Vicente Villela told officers multiple times, “I can’t breathe” before he died

By Christine Pelisek
June 26, 2020 11:05 AM
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Vicente Villela
Courtesy Sandra Medina

Vicente Villela, a 37-year-old father of two, was handcuffed and shackled in the Bernalillo County Metro Detention Center when, court documents allege, “he became agitated and didn’t want to be moved.”

Video cameras captured the February 2019 incident: Multiple officers were seen restraining an agitated Villella, who'd been arrested on a burglary charge, as he lay face down on a mattress.

He told the officers multiple times, “I can’t breathe” before he died.

An autopsy concluded that Villela suffocated and his death was ruled a homicide, KRQE reports.

"I think MDC and everyone in the county who has seen the video certainly understands this is a serious situation," Tia Bland, Bernalillo County communications director, said, according to KRQE.

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An internal investigation by the county later determined that the officers involved broke policies. New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has recently said he will review the case to see if charges will be filed against any of the officers, KOB reports.

“What they did to my brother was really bad, because it destroyed our family,” Villela’s sister Sandra tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “Our family fell apart. We were all united, happy. It's just different without him.”

Sandra says Villela was there for all his family members.

"He was the one that would bring happiness," she says. "Every time we had a get-together, he was the one wanting to go above and beyond. He would call everybody and he wanted everybody to be at the house. He was just one of those people."

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About her brother's death, Sandra says,  “I think that people don't deserve to die that way. People need to be treated equally. It doesn't matter what you do, what you are, what race you are, gender. You need to be treated with rights and equally. And don't take anybody's life. Because that affects a lot of people. Your whole world is turned, and it's never going to be the same.”

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

  • Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
  • ColorofChange.org works to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.
  • National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.