where he was killed – was recorded.
The video shows Villela resisting in the hallway outside the shower and then about five officers wearing tactical gear pinning him to the floor, with one kneeling on his back and striking him with a knee to his side. Then, they brought him back to his feet and continued escorting him to a PAC cell.
“These guys are going to kill me,” Villela said as he was being escorted through the hallway by officers.
According to an incident report, when they arrived at the cell, he tried to grab an officer’s arm, and the other officers held him down while awaiting some type of emergency medicine.
An agitated Villela repeats, “He’s going to kill me,” as they lay him down on a mat on the floor and tell him to stop resisting so they can take his shackles off. The officers pin Villela down, and he struggles against them, repeating several times, “I can’t breathe.”
In a matter of minutes, Villela stops moving.
National studies have shown “prone restraint” techniques like that used to hold down Villela are hazardous and potentially lethal. Some agencies, including the New York Police Department and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, prohibit the hold.
MDC policies also mention the risks of asphyxiation when a person is put into a prone position and recommend officers use the restraint technique only temporarily and with the minimum number of staff required.
“Inmates will not be left in a prone position any longer than necessary to ensure staff member and inmate safety. Security staff must carefully monitor an inmate’s condition … while he/she is temporarily in a prone position,” the policy says, specifically noting respiration and level of consciousness. “The inmate’s ability to speak without difficulty indicates that the airway is open and breathing and circulation is present.”
A nurse was called in to do CPR on Villela, and the officers took turns trying to save him for nearly an hour. He was pronounced dead, and BCSO deputies arrived at the jail to investigate.
Ten correctional officers, a lieutenant and a sergeant are listed in a summary of the incident as being involved. Other jail employees, medical personnel, and an inmate who was being held nearby also filled out statements about what they saw and heard.
One correctional officer who responded to the scene said she felt the medical staff was “very unprepared.”
“MDC officers had to run (to) medical several times for oxygen tanks,” the officer wrote. “Nurses could NOT get the crash cart to open and had trouble finding medication to administer.”
Another officer said he had a hard time finding a functioning oxygen tank. He said he started “sifting through about six or seven tanks trying to find one that had (oxygen) in it.”
“They were all empty,” he wrote. “I found one that had about a quarter tank and ran back.”
An inmate who was lying on his bunk in a nearby cell said he heard lots of yelling and heard Villela say he couldn’t breathe. Then, he said, he heard a correctional officer say, “He is gone.”
“Then a cop showed up and started guarding the crime scene and still is as I write this,” the inmate wrote. “I just saw a man die.”