The Portland Police Bureau and the state medical examiner's office have released new information about the 26-year-old man who died at Adventist Hospital early Sunday after a police chase in the wake of a traffic stop, saying an autopsy this morning revealed Darris Eugene Johnson had a "significantly" enlarged heart.
The autopsy also showed no signs of traumatic injuries to Johnson's body, an important finding because police yesterday said Johnson was arrested after a chase without any force being used. An official cause o death, however, will have to wait for the results of toxicology tests—despite reports yesterday that Johnson may have suffered a heart attack, and had meth and pot in his system. (Click here for the basics of what happened).
Police, meanwhile, also identified the two officers who made the traffic stop that led to the chase that led to Johnson's arrest. Officer Zach Zelinka has been with the bureau for two years, while Officer Justin Thurman has been with the bureau for four.
Already, however, scrutiny is falling on how the two officers handled Johnson's medical complaints—in a case that resembles (with one big difference being use of force by officers) the death in police custody of James Chasse Jr. in 2006.
Advocates are raising two questions. The first is whether Zelinka and Thurman should have called paramedics as soon as Johnson started complaining about breathing difficulties, before he was put inside a squad car. Police, in statements, have said it's common for suspects to mention breathing problems after a chase—explaining that they considered Johnson's complaint to be routine.
"They had him in handcuffs already," says Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch. "Give him the benefit of the doubt and bring in the medics."
The second is whether the officers, once Johnson's condition worsened in the car, should have driven him directly to Adventist—a half-mile away from where they stopped (Southeast Market Street and Cherry Blossom Drive) to radio for emergency personnel and begin personally giving Johnson CPR.
Jason Renaud, who has followed Chasse's case and its fallout for years, said the officers were technically following policy by stopping to call for help—one of the changes the police bureau made in the wake of Chasse's death. Despite serious injuries, Chasse was taken to jail by the cops who tackled him—and not to a hospital by paramedics. Chasse later died in a police car on the way to a hospital after the jail refused to admit him.
"Police officers are not to transport sick or injured persons to a hospital, unless they're violent or there's a serious reason," Renaud said.
But Renaud also wondered if that policy, in a case like Johnson's, where the officers were so clearly close to a hospital, has wound up creating a different sort of problem. Police spokesmen have not yet replied to a request for comment, with one question being how long it took for an ambulance to come to .
"It takes them 30 seconds to drive him over," said Renaud, who also said it was fair to ask whether paramedics should have been called before Johnson was put in a squad car. "But if they call an ambulance, it can take 30 minutes."
Police are focusing on Johnson's history with drugs, noting a history of convictions. They also are asking for any leads about Johnson's activities in the day before his death, including anything related to drug use.
Here's the latest release:
Portland Police Detectives are continuing to investigate the death of a man who died at a Portland Hospital several hours after being arrested by Portland Police.
The Oregon State Medical Examiner conducted an autopsy on 26-year-old Darris Eugene Johnson and found that the cause and manner of Mr. Johnson's death are pending toxicology. The Medical Examiner found that Mr. Johnson did not have any traumatic injuries but did have a significantly enlarged heart.
Mr. Johnson was arrested in yard in the 12300 block of Southeast Bush Street after he ran from a traffic stop at Southeast 122nd Avenue and Bush Street. As officers were transporting Mr. Johnson to jail for his warrant, he began experiencing a medical problem and the officers stopped at Southeast Market Street and Cherry Blossom Drive where they radioed for emergency medical personnel to respond and began administering CPR in attempt to save Mr. Johnson's life.
The officers are Officer Zach Zelinka, a two-year-veteran, and Justin Thurman, a four-year-veteran.
Investigators have learned that Mr. Johnson had a felony parole violation warrant issued by the Oregon State Parole Board, related to a 2009 conviction for Unlawful Delivery of Cocaine and Resisting Arrest. Mr. Johnson also has convictions for Escape in the Third Degree, Unlawful Delivery of Marijuana and Attempt to Commit Robbery in the Second Degree.
Detectives would like to hear from anyone with information about Mr. Johnson's activities in the 24 hours preceding his death, specifically any information about drug use.
Anyone with information is encouraged to call Detective Chris Traynor at (503) 823-0449.