Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
It’s been two years and four months since her brother died, but Sandra Villela still can’t shake the feeling that he might call at any moment.
Then, she hears something on the news, or a memory flashes through her mind, and all the emotions come flooding in.
“At night when I go to bed or all day, I can just hear his voice telling the guards that he couldn’t breathe and that he wanted water,” Sandra said, breaking down in tears.
In February 2019, Vicente Villela, a 37-year-old father of two who at that time had another on the way, died as several correctional officers held him down in a cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center. The incident was videotaped and eventually released to the public.
Officer Jonathan Sandoval, who – according to incident reports and video footage – was kneeling on his back and striking him with his knee and the on-scene supervisor, Sgt. Keith Brandon, who gave the orders, have both been charged with involuntary manslaughter. At the time, Brandon was a lieutenant.
They both pleaded not guilty at arraignments last week and are out of custody pending trial. They are on paid administrative leave, a jail spokeswoman said.
Involuntary manslaughter, a fourth-degree felony, carries a maximum penalty of 18 months in prison and probation.
For the Villela family, it’s not enough.
Speaking alongside her younger brother, Manuel Villela, and their mother, Sofia Villela, at the family’s home in the South Valley late last month, Sandra said she hasn’t watched the full video of Vicente’s death. But the 49-year-old employee of the Albuquerque Public Schools police department said the parts she has seen were worse than she could have imagined.
“I thought maybe they threw him in the cell and he stopped breathing, like they were saying, or he did get agitated,” Sandra said. “I never thought that they were on top of him and he’s asking for mercy and nobody cared about it. Now they’re saying involuntary manslaughter? Because they didn’t plan it? Well, they didn’t plan it, but they could have stopped it.”
Furthermore, she said, she thinks all of the correctional officers who were involved should be charged as well.
A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office – which is prosecuting the case – said the office had presented second-degree murder charges to a grand jury for Sandoval and Brandon. The grand jury indicted the two officers on lesser charges on May 18.
Matthew Vance, an attorney for the family, said he “can only hope that the Attorney General’s Office considered charges against all of the officers involved.”
“While I’m happy to see some activity on the criminal justice side of this, justice delayed is justice denied,” Vance said. “This should have happened a long time ago. I agree with Sandra: The charges may not adequately reflect what happened.”
County paid $4.5M to settle lawsuit
The attorneys for both correctional officers said they understand how the Villela family feels but they don’t believe their clients should be charged.
“I completely understand the family and how they are grieving,” said Sam Bregman, who is representing 34-year-old Sandoval. “It doesn’t mean my client has committed any crime at all. In fact, based on what we know, we feel it’s very clear that he didn’t and that will be shown in a courtroom.”
John D’Amato, who is representing 45-year-old Brandon, said that from what he’s seen, he doesn’t believe the officers acted recklessly. He said that across the nation, law enforcement officers restrain people in this way every day.
“Once the jury hears all of the evidence in this case, I think even the family will understand that there were other causes of this death, rather than the officers who are charged and their actions,” D’Amato said. “There is so much to this case that is not being talked about.”
A wrongful death lawsuit against the Bernalillo County Commission and Centurion Detention Health Care Services, which provides medical care at the jail, ended with a hefty settlement last fall. Bernalillo County paid out $4,560,000, and Centurion settled for an undisclosed amount. The settlements will be split among Vicente’s three children, ages 23, 7 and almost 2.
Officers later told BCSO detectives that the medical staff – employed by Centurion, which had just begun its stint at the jail – was unprepared and didn’t have the necessary equipment.
Video and incident reports show that after Vicente stopped breathing, the medical staff was slow to jump in and couldn’t find the key to the medical cart and that multiple oxygen tanks were empty.
An autopsy report listed his death as a homicide and said it was caused by “mechanical asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint” with “toxic effects of methamphetamine” as a contributing factor.
Older brother killed self accidentally
The Villela family is from Mexico but came to the United States decades ago.
In 1988, when Vicente was 7 years old, the family moved to Albuquerque, and then in the early ’90s bought a three-bedroom mobile home that they moved to a lot in the South Valley. The house – attached to a large carport and flanked by flowers and string lights – is next to an arroyo and within a mile of Rio Grande High School, where all five siblings attended school.
Sofia, who only speaks Spanish, said that as a child, her second-youngest son, Vicente, would do whatever he wanted to do.
“He was the boss,” she said.
The family held many parties at the house, and Vicente – a prankster who loved a good time – would get up early to get ready in anticipation.
“He was the one that would always have all his friends over,” Sandra said. “He used to love to sing and dance, and he loved when we told him we were going to have parties.”
Then, when Vicente was 18 and his brother, Oscar, was 20, tragedy struck, she said. She said Oscar was shooting a gun into the air and accidentally shot himself. He died.
Manuel said that he thinks Oscar would kind of “keep (Vicente) in check” and that when he died Vicente started hanging out with people he shouldn’t have and getting into trouble with the law. He was in and out of jail and prison for years after that, picking up charges of driving while intoxicated, battery and receiving and transferring a stolen motor vehicle.
In March 2018, Vicente was released from the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility.
