‘I CAN’T BREATHE’
Cops Gagged and Smothered a Man to Death, Then Fist-Bumped
After a disturbed man bit an officer, a ‘spit sock’ was put over his mouth, and then more officers got on his back. Yet police say the man’s death wasn’t their fault.
Police handcuffed Ben Anthony C de Baca, threw him on his stomach, pulled a mask over his face, and planted their knees in his back. While he cried that he couldn’t breathe, the officers were busy laughing at a joke. They stopped laughing when they realized he’d gone limp.
“Anthony,” one officer said, wiggling the dead man’s arm. “Anthony.”
“Fuck,” another one said.
He was dead.
Twelve minutes after that, two officers fist-bumped.
Medical examiners ruled C de Baca’s Sept. 6, 2015 death a homicide from “excited delirium (cocaine intoxication) complicated by means of physical restraint.” An investigation by New Mexico’s Rio Rancho Police Department found no criminal intent by any of the three police agencies involved in the arrest. But C de Baca’s family says his death was a senseless act of police brutality and incompetence.
The family is planning a wrongful death suit against the three law enforcement agencies involved in his arrest, family attorney Ahmad Assed told The Daily Beast. Meanwhile, Sandoval County District Attorney’s Office prosecutor told The Daily Beast it is investigating C de Baca’s death for potential criminal charges.
C de Baca had a history of mental illness, his wife said, according to a police report. Doctors had recently changed his medication, and he had been “acting very paranoid all week,” she said. On the day of his death, his wife said he had experienced “schizophrenic episodes,” which came to a head at a McDonald’s.
While waiting in the drive-through line, C de Baca began acting irrationally, telling his wife that there were people in the trunk. She humored him, promising to check the trunk, at which point he flung his legs into the driver’s side of the car and slammed on the gas, sending the car speeding into another vehicle.
C de Baca then fled on foot to a nearby Wal-Mart, where he began throwing soda and smashing televisions. He shouted, “‘You are all murderers, you killed my kid’ and other things that didn’t make sense,” a Wal-Mart employee told police.
Workers called 911. Officers from three departments arrived on the scene, due to the Wal-Mart’s location near the intersection of three jurisdictions. An officer from the Rio Rancho Police Department responded to a report about C de Baca’s car crash outside the nearby McDonald’s, while officers from the neighboring Bernalillo and Santa Ana police departments responded to the call from inside the Wal-Mart. (The Rio Rancho Police Department decline to comment on this story. The Santa Ana and Bernalillo police departments did not return The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.) Bernalillo and Santa Ana officers found C de Baca in the store, where they cuffed him on the floor, body camera footage shows.
“Stand up or we’re going to drag you out, one way or another,” an officer is seen telling the restrained man. But C de Baca continued to struggle, allegedly biting one officer on the leg.
“A fucking bite mark, dude,” the officer is heard telling another on camera. “This cunt fuck bit the fuck out of me, dude. I had to punch his ass off of me.”
Officers pulled C de Baca outside, where they placed him on his stomach in the parking lot, shackled his legs, and placed hands and knees on his back. They placed a spit sock over his head to prevent him from biting again, the police report says. An officer began questioning him, presumably for an incident report. C de Baca initially cooperated, giving his name. Then he cried for help.
“I can’t breathe,” he said.
“Anthony, what’s your date of birth?” the officer taking the report called.
“I can’t breathe,” C de Baca repeated.
“What’s your date of birth?” the officer asked again. His colleagues continued placing pressure on C de Baca’s back, pinning his cuffed hands behind him.
“I’m dying,” C de Baca pleads. No one appears to listen. The conversation returns to the bite mark on one of the officer’s pant legs.
“He hit bone?” an officer asked, alluding to the other cop’s penis.
“Always with the jokes,” the bitten officer said, confirming that the bite didn’t break the skin.
The officers were still laughing when they realized C de Baca had gone limp under their hands and knees. An officer shook his arm, then his shirt, attempting to rouse him. The “spit sock” was still over his face.
As police watched the paramedics attempt to revive him, one officer’s body camera showed two officers fist-bumping near the body, apparently in greeting. It was one of several casual gestures that may appear insensitive in the immediate aftermath of C de Baca’s death. Later, two different officers are seen discussing the man’s death.
