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The family of a man who asphyxiated while correctional officers at the Metropolitan Detention Center restrained him settled a wrongful death lawsuit against Bernalillo County for nearly $5 million last fall.
On Tuesday, two of the officers involved in the case – Jonathan Sandoval, 33, who knelt on Vicente Villela’s back, and Lt. Keith Brandon, 45, who gave the orders – were each indicted on one count of involuntary manslaughter, a fourth-degree felony.
The $4,560,000 settlement in the federal suit was one of the largest settlements involving law enforcement with either the city or county in recent years. The medical provider, Centurion Detention Health Services, also reached a settlement with the family but the amount was not disclosed. An attorney for the provider did not respond to requests for comment.
The family of Christopher Torres reached a $6 million settlement with the city in 2015 after Torres was killed in his backyard by plainclothes detectives serving a warrant. The family of James Boyd, a homeless man who was camping in the Sandia Mountain foothills when he was shot by Albuquerque Police Department officers, received a $5 million settlement in 2015.
The family of Mary Hawkes, a 19-year-old woman who was shot and killed by an APD officer during a foot chase, received a $5 million settlement in 2018. And the family of Elisha Lucero, a woman who was killed by Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies while she was in the midst of a mental health crisis, received $4 million in 2020.
For Sandra Villela, Vicente’s older sister, both the county settlement – reached on Sept. 30 – and the charges are not enough to bring him back.
“We’re not going to see him again, he will never talk to us, he will never hug us, nothing,” Sandra Villela said. “It should be more than what they’re saying, involuntary manslaughter.”
She added that the family is disappointed that officers Sandoval and Brandon were not charged with murder.
Sandra Villela said the settlement will be split between 37-year-old Vicente Villela’s three children. His youngest child, who had not yet been born when he died, is going to be 2 years old in July.
Sandoval and Brandon are still employed at the county jail although both are on paid administrative leave “pending their due process in the Criminal Justice System,” said Julia Rivera, a MDC spokesman.
She said they had been on leave since May 5 when they received notice from the Attorney General’s Office that they were the subject of a grand jury hearing.
“An internal investigation was completed and based on the findings, administration took corrective action,” Rivera wrote in a statement.
Multiple officers were holding Vicente Villela in a prone position in a cell when he died. Sandoval’s full body weight was on him and Vicente Villela said at least seven times that he could not breathe, according to incident reports and the lawsuit. National studies warn that “prone restraint” techniques are hazardous and potentially lethal and MDC policies recommend an officer only use it temporarily and with the minimum staff needed to subdue the individual.
The lawsuit also pointed to problems with Centurion, which had just begun working at MDC when the incident occurred.
“During life-saving efforts, medical staff could not find the correct key to open the emergency crash-cart, depriving them of tools they could have used to save Vicente Antonio Villela’s life,” the lawsuit states. “Medical staff brought an empty oxygen tank with them to the emergency medical situation, making it worthless. An MDC officer was forced to run to the medical department to search for an oxygen tank with oxygen in it.”