13 Investigates


'I can't breathe!': Death of man in Vegas police custody still under investigation

Byron Lee Williams said, 'I can't breathe,' 17 times
Byron Lee Williams
Screen shot from LVMD body cam video
Posted at 8:52 PM, Jun 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-05 23:52:55-04

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — George Floyd's now infamous words, "I can't breathe," are becoming synonymous with alleged police brutality and lack of accountability.

There's another case where those words preceded a man's death in police custody right here in Las Vegas.

It took less than one hour for a police encounter to turn deadly for 50-year-old Byron Lee Williams on the early morning of Sept. 5, 2019.

"Get on the ground! Put your hands behind your back!" police yell as body-worn cameras record.

Williams complies, laying down on his stomach.

"As officers were placing Williams into handcuffs, he, like the officers who were chasing him, appeared winded from running a good distance and jumping the walls," explained LVMPD Asst. Sheriff Charles Hank during a Sept. 9, 2019 media briefing.

"I can't breathe! I can't breathe!" body cameras record Williams repeatedly saying.

"Yeah, because you're (expletive) tired of running," one of the officers responds.

Williams told police he couldn't breathe a total of 17 times.

By the time medical help arrived, he was unresponsive.

"Williams was pronounced deceased at Valley Hospital at approximately 6:44 a.m.," said Asst. Sheriff Hank.

That's just 56 minutes after officers Benjamin Vasquez and Patrick Campbell saw Williams riding a bike without lights near Martin Luther King Boulevard and West Bonanza Road.

As they gave chase, he dumped the bike and ran away, but they caught up with him in a nearby apartment complex.

On the body cam, one of the officers calls dispatch to say, "It's going to be negative use of force. The subject complied toward the end of the foot pursuit and got down on the ground."

Williams is then ordered to stand up, but his body goes limp as officers lift him.

"He's got 'incarcerates,'" one of them says. "If he won't stand over here, drag him."

"You guys want medical?" a female officer asks. She is one of about seven or eight officers who responded to the scene after the chase.

Their body cameras were turned off for approximately 15 minutes after Williams was dragged to the patrol car.

"We will evaluate the totality of the incident to determine if it was appropriate—if they turned them off appropriately or if they turned them off prematurely," said Hank in the Sept. media briefing. "But we still have to complete that as part of our investigation."

Reports from Metro's Force Investigation Team and Office of Internal Oversight are still pending.

Williams had meth and hydrocodone on him at the time of his arrest.

The Clark County coroner says Williams died from methamphetamine intoxication, with other significant conditions including heart and lung disease, and prone restraint.

Prone restraint can cause death if a person can't get enough air due to the positioning of his body.

The U.S. Department of Justice says pre-existing risk factors like intoxication or other medical conditions can make prone restraint even more dangerous, particularly when it includes behind-the-back handcuffing while a person is lying face down.

The National Law Enforcement Technology Center advises police to get a suspect off his stomach as soon as he's handcuffed and not to sit on his back.

That did not happen in the case of Byron Williams.

"We take the sanctity of life very seriously, and anytime something like this happens, it's very unfortunate," said Hank. "There (isn't) any day that an officer goes out, and we want to cause harm to anyone."

But the harm happened in this case and many others across the country.

Gov. Steve Sisolak delivered this message amid ongoing protests demanding change.

"The anger and grief goes beyond the protests and grew out of a long history of these incidents," Sisolak said.

Williams' family and community members took to the streets Sept. 14, demanding police accountability and holding signs similar to those we've seen this week in the wake of George Floyd's death.

"George Floyd died because the officers who were arresting him did not listen to his cries that he could not breathe," Sisolak said.

The officer in Williams's case continued kneeling on his lower back despite his repeated cries of distress.

On the body cam video, after one of Williams' many protestations that he could not breathe, one of the officers can be heard saying, "You've got pressure on your butt, that's all."

"I can't breathe," Williams says again.

But the kneeling officer did not immediately get off Williams' back.

Williams was an ex-felon with a lengthy rap sheet in both California and Nevada, including drug trafficking, grand theft auto, torture, robbery, sexual assault, and more.

He was unarmed the day he died, but he was wanted by police for failing to check in and failing to charge his ankle bracelet while on electronic monitoring for a previous crime.

13 Investigates spoke to Williams' family members shortly after his death.

Through tears, they said, "Byron Lee Williams did have people who cared about him! He was loved, and he was a changed man. He was changing."

On Mar. 3, 2020, District Attorney Steve Wolfson determined criminal prosecution of the officers involved in Williams' death was not appropriate.

He called for a Police Fatality Public Fact-finding Review, which an LVMPD spokesperson says has been on hold due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Williams' family is pursuing federal civil rights and wrongful death lawsuits.

To watch the full Sept., 2019 briefing and body cam video, click here.

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