Las Vegas Sun

September 16, 2019

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Man who died in Metro custody repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe

Byron Williams

METRO POLICE

Byron Williams is shown in police custody after reportedly violating traffic laws while riding a bike in the area of Martin L. King Boulevard and Bonanza Road, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.

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Byron Lee Williams

Less than two minutes after the Metro Police pursuit began before dawn Thursday, officers had their fleeing suspect in custody. Handcuffed on the ground, Byron Lee Williams repeatedly told them he couldn’t breathe.

Less than an hour later, he was dead.

Williams’ in-custody death and the officers’ actions remained under investigation as Clark County Assistant Sheriff Charles Hank on Monday shared preliminary details and broadcast a five-minute video clip from an officer's body-worn camera from Thursday morning.

As of Monday afternoon, the Clark County Coroner’s Office hadn’t ruled on an official cause and manner of death for the 50-year-old Las Vegan.

A two-officer patrol team encountered Williams at 5:48 a.m. Thursday when he was riding a bike on Martin Luther King Boulevard and Bonanza Road, Hank said. It was dark and the bicyclist lacked proper lighting or reflectors.

When Officer Benjamin Vazquez, 27, and Officer Patrick Campbell, 28, attempted a traffic stop for the moving violation, Williams pedaled away, later ditching the bike and scaling two walls before surrendering in the courtyard of a nearby apartment complex, 1720 W. Bonanza, Hank said.

One minute and 40 minutes elapsed from the time the officers tried to stop him and the time Williams lay on the ground to be handcuffed, according to the video.

Williams' only resistance, Hank said, was not giving up one of his arms, which he tugged on his chest. Officers didn’t immediately know what he may have been concealing, but Hank said it could have been the baggie of methamphetamine and the bottle of prescription opioid pills officers found soon after.

At one point, as Williams said he couldn’t breathe, an officer was heard telling him: “Yeah, because you’re tired of (expletive) running.” The two officers also sounded winded from the chase, Hank said.

By that time, backup had arrived.

Handcuffed, Williams is straddled by one of the officers, who had his knee pinned against Williams’ buttocks. “Pressure on your butt, that’s all,” said one of the officers as Williams continues to complain about breathing problems.

Williams was helped to his feet and was still talking, Hank said. Shortly after, the drugs fell from him and he tried to hide them with his foot, Hank said. At the same time officers spotted the drugs, Williams’ body went limp, and two officers are seen hauling him away to a patrol cruiser.

Within the next minute, Williams appeared to have “passed out” but was still “making noises” and moving. Police summoned medics, who arrived 14 minutes later, at 6:08 a.m.

Williams was declared dead at Valley Hospital Medical Center at 6:44 a.m., Hank said, 56 minutes after police first encountered him. Hank answered questions from reporters who'd spoken to Williams' family members, who reportedly said they'd been shown additional footage by Metro, and that at one point after they hauled Williams away, officers had turned off their cameras.

Hank said officers are allowed to turn off the recording devices when the incident is considered under control, which the situation appeared to be, but noted that the actions will be investigated by the Force Investigation Team, which probes possible criminality in use-of-force incidents, and the Critical Incident Review team that probes any possible policy violation.

"We take the sanctity of life very seriously," Hank said. "We feel very saddened that this has occurred, and it's unfortunate."

A niece of Williams, who was listed as a contact by an activist outlet, could not be reached for comment.

Jeffrey E. Thompkin, who was identified as Williams' stepson, on Saturday spoke to ACAB Radio and said Williams' family is contesting the Metro's narrative.

He said the footage the family saw was "doctored" and that up to 40 minutes had elapsed between the traffic stop and images that he said showed his stepfather lifeless on the concrete, meaning that he didn't die on the way to the hospital, as the family was told. He alleged that Williams continued to complain about not being able to breathe and that he was ignored.

Williams, who had a lengthy criminal record in Nevada and California — in crimes ranging from illicit narcotics to violent acts — had failed to check in with the Clark County Detention Center a week prior to his death. He was out of jail on the condition that he wore an ankle bracelet for charges of alleged meth trafficking and possession of a dangerous drug without a prescription, Hank said. But he had not charged the bracelet and absconded. Officers were in the process of obtaining a warrant for his re-arrest, Hank said.

Vazquez and Campbell — who were placed on routine leave while the investigation continued — didn’t know of Williams' criminal history when they pulled him over, Hank said.