The autopsy report into the death of a San Francisco man who died being restrained by police and firefighters fails to mention a potentially vital piece of evidence – the officer-worn body camera video that sources say shows the 35-year-old twice saying he couldn’t breathe while held face down in handcuffs.
Kurt von Boehrens died on March 17 of “the toxic effects of ethanol and methamphetamine during exertion and physical restraint,” according to the final report into his death released by the San Francisco Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
His death at San Francisco General hospital came hours after being detained on Halibut Court on Treasure Island. SFPD officers were summoned by firefighters who were already at the scene, having initially answered a fire alarm being activated outside the apartment where von Boehrens had been staying.
Sources who have seen the officer-worn camera footage say von Boehrens was put face down in handcuffs after attempting to climb into a window he apparently broke with a rock minutes earlier.
During the video, sources tell NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit, von Boehrens said he couldn’t breathe twice during a seven minute period he was in handcuffs.
Police have still not released the video, citing an ongoing investigation.
But the recently released autopsy report makes no mention of the video. While authorities with the medical examiner’s office say the video was indeed part of the evidence they reviewed, a forensic expert expressed surprise that the footage was not explored in detail in the findings, especially in the case of an in-custody death.
“It is important for the forensic pathologist to look at all the evidence,” said Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist and legal consultant who previously worked as an assistant medical examiner in San Francisco.
The failure to mention the video in the report was not the only omission that Melinek found in the report. The final report makes no mention of CT scan results showing von Boehrens suffered anoxic brain injury – the product of a loss of oxygen. That information was listed in the investigator’s notes in the case but not the autopsy findings or conclusions. The final report doesn’t say whether von Boehrens died of a homicide or was the victim of an accident.
“You need to look at the video and at the circumstances of the case in order to have a better understanding of what stopped the oxygen from getting to the brain,” said Melinek, who has testified as an expert in in-custody death cases. She said the video would be especially important because it reportedly shows von Boehrens saying he couldn’t breathe.
“What I can say as a medical professional is that ‘I can’t breathe’ is often a signal of imminent distress,” she said. In meth cases, she says, it could be a sign of a potentially dangerous acid build-up in the system.
“They’re not breathing sufficiently or enough to correct for the acid imbalance in the blood — and that is also a signal of imminent collapse and danger,” she said.
While acknowledging the video was not mentioned in the final report, the medical examiner’s office sent us the investigator’s activities log that notes police provided the video in March and the footage was forwarded to the case pathologist. The office did not respond to questions as to why the video was not mentioned in the final report.
“That’s just a huge, huge piece of the puzzle that’s not included,” said Sanjay Schmidt, the attorney representing von Boehrens’ mother, Mary Ellen Hannigan.
Schmidt says he has yet to see the video but wants it released to the public and the case reopened to fully account for what the video shows about the circumstances surrounding von Boehrens’ death.
“It’s definitely a real head scratcher,” he said, “as to why that is not mentioned in the report.”
Source: NBC Bay Area