The death of a 57-year-old man found unresponsive in the back of a jail transport van was ruled an accident.
According to the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office, Luis Bonilla Nieves died of positional asphyxia, meaning his breathing was blocked. An investigator wrote that Nieves was on the floor of the van lodged between the seat and a partition. His head was tucked with his chin toward his chest. It appears he fell off the seat.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said his agency is investigating Nieves’ death and whether conduct by the van’s driver, Steven Roman, contributed to it.
“Right now I’m just trying to figure out what happened and whether what the driver says is consistent with the facts and whether it’s feasible,” the sheriff said this week, “and then we’re going to go from there.”
Roman works for G4S, a private security and logistics firm hired by the Sheriff’s Office to drive arrested people to jail. He could not be reached for comment. G4S said in a statement the firm is “working closely with the Sheriff’s Office” and deferred questions to that agency.
Deputies arrested Nieves on June 11 on felony battery and cocaine possession charges. Arrest reports said he became intoxicated at a friend’s house at 178 Margie St., Palm Harbor. A neighbor, concerned he was disturbing others, asked him to leave.
Nieves, of Palm Harbor, pushed the neighbor in the chest. A deputy wrote that he found a piece of crack cocaine in Nieves’ wallet after arresting him. Nieves denied that he pushed anyone and said the cocaine wasn’t his, according to the reports.
Deputies drove Nieves to the Sheriff’s Office’s North District Station in Dunedin, where he was turned over to the G4S van, Gualtieri said.
This is what Roman said happened from there, according to Gualtieri:
Nieves was acting “fidgety,” the sheriff said, so Roman handcuffed him behind his back instead of the usual practice of cuffing to a belly band in the front. The van headed south on Alt. U.S. 19, then east on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. Roman could see him on a video monitor linked to a camera in the prisoner compartment.
Nieves was sitting normally until the van got past U.S. 19 just before the Bayside Bridge. That’s when Roman said he noticed Nieves was lying on the floor. He saw him moving.
On the bridge, he looked again and saw Nieves wasn’t moving. He was so close to the jail, which is about two miles south of the base of the bridge, that he continued on.
Roman opened the back of the van when he got to the jail. Nieves was unresponsive. Jail medical staff performed CPR on him. Doctors pronounced him dead in the Largo Medical Center emergency room.
Gualtieri said there are two main details he’s looking into. Roman said he saw Nieves’ hands move at first after he fell on the floor, but they were cuffed behind his back. The sheriff has asked deputies to conduct a re-enactment to find out if the driver could see Nieves’ hands at that angle.
Also, Roman sat at the jail unloading area for about five minutes without checking on Nieves because there were other vans dropping off prisoners.
“We’ve got to follow up on that — why he wasn’t checking on him if he wasn’t seeing movement,” he said. “There’s room for discussion on that and room for scrutiny on that.”
It’s unclear why Nieves fell, but Gualtieri guessed it was related to the alcohol. Nieves’ autopsy showed his blood alcohol level at 0.176, more than twice the limit at which someone is considered impaired while driving. There are no seat belts in the back of the van.
Along with alcohol, Nieves had several drugs including cocaine and codeine in his system. Contributing causes of death were listed as multidrug intoxication and chronic drug abuse.
“So he may not be too steady on his feet to begin with,” said Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the medical examiner. “He may have a hard time getting up when he gets into a position where it’s impossible for him to continue to have respirations.”
Pellan has seen positional asphyxia before, usually in babies sleeping in a bed with adults. It can also occur in car accidents or during a seizure. He doesn’t recall seeing a case in his 18 years at the office that occurred in a jail van.
Nieves’ wife, Ramonita Bonilla, was with him the night of his arrest. She said she asked deputies to take him to the hospital first because he wasn’t feeling well. Gualtieri said Nieves didn’t show any signs that he needed medical attention.
Bonilla, 51, said she didn’t know about the circumstances of his death until she learned from a reporter. She said she was surprised and upset.
“It’s been hard,” she said. “I lost a good friend and my husband.”
Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected]