FBI probing Louisiana man's suffocation death in fracas with police

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 11, 2014 9:08 PM

By David Minsky

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The FBI is investigating the March suffocation death of a Louisiana man, a bureau spokeswoman said on Thursday, after a state agency reported he was heard saying he could not breathe while handcuffed and pinned down by police officers.

The report on the case from the Louisiana Forensic Center, which ruled the death of 30-year-old Robert Minjarez Jr. a homicide, found that three or four police officers pinned him face-down on the ground for about four minutes before he stopped breathing.

"I can't breathe," Minjarez said multiple times, according to the report, written in August, which drew on video from a surveillance camera and audio from a police dashboard camera.

The pleading of Minjarez, who was white, mirrors that of Eric Garner, an African-American man whose death in July after police in Staten Island, New York, placed him in a chokehold spurred big protests.

Before tact with police, Minjarez had been behaving erratically outside a gas station in Lafayette, about 120 miles west of New Orleans, and appeared to be hallucinating, according to the forensic report.

He did not appear to be armed, the report said.

Minjarez had cocaine in his system at the time of his death, the report found, and had a day earlier checked himself out of a hospital against medical advice while suffering from "rhabdomyolysis," or muscle breakdown, consistent with drug use.

The cocaine and muscle breakdown contributed to his death, the report found, but "the death was caused by the actions of others during a violent struggle."

"You're killing me... help," Minjarez said as police pinned him down, before groaning, gurgling and falling silent, the report said.

Shortly before he stopped breathing, with both his arms and legs cuffed, one of the officers is heard to say, "You got 265 lbs on your back, you're not going anywhere," the report said.

Minjarez was taken to a hospital and died five days later, the report said.

Law enforcement from three agencies were present during the Minjarez incident, according to KATC-TV: the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office, the Carencro Police Department and the Scott Police Department.

It is not clear which agency or agencies the officers who came into physical contact with Minjarez were from. Officials from all three departments declined to comment on the case.

In addition to the FBI, the Louisiana State Police are investigating Minjarez's death.

(Editing by Jonathan Kaminsky and Eric Walsh)