“You alright?” one officer asked another several minutes after C de Baca’s pulse stopped.
“Yeah, I’m good, dude,” the second answered. “I fucking hate when people put us in a position like that.”
“No, I’m asking are you OK,” the first asked. “I don’t care about that,” he said in apparent reference to C de Baca’s death. “Are you OK?”
Assed, a lawyer for C de Baca’s family, said conversations suggest a fundamental lack of concern for C de Baca’s life.
“He’s telling him essentially that Mr. C de Baca has passed, and he’s like ‘I don’t care, I’m asking how you’re doing,’” Assed told The Daily Beast. “It’s really telling if you look at that particular part of the video.”
Assed said C de Baca’s family is preparing a civil suit against the three police departments involved in the arrest. But Assed said his primary concern is not the officers’ attitude on camera, but their treatment of C de Baca during what should have been a routine arrest.
“I’m really more concerned about why they hogtied him, dragged him out, placed him face down with three guys kneeing him in the back,” Assed said. “A guy is screaming for his life saying he can’t breathe and that he’s hurting, and then they claimed to put a spit sock on him for what reason I have no idea, because it doesn’t prevent anything.”
The use of the spit sock in C de Baca’s death is central to claims that the officers mishandled his arrest.
Spit socks are intended to prevent individuals from spitting at officers, but are not meant to prevent the person from biting, or to impair their breathing. But C de Baca’s case was unusual. Police placed the sock over his head after he allegedly bit an officer.
The spit sock was mesh, with a “thick cotton portion,” a sergeant reported during an investigation into C de Baca’s death. During C de Baca’s arrest, the spit sock’s cotton had covered C de Baca’s “face, nose, and mouth,” while the mesh bunched up around his forehead, the sergeant told investigators, adding that “he had not seen a spit sock used in that fashion before.”
An independent report by the New Mexico Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed that an “improperly placed” spit sock has the potential to suffocate a person. The examiner wrote that they could not rule out suffocation as a contributing cause in C de Baca’s death.
“They used it in a different fashion than in the training I hope they received,” Assed said. “I doubt they received any training. If there was training, it certainly wasn’t consistent with how they used it.”
The Bernalillo Police Department, which placed the spit sock on C de Baca’s head, did not return a request for comment. The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, a separate entity from the Bernalillo Police Department, outlines a standard spit hood policy in their officer manual.
“When Deputies are faced with prisoners who spit, have spat, or indicate they are likely to spit, the following procedures will be followed,” the document reads (PDF). “No other methods will be utilized to control or prevent this action. The Transportation Hood will only be used to deter spitting and will NOT be used for any other purpose.”
The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s officer manual also outlines policies that could have saved C de Baca’s life. Police are required to pay special attention to individuals displaying signs of cocaine psychosis, which medical examiners identified as a contributor in C de Baca’s death.
“Deputies will seek immediate medical attention for the prisoner if signs or symptoms of cocaine psychosis, excited delirium or positional asphyxia are observed,” the manual reads.
The manual also warns against placing a handcuffed person on their stomach.
“Deputies must guard against leaving the individual or allowing the individual to go to the chest down position as this could cause Positional Asphyxia,” the manual says. The police sergeant who told investigators that the spit sock had been misapplied also said that he instructed officers to not to place C de Baca on his stomach, a suggestion that went ignored.
While law enforcement’s internal investigation into C de Baca’s death found no criminal intent by the officers involved, charges might still come from a district attorney in New Mexico’s Sandoval County.
David Foster, an attorney with New Mexico’s 13th Judicial District told The Daily Beast that the incident was under investigation, but could not comment on the nature of the ongoing probe.
But Assed said the family planned to sue all three police departments for wrongful death. The pending lawsuit will likely address the officers’ apparent lack of training about the spit sock, in addition to their overall conduct during the arrest.
“They placed it in a way that I believe wholeheartedly contributed to Mr. C de Baca’s death,” Assed said. “To place him on his face and place that spit sock on him, with three people on him, it’s ridiculous. It’s crazy.”