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The case of a 22-year-old man who died last week while in custody of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office is being investigated as a homicide after an autopsy revealed he had been asphyxiated at the neck, authorities said Monday.
Four narcotics agents have been placed on desk duty as investigators try to determine whether they used excessive force in arresting Keeven Robinson after a chase Thursday, Sheriff Joe Lopinto said, adding that State Police and the FBI’s Civil Rights Task Force will be assisting with the probe.
The Sheriff’s Office declined to name the deputies under investigation but acknowledged that all four are white. Robinson was black.
Sources familiar with the matter identified the agents as David Lowe, Jason Spadoni, Justin Brister and Gary Bordelon.
Lowe and Bordelon are both named as defendants in pending federal civil-rights lawsuits that allege excessive force in unrelated cases.
A lawyer representing the members of Robinson’s family, who were briefed by both Lopinto and Coroner Dr. Gerry Cvitanovich, said they were thankful that authorities had acknowledged the findings of the autopsy but distraught to learn that Williams had been killed.
A man stopped breathing and died after he was taken into custody Thursday by narcotics agents with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.
“They had to find out that Keeven lost his life at the hands of another, and that’s very, very hard for them,” attorney Hester Hilliard said. “Now, it’s time … to move on to making funeral arrangements for a 22-year-old that should not have died.”
Robinson’s death is one of several violent incidents that have happened recently involving narcotics deputies at the Jefferson Sheriff’s Office, which is among a dwindling number of law enforcement agencies that shun the use of body-worn cameras.
The New Orleans Police Department, Louisiana State Police and Baton Rouge Police Department all equip officers with cameras designed to capture interactions with suspects and members of the public.
Lopinto on Monday defended the work of his narcotics agents in general, giving them some of the credit for an all-time low in crime in Jefferson Parish last year.
He also said he doubted a policy mandating body-worn cameras would have factored into the Robinson case, which involved deputies in plainclothes who he said probably would have been exempt from wearing cameras to preserve their cover.
“I hope the citizens of Jefferson Parish give the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office the opportunity to conduct the investigation,” said Lopinto, who became sheriff last year when Newell Normand resigned. “This office has shown time and time again: Give us patience, and we do our job.”
According to the Sheriff’s Office, narcotics agents suspected Robinson was dealing drugs and had him under surveillance when they followed him to a gasoline station at Labarre Place and Jefferson Highway late Thursday morning.
The plainclothes agents, who were wearing badges, approached Robinson on foot, but he tried to drive away when he noticed them.
He crashed into a pair of Sheriff’s Office vehicles about a block away. Deputies then chased Robinson on foot as he leaped over a number of fences before he was caught in a backyard, Lopinto said.
Lopinto said deputies fought with Robinson, who left a gun in his car and was in possession of what deputies suspected was heroin. They managed to get handcuffs on him at the end of the struggle, but he stopped breathing at that point, Lopinto said.
Paramedics took him to Ochsner Medical Center a few blocks away, where he died.
Initially, Lopinto said investigators were looking into the possibility that Robinson’s history of asthma had contributed to his death, which occurred on a day when officials warned about poor air quality in the region.
But Robinson’s family was immediately skeptical of that possibility, saying they feared deputies had either beaten Robinson to death or strangled him.
Cvitanovich said he and two forensic pathologists, Dr. Dana Trosclair and Dr. Van Vo, were present for Robinson’s autopsy on Saturday morning. It showed he died after suffering “significant, traumatic injuries to the … soft tissue of the neck,” he said.
The injuries were consistent with someone leaning on, squeezing or grabbing Robinson’s neck, Cvitanovich said.
He said his office’s conclusions were preliminary, however. Results of toxicology and other tests are still pending and could take weeks, he said.
Lopinto said homicide investigators took over the case after receiving word about the coroner’s findings. The four detectives involved in the pursuit of Robinson gave statements to the homicide investigators, he said.
The Sheriff’s Office does not usually reassign deputies who are being investigated for use of force to desk duty. But the circumstances involving Robinson’s death made that step “appropriate” in this case, Lopinto said.
“I understand this investigation will be under a microscope,” he said. “You can never have too many sets of eyes to make sure we are doing it properly.”
Several of Robinson’s relatives left private briefings with Lopinto and Cvitanovich in tears.
While they said they were encouraged about authorities’ openness on Monday, they and a large group of supporters still marched in protest Monday night near the site where Robinson died, holding up signs that read, “Enough is enough” and “We won’t give up. We won’t give in.”
The family also said they were still far from feeling that justice has been done in connection with Robinson’s death, yet another case in which white police officers are accused of killing an unarmed black suspect.
“We want the young black men to be able to walk the street, and when the police do frisk them, we want them to be able to stand there and let the police do their job,” Robinson’s grandmother, Cheryl, said. “But they’re afraid of the police. They’re killing our children. It’s time to stop.”
Though none of the incidents have been deadly, several Jefferson narcotics deputies have landed in the news over the last several months for shooting guns at drivers, alleging that their lives were threatened by suspects trying to run them over.
One of those incidents triggered a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office, which is still pending. The agency dismissed one of the deputies named in the lawsuit, though that apparently was in connection with conduct on an unrelated case.
Lowe is one of two deputies accused of yanking a drug suspect out of a car in Harvey and punching, kicking and striking him with “clubs or flashlights” until he urinated on himself last year, according to a lawsuit pending in federal court.
The plaintiff pleaded guilty in 24th Judicial District Court to illegally possessing a gun, heroin and the drug commonly sold as Xanax following the arrest referred to in the lawsuit. He received a 10-year sentence.
Another pending lawsuit targets Bordelon with claims that he tackled a woman, and that another deputy punched her in the stomach, during a raid at a home in Marrero last year. The woman was accused of illegally possessing a prescription painkiller, but prosecutors later dropped the case against her.