A Kentucky man with a heart condition died in police custody Saturday, and his friend who recorded the arrest said officers never called for medical assistance despite her insistence that he was struggling to breathe.
Clarence Wilkerson, 34, died after Ashland police officers tried to serve a warrant, Kentucky State Police said in a statement Monday. The state's medical examiner found Wilkerson's death was not the result of a "traumatic event" but possibly related to an existing medical condition, state police said in a statement.
An autopsy began the day after Wilkerson died, according to the Boyd County coroner, but an official cause of death has not yet been determined. State police are investigating upon request from Ashland police.
Bethany Bowman, a friend who witnessed Wilkerson’s arrest, said officers did not call for medical support even after she and Wilkerson noted his struggle to breathe. Bowman, who sometimes referred to Wilkerson by his nickname, "C," said she knew one of the officers involved in the arrest because he was frequently in the area by her trailer park.
The morning of his death, Wilkerson was playing video games at Bowman's with her boyfriend. He was lucid, calm and coherent when he left at 11:45 a.m., she said.
"As soon as he stepped out of the trailer, he closed the door behind him, and me and my boyfriend heard him talking to someone," Bowman said.
She said Wilkerson ran around her trailer to avoid the officer. The officer followed him, ran into a clothesline and requested backup, Bowman said.
That's when she began recording.
"The video was six minutes long, and I started recording at 12:02 p.m.," Bowman said. "In that 15 minutes, he went from being healthy to on death’s door."
Bowman's video was recorded from a distance, and it is sometimes difficult to hear the officers or get a close look at Wilkerson's face. Bowman can be heard telling officers that Wilkerson is having difficulty breathing and losing color.
The beginning of the video shows four officers surrounding Wilkerson, who is sitting in front of a police SUV, his wrists handcuffed behind his back.
Kentucky man dies in police custodyMarch 9, 202301:45
"He's literally sitting there passing out, man," Bowman says on the recording.
Wilkerson then says "breathing, bro," to the officers, seemingly panting as officers ask him to stand up, the video shows. One of the officers recounted what happened to the others.
"Told him he had a warrant, and he started running," the officer says. "That little red rope there got me underneath my neck."
'He can't breathe'
An officer can be heard a few moments later saying Wilkerson "won't stand up." Two officers then stand on either side of Wilkerson, helping him stand as they try to move him into the SUV's back seat.
Wilkerson leans forward while he makes small steps to the back door as Bowman asks whether he will get any medical treatment. An officer responds, and although the word "hospital" is heard, the full sentence is unclear.
Bowman said she believed the officer's response was that they were not going to take him to the hospital.
"We were asking for medical attention, he was asking for medical attention, he was asking for compassion, and he was denied and mocked for it," Bowman said. "They refused to radio to a medic. ... The last words I heard before they closed the door on Clarence was a muffled and raspy 'I can’t breathe.'"
Wilkerson is no longer visible after about two minutes, the car door blocking him as two officers appear to speak to him. Four other officers are seen to the side of the vehicle.
The remaining four minutes of the video include Bowman talking to officers, including yelling "he can't breathe" at one point. The video ends with officers driving away.
Wilkerson was pronounced dead at Kings Daughters Medical Center, the coroner's office said. It is unclear how long after the recording ended that Wilkerson was taken for medical care.
Officers on leave; investigations launched
All involved officers were placed on administrative leave as part of department protocol, Ashland police said. A spokesperson declined to comment further, referring inquiries to state police.
The city of Ashland said in a statement Wednesday that its officials had met with the local NAACP branch "regarding the impact on the community of the recent death of Clarence Wilkerson."
"To ensure a complete and thorough independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Wilkerson's death, the city immediately requested that the Kentucky State Police (KSP) conduct the investigation and has cooperated fully with the process," the statement said.
The city said it would not make any comments about the case before the investigation was complete, when the findings would be released to the public.
Wilkerson's family retained civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who said in a statement Wednesday that officers "did not take his clearly declining condition seriously."
"In the upsetting video, we hear a bystander saying over and over that he needs help, while officers fail to provide aid for several critical minutes," Crump said. "We demand that the Ashland Police Department release all footage they have from this incident and conduct a full investigation so the family and community can see the full picture of how this man lost his life.”
Sherri Ford, Wilkerson's mother; her husband; and Wilkerson's older brother spoke Monday with The Daily Independent, a newspaper in Ashland.
Ford said her son had a heart condition and required catheterization in his late 20s. She did not detail his medical condition further.