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Death of man who was in Oxnard police custody ruled a homicide

Department disputes coroner's finding, saying that officers rushed to aid man who was high on meth. Protesters say the incident reflects a long-standing pattern.

November 29, 2012|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times

When a man high on methamphetamine died in June after a brief struggle with Oxnard police officers, the department said officers were trying to restrain him for paramedics.

But a Ventura County medical examiner's report released this week called the death of 26-year-old Robert Ramirez a homicide.

At her attorney's office, Teresa Ramirez, the man's mother, was on the verge of tears Wednesday as she spoke of her son's death outside an Oxnard home.

"I personally knocked on every door," she told reporters. "I heard personally how he screamed, how he begged them to stop."

Assistant Police Chief Scott Whitney said in an interview that officers did not beat or choke Ramirez, as the family and their attorney Ron Bamieh contend. They rushed to his aid, Whitney said, when an acquaintance called 911, saying that Ramirez was agitated and needed medical help after swallowing an "eight-ball" — an eighth of an ounce of methamphetamine.

Whitney said the department disagrees with the coroner's report.

"We've seen very similar circumstances, where situations like this have been ruled an accident or undetermined," he said.

The Ventura County district attorney's office is investigating the case, a standard procedure when officers are involved in a death. Oxnard Police Chief Jeri Williams has asked the city to hire the Office of Independent Review, a Los Angeles-based oversight agency, to investigate Ramirez's death and that of 21-year-old Alfonso Limon Jr., a bystander who was fatally shot during a police pursuit in October.

Protesters in Oxnard have said those deaths, as well as the shooting of a mentally ill man in August, reflect a long-standing pattern of overly aggressive police tactics.

In the Ramirez case, the medical examiner's report gives the cause of death as "asphyxia from active prone restraint."

The finding of homicide, it says, simply indicates death "at the hands of another or others" and "does not necessarily imply intent to cause harm."

The report also notes that Ramirez's body temperature was "life-threateningly high" shortly after he died. Drug intoxication and hyperthermia were listed as contributing to Ramirez's death, along with "cardiac complications of restraint-related stresses."

Oxnard police said emergency medical personnel were standing by as officers futilely tried to calm Ramirez. When he would not cooperate, they struggled to place him in handcuffs and leg restraints so he could be treated.

"At some point in the contact, he lost consciousness," Whitney said.

Bamieh, the family's attorney, said that by the end of the year, he will file a federal suit against the city, the department and the seven officers at the scene.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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