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Excessive Force Contributed to Jail Ward Death, Nurses Say : Law enforcement: Sheriff's deputies at County-USC Medical Center probably played a role in fatality, according to two witnesses. FBI and local police agencies are investigating.

April 10, 1994|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Excessive force by sheriff's deputies probably contributed to a prisoner's death last month in the jail ward of County-USC Medical Center, two nurses who work in the facility charged Saturday.

"I think (deputies) were responsible for his death," William Strachan, a nurse who was among witnesses to the incident, said in an interview.

"I think they used excessive and unnecessary force, which caused his death," Johnnie Blue, the other nurse said.

The FBI is investigating to determine if the prisoner's civil rights may have been violated.

The case involves John Bernard Wiley Jr., a 41-year-old former construction worker who died March 4 after being brought to the jail ward for booking in an assault case. He was to be treated there for a head wound.

Los Angeles County sheriff's officials say Wiley became combative at the facility. He stopped breathing, according to the department's account, as deputies and one Los Angeles police officer attempted to restrain him. Deputies staff the jail ward.

The Sheriff's Department is investigating the case, said Sgt. Ron Spear, a spokesman who declined further comment when contacted Saturday. The Los Angeles Police Department and the district attorney's office also have launched inquiries.

The Los Angeles County coroner's office has not released information on the cause of Wiley's death pending the results of toxicology and other tests.

The two nurses, who witnessed the confrontation between Wiley and the deputies, said the prisoner initially seemed cooperative. But one deputy taunted the suspect physically, Blue said.

"He was pushing him, like bullies do to kids in school," Blue said of the deputy.

According to both nurses, another deputy shoved the prisoner off a gurney and onto the ward's floor, which he hit headfirst. The suspect's head struck the floor "like a melon," said Blue.

As fellow deputies strapped Wiley back onto the stretcher, the nurses said, one of the deputies wrapped an arm around the prisoner's neck to assist in restraining him. Another placed an orange prison smock over the prisoner's face, apparently to prevent him from spitting, the nurses said.

The struggle ended after about 15 minutes, the nurses said, when Wiley went limp and was rushed into the emergency room, where he died.

The controversy over Wiley's death became public last month when five hospital workers, including the two nurses, wrote a letter to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, demanding an investigation into what they called a case of excessive force.

The Police Department had arrested Wiley on suspicion of assaulting an officer during a scuffle that took place after police responded to a domestic violence call by his ex-wife at her Mar Vista home.

Wiley fell down a flight of stairs and suffered a head wound, prompting officers to take him to the hospital jail ward, police said.

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