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Ala. man dies in jail, mom says medical care was needed

He was arrested on a charge of public intoxication, but family members say he shoud have gone to the hospital instead of jail

By Eddie Burkhalter
The Anniston Star

OXFORD, Ala. — The family of a man who died in Oxford police custody in June says he should have been taken to the hospital instead of jail.

Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge said his officers followed protocol, doing all they could to keep the man and themselves safe. The death has been ruled as caused by combined drug intoxication.  

Melvin Mathews, 32, died inside the Oxford City Jail on the morning of June 7, less than an hour after he was recorded by security camera video leaving an Anniston club. He was later arrested on a charge of public intoxication.

Angela Barnett, 55, of El Paso, Texas, said she doesn’t understand why her son was arrested, and that he called 911 several times himself in duress.

“I think that because they failed to get him medical attention, is the reason he died. Whatever it was, had they got him medical attention my son would still be living,” Barnett said by phone Wednesday.

Photos taken from video surveillance footage show Mathews, wearing a black shirt and camouflage pants, walking out of Ambitions nightclub at 1800 S. Quintard Ave. at 4:03 a.m. Saturday, June 7, according to time stamps on those photos.   

Calhoun County 911 dispatchers received a call at 4:08 a.m. from someone who said his name was “Michael Smith.” That person could be heard on the 911 tapes saying that he was at the Ambitions club and that there was a fight and someone was shooting at him.  Oxford police Capt. L.G. Owens said the phone number dispatch operators received matched that of Mathews’ cell phone.

In subsequent phone calls, someone using the same phone identified himself as Melvin Mathews.

Oxford police later found Mathews walking across Quintard Drive underneath the Interstate 20 overpass at about 4:20 a.m. and arrested him for being intoxicated in public, according to police reports and video from the police car’s dash-mounted camera.  

Partridge said the officers reported that Mathews “wasn’t making sense” and seemed to be under the influence of something. Officers also smelled alcohol on Mathews, he said.

Blood tests later showed Mathews had a blood alcohol content of nearly twice the legal limit, according to the toxicology report, and had traces of the drugs hydrocodone and bath salts, a synthetic drug known to cause hallucinations and aggression in users.

The arrest

The video shows officers attempting to handcuff Mathews, who at first put up no struggle, but then began to pull away. Officers wrestled him to the ground, at one point pinning his legs as Mathews began kicking, before they placed handcuffs on both his wrists.

A police report states Mathews was arrested for being under the influence in public. Partridge said he was arrested because he was “putting himself in danger by running in and out of traffic.”

Once inside the car, audio from the incident recorded an officer telling Mathews to stop kicking or they would use a stun gun on him. Mathews can he heard saying “they’re trying to kill me” and struggling as an officer tells him to stop kicking.

An officer can be heard asking if he took “something at the club” and Mathews responded “I didn’t take nothing at the club.” The officer then told him he was “going to be all right.”

At the station

Video from inside the police station shows officers dragging Mathews inside, one officer on each side holding him underneath his arms. Partridge said he refused to walk. Once inside, officers placed Mathews immediately in a padded cell, where he struggled briefly with officers as they brought him in the room, before lying on his side, still in handcuffs.

Two minutes later, at 4:55 a.m., one of the officers returns and looks through the glass door of the cell, apparently checking on Mathews, who can be seen still lying on his side. Partridge said the officer reported that Mathews was still breathing at that time. That officer returned to check on Mathews at 4:57 a.m. and can be seen in the video watching closely before saying “notify the medics.”

“I told the chief, if I ever get arrested I hope it’s by those three officers,” David Baker, president of the Calhoun County NAACP. 

At 5:03 a.m. the officer can be heard talking into his radio to Oxford dispatch to “step it up” which Partridge said was meant to speed up the arrival of the medics.

“He’s still breathing,” the officer said, but Partridge noted that in his report the officer stated he felt something was wrong with Mathews because he seemed unconscious and was not moving.

Two EMTs from Oxford EMT can be seen walking into the station at 5:05 a.m. Officers opened the door to Mathews’ cell and dragged the seemingly unconscious Mathews just outside the door, where EMTs began working on him.

An EMT can be seen checking Mathews’ blood pressure at 5:07 a.m., and one minute later the EMT began performing chest compressions.

Continuing CPR, the technician can be heard saying “he just died” at 5:09 a.m. Medics continued working on Mathews and performing CPR for another 12 minutes before loading him onto a stretcher and taking him out of the jail.

Calhoun County Coroner Pat Brown pronounced Mathews dead at Regional Medical Center at 6 a.m., Brown said by phone Thursday.

The combination of drugs and alcohol exacerbated Mathews’ medical condition, Brown explained, which he believes resulted in his death. Bath salts in particular is a dangerous drug known to cause excited delirium and aggression in users, Brown said.

“Based on my investigation, if he had not had bath salts and other drugs in his system, he would not have died,” Brown said. “Had he not been in police custody, he would have still died.”

A state forensics lab in Huntsville performed an autopsy on Mathews, Brown said, and ruled the cause of his death as combined drug intoxication.

Hospitals do not test specifically for bath salts, Brown said, making it less likely that first responders could have determined what he had taken.

“It’s really dangerous to police, because they’re so enraged,” Brown said, speaking of those who take bath salts.

According to protocol

Mathews' mother, however, believes her son should have been taken directly to medical treatment instead of the jail.

“My son, he was a nice man. A loving person. Every time you see him he was smiling. He hated arguing,” Barnett said, speaking of her son. Mathews was a Navy veteran who had applied for disability because of post-traumatic stress disorder, she said, and had served overseas.

“They should have taken him to the hospital anyway,” Barnett said. “He was probably having an attack.”

David Baker, president of the Calhoun County chapter of the NAACP, at the request of Mathews’ family, has reviewed the audio and video taken of the incident. Baker told a reporter Tuesday that from what he saw, the Oxford police officers handled the situation with care.

“I told the chief, if I ever get arrested I hope it’s by those three officers,” Baker said.

Amy Adams, the operational manager for Calhoun County 911, said police were called because Mathews told the dispatcher in his first call that there was a fight at the club and someone was shooting at him. During calls, it’s up to the dispatcher to determine if an ambulance is needed, Adams said.

She hadn’t listened to the calls, but reading over transcripts of them, Adams said that in Mathews’ case the dispatcher must have determined that medical help was not needed.  

Partridge said when Oxford police encounter someone they believe may be under the influence of some substance, protocol calls for them to ensure that person cannot hurt himself or others. Mathews was placed in the cell to ensure that, Partridge said. Officers continued to monitor Mathews while inside the cell, as protocol calls for, he said.

“He was never left alone,” Partridge said.

Asked why Oxford police had not notified the media or the public of Mathews’ death inside the jail — a family member told The Star on Tuesday — Partridge said it was because he considered Mathews’ death unlike those that require such notification, such as suicides or those that occur as the result of violence.

Sandra McNeal, Mathews’ aunt, said by phone from her home in El Paso, Texas, on Thursday that Mathews, who had five children, was a good father and a wonderful nephew.

“Always respectful. He was a good person. Melvin was the one who talked my daughter going into the Navy,” she said. “My daughter is still having a real hard time. It has had a real profound impact on my family.” 


©2014 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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