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Cocaine intoxication was 'major factor' in woman's death, coroner says

Alesia Thomas died last year after a struggle with LAPD officers who were trying to arrest her. The medical examiner says it's impossible to determine what role the struggle played in her death.

January 14, 2013|By Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times

Cocaine intoxication appears to have been "a major factor" in the death of Alesia Thomas, a woman who died shortly after she was forcibly taken into custody by several LAPD officers, the L.A. County coroner has concluded.

In a report released Monday, the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy found that it was impossible to determine what role, if any, Thomas' struggle with the officers played in her death. Because of that uncertainty, the official cause of the 35-year-old woman's death was listed as "undetermined."

At the request of LAPD officials, the coroner had kept its autopsy results secret since the July 22, 2012, incident. Police officials have said the secrecy was needed while internal investigators conducted their investigation into the death.

Police continue to refuse to release a video of the encounter that was captured by a camera in a police patrol car.

The case has drawn widespread scrutiny since The Times reported that a female officer stomped intentionally on Thomas' genitals during the struggle to arrest her. The coroner's autopsy found no signs of injury to Thomas' body from the strike.

Hours before she died, Thomas, who suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and drug addiction according to the autopsy report, had left her children, a 3-year-old and a 12-year-old, at the LAPD's Southeast Area station, according to a department account of the incident. Thomas was attempting to surrender the children to police custody because she felt she could no longer care for them properly, police officials and an attorney representing Thomas' family have said.

Officers went in search of Thomas and found her at her home in the 9000 block of South Broadway in South L.A. After questioning her, the officers attempted to arrest her on suspicion of child endangerment, the department's account said.

Thomas "began actively resisting arrest," and one of the officers took her to the ground by sweeping her legs from beneath her, the LAPD's official account said. Two others handcuffed her hands behind her back and attempted to lead her to a patrol car as a supervising sergeant observed, according to the department's version.

Two more officers were summoned as Thomas allegedly continued to struggle. She was over 6 feet tall and weighed 228 pounds, the autopsy said. A "hobble restraint device" — an adjustable strap — was tightened around Thomas' ankles to give the officers more control, and she was eventually placed in the back of the patrol car, the LAPD account said.

The video camera, which was mounted inside the patrol car, shows Thomas struggling to breathe and eventually falling unconscious, according to a police official who has seen the footage and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.

Police officials declined to comment on the coroner's findings, saying the department's investigation was ongoing.

Benjamin Crump, the attorney representing Thomas' family in a civil suit against the LAPD, downplayed the cocaine found in her body, saying that police should not have tried to take her into custody in the first place. He reiterated his call for the department to release the video so "the family can see what the officers did to her in her last minutes of life."

The medical examiner stated in his report that both a physical struggle or the ingestion of cocaine could lead the human body to release a surge of the same chemicals that can inhibit breathing.

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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