Prosecutor: Deputies held down Virginia patient, ‘smothering him to death’

Seven Henrico County sheriff’s deputies held down a mental patient on the floor for 12 minutes while he was shackled and handcuffed, eventually “smothering him to death,” Dinwiddie County’s chief prosecutor told a judge Wednesday.

Describing portions of security camera footage that captured the incident, Dinwiddie Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill said the officers had no justification for putting Irvo N. Otieno, 28, on the floor while he was being admitted to Central State Hospital on March 6.

The prosecutor said Otieno did not appear combative — as authorities had claimed — and he was sitting in a chair before being pulled to the floor by the officers.

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Otieno was asphyxiated from the weight of the officers laying on top of him in an act of deliberate and cruel treatment, which included knees that were pressed “fiercely” into parts of his body, Baskervill told the court. It was a “demonstration of power that was unlawful,” the prosecutor said.

Irvo N. Otieno, right, is pictured with his older brother, Leon Ochieng, at their father’s funeral in 2015.

About eight minutes into the incident, the deputies were joined by five Central State Hospital security officers.

The seven deputies were charged Tuesday with second-degree murder in Otieno’s death; Baskervill said additional arrests and charges are pending.

The prosecutor said that Otieno had been assaulted even before he was taken to the hospital.

On the same day Otieno was transferred to Central State Hospital, on March 6, a Henrico Jail video obtained by state police investigators shows several deputies tackle and deliver blows to Otieno while he is naked, the prosecutor said.

Police: Otieno became ‘physically assaultive’ towards officers

Baskervill provided the gruesome details of the ongoing investigation in an attempt to keep two of the seven deputies behind bars after their attorneys asked Circuit Judge Joseph M. Teefey Jr. to grant bail for their clients.

At the heart of his family’s allegations is that Otieno, who had a history of mental health problems, should have been treated as a patient with psychological problems, and not as a criminal.

Three days earlier, on March 3, his family said Otieno had experienced severe mental distress, which led Henrico police to take him to Henrico Doctors’ Hospital under an emergency custody order. Police were dispatched to Otieno’s home after a neighbor reported she believed her home was being burglarized, and Otieno was identified as a potential suspect.

While at Henrico Doctors’ Hospital, police said, Otieno became “physically assaultive” towards officers, and was charged with several offenses. He was taken to Henrico Jail, where he remained over the weekend — apparently without some or all of his medications, his family said.

Irvo Otieno with his brother and mother

This undated photo shows Irvo Otieno with his brother, Leon Ochieng, and mother, Caroline Ouko

During Wednesday’s hearing in Dinwiddie Circuit Court, attorneys representing two of the deputies questioned Otieno’s cause of death, noting he had been injected by hospital staff with two drugs about the same time as the deputies were restraining him. But Baskervill countered that Otieno “probably died before the injections,” which she described after court as an anti-psychotic medication and Benadryl.

She said the two injections did not enter his system because by the time they were administered, his heart had already stopped.

Baskervill said the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has ruled preliminarily that Otieno’s cause of death was asphyxiation and the manner was homicide. However, more testing is being conducted and the doctor who performed the autopsy plans to view the security footage from Central State Hospital, along with the Henrico Jail video, the prosecutor said.

After attorneys Cary Bowen and Edward Nickel argued that their clients had unblemished backgrounds and were not flight risks — and that Baskerville could not distinguish their clients’ actions from the other deputies — the judge agreed to set bail for Deputy Jermaine Branch, 45, at $15,000 and Bradley Disse, 43, at $10,000. It could not be immediately determined if they made bail.

The other deputies — Randy Boyer, 57; Dwayne Bramble, 37; Tabitha Levere, 50; Brandon Rogers, 48; and Kaiyell Sanders, 30 — told the judge they were in the process of hiring attorneys or needed court-appointed counsel. They will continue to be held at least until next week.

Baskervill said she plans to seek indictments against the seven deputies when the grand jury meets Tuesday in Dinwiddie.

Awaiting cause of death, toxicology reports

Henrico Sheriff Alicia Gregory did not immediately respond to an email query or phone message seeking the ranks, assignments and tenure of the seven deputies who were charged. The Richmond Times-Dispatch also asked about the Henrico Jail video that Baskervill said shows several deputies assaulting Otieno before his transfer to Central State.

After the hearing, Bowen indicated he was concerned with the manner in which the deputies were charged and the prosecution’s insistence they not be granted bail despite their favorable records and willingness to turn themselves in.

The deputies were charged under what is known as a “criminal information,” which is a somewhat obscure method of filing criminal charges in Virginia. Most defendants are charged by criminal warrants or direct indictments.

“It’s pretty unusual to go about things the way it’s been done,” Bowen said. “Ann Cabell Baskervill is concerned about [what happened at Central State Hospital], and she has looked at videos that I haven’t seen, so I have to respect that.”

“But I don’t like a situation where you call people and they come down and turn themselves in — as they’re supposed to — and none of them have a criminal record, none of them have a history of failure to appear in court, or any violence,” Bowen added. “So it’s like, why rush to do that and then object to bond? It kind of surprises me a little bit.”

In court, Bowen suggested that the two medical injections Otieno received may have been a factor in his death.

“I think that’s what some of these people that are charged believe,” Bowen said later. “But I have not talked to staff at Central State that saw that. The deputies of course weren’t authorized to give an injection.”

“Once those the two injections were administered — at least the way it was told to me — there was no more [movement], he was not responsive. Obviously, the cause of death and the toxicology report are going to be a big factor here.”

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