In the months before his death, he was living with his girlfriend and taking their daughter to and from school. He visited his sister and mother frequently and began working for Manuel – a contractor. The brothers took countless photos and videos of each other goofing off as they worked on homes.
Manuel said Vicente would show up every day with enough burritos for everyone for lunch.
“He would go buy waters; he would go buy Coke for everybody, not just for him. Every day,” Sandra said.
He earned enough to buy his own truck – a navy blue Ford pickup with an extended cab.
In early February 2019, Vicente and his girlfriend were heading to Sofia’s house to drop off their daughter when they saw law enforcement in the area, Sandra said. She said Vicente, who had violated probation, freaked out and tried to get away.
“He thought, ‘They’re coming after me,’ but it was nothing to do with him,” Sandra said. “He parked the car on the side, and he started running. And that’s when he was just jumping houses. They said that it was a burglary, but he was just trying to hide so he wouldn’t get caught.”
A woman later told officers Vicente broke down her door and demanded her car keys. In fear for her life, she gave him the keys, and he took off in her Hyundai, according to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court.
The woman said Vicente crashed through her fence and came to a stop.
Deputies found him lying on the ground next to the car. He said he was on the run from U.S. marshals and law enforcement was following him.
He was booked into MDC.
Repeated plea: ‘I can’t breathe’
The last time Manuel heard from his older brother was a jailhouse phone call at 7 p.m. Feb. 2, 2019.
“He seemed OK,” Manuel said. “And then he was just saying that the guards were bullying him. That’s what he told me.”
But, Manuel said, he wasn’t too worried. He and Sandra started making plans to hire an attorney.
That night, Sandra and Sofia couldn’t sleep, so they went to the nearby Isleta Resort and Casino. Sandra said she felt uneasy and kept feeling a phantom buzzing of her cellphone all night only to check it and discover it was silent.
At 1:06 a.m., her phone did ring. It was a number she didn’t recognize – a Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office detective.
“He asked me if I was at a safe place,” Sandra said. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t know if it’s a safe place. I’m at the casino.’ And he asked me who I was with, and I told him, and then that’s when he told me.”
In the hours that followed, Manuel raced down to the jail. He said he talked with a woman at the front desk who didn’t seem to know that anything had happened to Vicente. Remembering that night his eyes fill with tears.
At first, the family couldn’t get much information. They said they had a hard time reaching the detective again and the jail wasn’t saying anything.
Then tipsters started calling. Concerned jail employees – one of whom has since filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging that she was fired after she raised concerns about Vicente’s death and the way guards were bragging, laughing and joking about it – contacted Vicente’s girlfriend and the advocacy group Millions for Prisoners New Mexico.
The group held a news conference in May – three months after Vicente’s death – to publicly demand answers. Everyone wore bright cherry red, just like Vicente used to.
A month later, the jail released more than 150 pages of reports and videos showing his death. The entire incident had been filmed with a handheld video recorder, because jail policy is to record certain disruptive events.
The footage shows Vicente acting disoriented and irate, so the guards decide to put him in a clinical seclusion cell in the Psychiatric Acute Care, or PAC, unit. A crew of correctional officers wearing tactical gear escorts him there, taking him down once in the hallway.
According to the reports, in the cell Vicente tried to grab an officer’s arm, and the other officers held him down.
Agitated, Vicente repeatedly said, “He’s going to kill me,” as the correctional officers put him in a prone position, telling him to stop resisting so they can take his shackles off.
They pinned him down as he struggled against them, saying over and over, “I can’t breathe.”
Video shows Brandon told officer Sandoval to “sit on him” and Sandoval obeyed, delivering three knee strikes to Vicente’s lower back. In a matter of minutes, Vicente stopped moving.
Correctional officers and medical staff tried to revive him by performing CPR.
After the indictments of Brandon and Sandoval last month, an MDC spokeswoman said, “An internal investigation was completed, and based on the findings, administration took corrective action.”
Comparisons to George Floyd
Last summer, as the world watched the video of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, the Villela family watched it, too. Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in April.
“A lot of it came back,” Manuel said.
“I was just, like, the same thing that happened to my brother happened to him,” Sandra added. “And I felt so much pain for his family. They probably went through the same feeling, the same everything that we went through.”
D’Amato, however, said he doesn’t think the two cases are comparable.
“This isn’t a neck hold; this isn’t a neck restraint,” D’Amato said. “This isn’t a George Floyd case, and it’s easy to compare apples to a Volkswagen in this case.”
Now the Villelas are steeling themselves for the coming trial, trying not to be too optimistic about the outcome so they’re not disappointed.
Vicente’s truck still sits in front of his mother’s house. His youngest son – who had not yet been born when Vicente died – will be 2 in July, and Sandra said they can see the resemblance when the little boy stands with his hand in his pocket and his hip cocked.
Sandra said she hopes the case will make a difference for other people in jail.
“It’s not going to happen again. I hope it doesn’t and that another family like us is not going to go through this or the inmates, they’re not going to be treated like animals,” Sandra said. “… It doesn’t matter what they did. They’re human beings, and they deserve to live and not die the way my brother did, especially asking for mercy.”