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Las Vegas police: Man who died in custody yelled ‘I can’t breathe’

Updated September 9, 2019 - 6:01 pm

A man who died in Las Vegas police custody last week repeatedly yelled “I can’t breathe” after officers handcuffed him, Assistant Sheriff Charles Hank said at a briefing Monday.

According to Hank:

Officers Benjamin Vasquez, 27, and Patrick Campbell, 28, were driving near North Martin Luther King Boulevard and West Bonanza Road when they saw 50-year-old Byron Lee Williams riding his bicycle without safety lights at 5:48 a.m. When they tried to stop him, he fled.

The officers caught Williams at an apartment complex on the 1700 block of West Bonanza Road. Body camera footage showed that Vasquez and Campbell were yelling at Williams to get on the ground and found him lying on his stomach.

The footage shows Williams repeatedly yelling “I can’t breathe” after he was handcuffed. Vasquez and Campbell did not let him up until other officers arrived with a patrol vehicle.

When the vehicle arrived and the officers stood Williams up, Hank said, two baggies of a white substance and an orange bottle filled with white pills dropped to the ground. Williams attempted to cover the items with his feet, Hank added.

He said the substances tested positive for methamphetamine and hydrocodone.

The footage shows Williams’ body going limp after the officers found the drugs, and he had to be dragged to the patrol car to wait for paramedics. Around 5:54 a.m., when Vasquez and Campbell got Williams to the patrol car, the officers turned off their body cameras. Their cameras weren’t turned back on until medical assistance arrived, at 6:08 a.m., Hank said.

Williams was transported to Valley Hospital Medical Center, where he died at 6:44 a.m. The Clark County coroner’s office will determine his cause of death.

Hank said the death is under investigation and could not confirm whether other officers who arrived after Williams was handcuffed left their body cameras on while Vasquez and Campbell had theirs off. He said the department is working to review body camera footage from all of the officers and will interview each officer.

Williams’ family said that the footage shown in Monday’s briefing didn’t tell the whole story.

Jeffery Thompkins, Williams’ stepson, said he and the rest of the family met with Metro a few days ago to review footage from seven officers who were at the scene. He said the footage showed officers dragging Williams’ limp body around a corner and dropping him on the ground while they laughed, high-fived and told him nobody was coming to help him.

He said there was a lapse in the video that was made visible by the sun’s changed location in the sky.

“You could see him on the ground, begging for help, and it was still dark,” Thompkins said. “When the images come back on and he’s on his back, the sun is up and he’s being worked on by paramedics. He’s motionless, lifeless.”

Hank said Williams was in custody for trafficking methamphetamine, possession of a dangerous drug without a prescription, obstructing a police officer and absconding an electronic monitoring device from the Clark County Detention Center.

Hank said Williams did not check in on Aug. 29 and had not charged his ankle bracelet. He said officers were working on getting an arrest warrant for Williams, but it was not issued until Monday. The device was still on Williams’ leg when he was arrested.

Williams has felony convictions in California for possession of narcotic controlled substances, transporting and selling narcotic controlled substances, vehicle theft and forced assault with a deadly weapon that is not a firearm, Hank said.

His criminal record there also includes taking a vehicle without the owner’s consent, possession of a controlled substance, being under the influence of a controlled substance, theft, possession of controlled substance paraphernalia, trespassing, receiving stolen property, purchase for sale of narcotics, transporting to sell narcotics, patrol violations, grand theft auto, torture, robbery, sexual penetration of a foreign object with force, possession of cocaine, obstructing a public officer, battery on a peace officer, DUI and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, Hank said.

It was unclear whether those charges resulted in convictions.

Williams’ criminal history in Nevada includes possession of a Schedule I, II, III or IV drug, possession of a forged instrument, failure to register as an ex-felon and numerous traffic violations, Hank said.

Thompkins said his stepfather was a changed man who should not be defined by his past.

“Those charges that they spoke of were more than 30 years old,” Thompkins said. “He grew up in a time in Los Angeles where people did things, but that should not define his life.”

He said Williams was a hardworking father and a loving grandfather who did everything in his power to uplift the community. Thompkins runs a nonprofit called the Jet Foundation, and that the two helped pass out 375 meals and over 4,000 articles of clothing to homeless people just a week before he died.

Thompkins, who lives in Summerlin, said he saw at least six people riding their bikes Monday night without safety lights.

“That’s not a good feeling for them to say this is why they stopped him,” Thompkins said, “because if he was in a different place and he was a different color, it wouldn’t have been an issue.” Williams is black.

On Sunday, the Forced Trajectory Project published an article about Williams, citing Williams’ family members, who watched body camera footage of his death before Monday’s briefing. The Forced Trajectory Project is an advocacy media organization that documents stories of police violence and offers an internship to UNLV students.

Vasquez and Campbell have been placed on paid leave pending the investigation.

Contact Alexis Egeland at aegeland@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0335. Follow @alexis_egeland on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Rachel Crosby contributed to this report.

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