Correction issued below
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Two Metropolitan Detention Center officers are facing involuntary manslaughter charges for the death of an inmate under their watch more than two years ago. Thirty-seven-year-old Vicente Villelas suffocated at the jail in February 2019 after officers pinned him to the ground. It wasn’t until George Floyd‘s death in Minneapolis about a year ago that the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office started taking a hard look at this case.
Video from that day shows corrections officers trying to move Villela, who had been arrested on a burglary charge, to a different part of the jail. Things quickly went wrong as at least 11 officers held Villela down, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed in the case. Lieutenant Keith Brandon told Officer Jonathan Sandoval to sit on Villela, Villela complied. Video shows Sandoval kneeling on Villela’s back and holding down his head.
In the video, Villela is heard telling guards multiple times that he could not breathe. He died several minutes later, and his death was ruled a homicide. Of course, the case is strikingly similar to the death of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis more than a year later.
Floyd’s death brought new scrutiny to Villeja’s case last summer. In its wake, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez sent a letter to the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office to look into Villela’s death, citing concerns around law enforcement’s use of the chokehold. “It is shameful that DA Torrez had to have the death of George Floyd happen in Minnesota for him to finally take some action in regards to the death of Vicente Villela,” Matthew Vance, Villela’s family attorney, said in June 2020.
As a result of that probe by the AG’s Office, charges were filed Wednesday against Lieutenant Brandon and Officer Sandoval for causing Villelas death. MDC said the two guards are on leave. There was also a civil suit settled in which more than $5 million was awarded to Villela’s estate.
Correction: An early version of this story said KRQE News 13 reached out to the DA’s Office and did not hear back, that is incorrect. They were contacted to confirm information about this story but were never asked for comment.