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DA’s Office reviewing MDC inmate’s death

Correctional officers hold down and kneel on inmate Vicente Villela in a cell on Feb. 2. An autopsy says Villela died as a result of the restraint. (Source: Metropolitan Detention Center)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office has released a 155-page report detailing the criminal investigation into the death of an inmate at the county jail that suggests the guards’ actions restraining him would have killed him regardless of his other medical issues.

Vicente Villela, 37, died as several correctional officers held him down in a prone position in a cell on Feb. 2 – just hours after he had been booked into the Metropolitan Detention Center. The incident was captured on video from a handheld camera.

“The medical pathologist has insisted if he saw the same video except Vicente had no cardiovascular disease and no methamphetamine in his system, with the weight still being placed on Vicente by the corrections guard, the cause of death would still be mechanical asphyxia in the setting of physical restraints and the manner of death would still be homicide,” a detective wrote in the report.

Vicente Villela

Matthew Vance, an attorney representing Villela’s family, said the statement shows Villela died from excessive force.

“The investigating pathologist was unambiguous when he told detectives that Vicente died from positional asphyxiation as a result of the officers’ deliberate actions,” he wrote in a statement. “Other factors may have made Vicente more medically vulnerable but the deliberate actions of MDC correctional officers directly lead to the death of Vicente Villela. They killed him, not anything else.”

In response to questions from the Journal, MDC Chief Ralph Fernandez said his internal investigation into the incident is pending.

The BCSO report was released to the Journal on Friday in response to a request under the Inspection of Public Records Act. It is now in the hands of the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which is reviewing it for possible prosecution.

“These types of cases are complex in the volume of data collected from the scene,” said Michael Patrick, a spokesman for the DA’s Office. “Videos, witness statements and other documents must be thoroughly investigated before a decision is reached.”

Video of the encounter released last month shows several correctional officers holding Villela down as he exclaims “I can’t breathe” again and again. He stopped breathing and staff performed CPR for nearly an hour before he was pronounced dead.

According to the BCSO report, the pathologist told detectives Villela’s body had trauma and deep bruising on his stomach, back and chest that was likely a result of the correctional officer kneeling on his back and striking him with his knee.

County officials have previously told the Journal two staff members have been reassigned to administrative work and are no longer directly supervising inmates. They would not identify the staff members.

Every officer, lieutenant and witness to Villela’s death told BCSO detectives essentially the same story – that correctional officer Johnathan Sandoval knelt on the inmate’s back as the others held him down in an attempt to take his shackles off, according to the report. The report states that Sandoval was acting on the direction of his supervisor, Lt. Keith Brandon.

“Vicente again states ‘I can’t breathe sir’ and Lt. Brandon appears to acknowledge Vicente by saying ‘right, they are having to hold you down, dude you need to stop,’ and then Lt. Brandon tells him to calm down and stop,” the detective wrote. “Guards proceed to undo the shackles and Vicente’s screams fade to shallow gasps and he is eventually no longer audible.”

Some of the staff pointed to problems with the medical equipment as well.

One nurse, employed through Centurion Correctional Healthcare, told detectives the key to the crash cart could not be found right away so they couldn’t immediately access it.

And an officer described not being able to find a full oxygen tank in the emergency room.

“When I got to the ER I started sifting through about six or seven tanks trying to find one that had some in it,” the officer wrote. “They were all empty. I found one that had about a 1/4 tank and ran back.”

Vance said he’s getting ready to file a wrongful death lawsuit with claims included for excessive force and violation of Villela’s civil rights and possibly a claim against Centurion for medical malpractice.

“But for the actions of the officers, Vicente would be alive today and his three children would have their father,” Vance said.

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