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Years after dying in police custody, Georgia man’s autopsy changed to homicide

Hector Arreola
Hector Arreola

Credit: WLTZ

Credit: WLTZ

After more than three years, the autopsy for a Columbus man who died in police custody has been amended to say he died by homicide, authorities confirmed to AJC.com.

Hector Arreola called police twice for help on Jan. 9, 2017, while he was under the influence of methamphetamine, Columbus-based news station WLTZ reported. Before paramedics arrived, two Columbus police officers responded to the scene.

After Arreola become agitated, the two officers attempted to arrest the 30-year-old, the news station reported. He was tackled to the ground during the ensuing struggle. According to body camera footage obtained by WLTZ, he yelled out, “Ma, they’re gonna kill me,” during the incident.

He died the next day at Midtown Medical Center, AJC.com previously reported.

The initial GBI autopsy report found that Arreola died from methamphetamine toxicity, but that was recently amended.

“I can confirm that a GBI (medical examiner) amended the original report to reflect the manner of death as homicide,” GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said in an email. “The medical examiner received additional information that was made available and showed that the altercation between law enforcement and Mr. Arreola was a contributing factor in his death.”

The report now says the cause was “sudden cardiac death following a struggle with law enforcement including prone position restraint complicating acute methamphetamine toxicity.” For more than two minutes, an officer sat on Arreola while he was handcuffed, WLTZ reported.

At the time, the Ledger-Enquirer reported that Arreola suffered multiple contusions and bruising to his upper torso and arm.

Attorney Stacey Jackson released this photo in 2017 that showed Hector Arreola's injuries before he died. Jackson is representing Arreola's family in a civil suit.
Attorney Stacey Jackson released this photo in 2017 that showed Hector Arreola's injuries before he died. Jackson is representing Arreola's family in a civil suit.

Credit: Ledger-Enquirer

Credit: Ledger-Enquirer

His manner of death was also updated from accidental to homicide. Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan confirmed that the GBI amended the death certificate June 30.

In her autopsy report, Dr. Lora Darrisaw concluded: “The hospital records document a positive drug screen. The complete autopsy discloses cutaneous contusions predominantly of the arms and a laceration above the left eye that reportedly was sustained prior to the struggle with law enforcement.”

She added, “No fatal traumatic injuries are identified.”

The changes come on the heels of the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked national outrage, weeks of protests and many police departments to amend their policies on detaining suspects.

Arreola’s death has multiple parallels with Floyd’s final moments, in which he infamously gasped the words, “I can’t breathe,” while ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pushed a knee against his throat. Arreola’s father, Rod Arreola, previously told WLTZ that his son said those same words 16 times during his arrest.

Hector Arreola’s family has a civil suit pending within the federal court system that claims excessive force was used in his death, the news station reported. The latest development in the case was that a judge denied the officers’ immunity, with the family requesting a jury trial.

The two officers involved in the incident, Brian Dudley and Mike Aguilar, were placed on administrative leave following Arreola’s death, but they later returned to duty. Neither has been charged, and it’s unclear if they still work for the Columbus Police Department.

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