ME says man in police custody died of cocaine, ethanol toxicity

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CHICAGO (STMW) - A 24-year-old man who died in police custody on the Southwest Side last summer succumbed to “combined cocaine and alcohol toxicity” with “physical stress associated with restraint a significant contributing factor.”

That was the official word from the Cook County medical examiner’s office on Friday in closing the case of Heriberto Godinez Jr., who died on July 20 in Brighton Park.

But the case may be far from closed.

An attorney for the family said Friday a federal lawsuit will be filed in the next few days.

Officers were called to a report of a burglary in progress about 1:20 a.m. that night in the 3000 block of West Pershing, and found Godinez, who they suspected of being involved, Chicago Police said at the time.

He was “sweating heavily with labored breathing,” police said, so officers called paramedics, but despite medical intervention, Godinez became unresponsive, police said. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

An autopsy initially made no ruling on cause or manner of death, and while the report released Friday said drugs and alcohol caused the death, it made no determination on manner of death (accident, homicide, suicide).

The autopsy found “the substantial factor in this death was ethanol and cocaine toxicity. The use of these substances predisposed Mr. Godinez to a lethal dysrhythmia. There is also evidence that Mr. Godinez was intensely exerting himself while apprehended.

The medical examiner’s office said the “sudden, unexpected collapse and death of Mr. Godinez most likely represents a cardiac dysrhythmia following intense physical exertion while under the influence of cocaine and ethanol…”

Such findings “would support a manner of death finding as accidental,” the report concluded, but “the actions of the arresting officers prior to and following the available video footage may also have resulted in physical stress on the body, despite the fact that there were no lethal injuries or evidence of asphyxia.  … For these reasons, manner of death is best deemed undetermined.”

The report showed that the “officers’ actions led to Godinez’ death,” attorney Jeffrey Granich said by phone Friday evening.

“Many people are taken into police custody under the influence of alcohol and cocaine, but they don’t end up dead,” he said.

What does not happen every day, he added, is that suspects are restrained as Godinez was.

“He was handcuffed with his arms behind his back, and his feet were bound with plastic cuffs. I have never seen anyone hog-tied that way,” the attorney said.

The medical examiner’s office said, “during the apprehension process, Mr. Godinez demonstrated agitated behavior with self-injury which allegedly continued upon placement into a transport vehicle. Before transport occurred, it was reported that there was a “loud thump” and Mr. Godinez was found face down and unresponsive on the floor of the transport vehicle.”

But while the initial autopsy showed “multiple, superficial injuries (abrasions, contusions, lacerations) …there were no lethal blunt force or penetrating injuries. Many of these injuries are compatible with those caused by struggling on a paved surface,” the report said. It pointed out there was no evidence of a broken neck, injuries to the larynx, skull fractures, intracranial bleeding or cerebral contusions.

Toxicology tests “showed combined cocaine and ethanol toxicity” and the presence of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

“Cocaine toxicity is a well-documented cause of sudden death,” the report said. “When cocaine is used in combination with alcohol … it may also increase the risk of sudden death.”