Matthew Clayton Robinson was off his medications and in the midst of a breakdown.
In the back of a vehicle transporting him from a hospital in Chico to a mental facility in Redding on a July night in 2014, he began shouting that someone was following him. He bounced and flailed inside the van, equipped with a “cage” that separated him from the front seat. He broke an interior light fixture and used shards of plastic to shred the car’s upholstery.
By the time the van arrived at Restpadd psychiatric facility, the driver had summoned police for help in removing Robinson. Within minutes, he was beaten and bloodied, pinned to the ground with a fabric “spit hood” pulled over his head. A Sacramento native and graduate of California State University, Chico, Robinson wound up in a coma and died seven days later. He was 33 years old.
The circumstances of his demise are at the center of an incendiary wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Redding and its Police Department that is making its way through federal court in Sacramento.
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Beyond the question of whether officers used excessive force against someone who was seriously mentally ill, the suit raises other issues. Which agency or jurisdiction was legally responsible for Robinson when Redding police arrived on the scene? Did police cause Robinson to suffocate when they placed a spit hood over his bloodied face? And did authorities try to withhold information about what happened that night?
“We don’t want Matthew to have died for nothing,” said Larry Baumbach, a Chico attorney representing Robinson’s parents, Kathryn and William Robinson of Orland. “We want the public to be aware of what happened here and to help prevent atrocities like this in the future. We want law enforcement to start paying attention to the fact that not everyone they encounter is a criminal.”
Gary Brickwood, who represents the city, police Chief Robert Paoletti and two officers involved in the confrontation said the suit is without merit. He said police were faced with a “psychotic, crazed” Matthew Robinson and had to use force to restrain him or face injury themselves. While police were holding him down, he said, Robinson had a heart attack that ultimately led to his death.
Robinson’s cause of death, according to a coroner’s report, was “excited delirium,” a controversial medical condition that has been cited in numerous fatal encounters with police around the country in recent years.
Although the physiological mechanism of the syndrome is poorly understood, excited delirium often is associated with drug abuse and psychotic behavior. Its symptoms include a soaring heart rate and highly elevated body temperature. Victims typically die from cardiac arrest, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Civil libertarians, including the ACLU, have argued that the diagnosis has been wrongly used by law enforcement to explain deaths linked to excessive force.
The first coroner to investigate Robinson’s case told Baumbach that the evidence she reviewed did not point to excited delirium. The coroner, Katherine Raven, left her job with Shasta County before completing Robinson’s autopsy in part because of her inability to get proper evidence from city and county authorities working with her on the case, she said.
In an email to Baumbach obtained by The Bee, Raven said Robinson’s final autopsy, performed by an independent coroner, was missing key information and failed to prove that excited delirium, and not oxygen deprivation or suffocation, led to his death.
No drugs were found in Robinson’s system, according to court records. Baumbach said medical records do not suggest that he had an extraordinarily high body temperature following his encounter with police.
“Mr. Robinson demonstrated excited behavior, not diagnostic of excited delirium,” Raven wrote. Witness descriptions of Robinson’s interactions with police are “highly suggestive of compromising Mr. Robinson’s respirations” as police held him down, Raven said.
Raven, who now works in Sacramento County, declined to be interviewed by The Bee.
Robinson’s case is one of several high-profile fatal encounters between mentally ill people and police that have grabbed headlines in Northern California in recent years. In Sacramento, the deaths of two mentally ill men, Joseph Mann and Dazion Flenaugh, by police have spurred protests and led to changes, including additional training for officers in techniques designed to defuse volatile encounters between police and people with mental problems.
Brickwood, the attorney for Redding’s Police Department, said the officers are not culpable in Robinson’s death. He said Butte County Behavioral Health, which arranged for Robinson’s transport to Redding, failed in its mission to safely deliver Robinson to Restpadd.
“That is their responsibility,” Brickwood said. “Cops are not mental health experts. They’re really not.”
Robinson had his share of encounters with police since suffering his first mental “episode” in 2003, when he was a senior at CSU Chico, his parents said. But he had no criminal record and never had been injured by an officer, they said.
Born in Sacramento, Robinson spent the first two years of his life in Orangevale before his parents, both teachers, moved the family to Orland. Tall and lean with a gentle manner and a gift for music, Matthew Robinson wrestled and ran track in high school. He studied mechanical engineering and economics at Chico State, where his parents said he carried a good grade-point average and made the dean’s list at least once.
In January 2003, his life was interrupted by mental illness. “His roommate called us one morning, and said ‘Something’s wrong with Matt,’ ” his mother said. He had set up a tent inside his apartment in the middle of the night and was “acting very oddly,” the roommate reported.
Days later, Matthew was arrested after he stripped naked and disarmed an officer in an incident at a small airport in Butte County. He soon was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and after a year of participation in a mental health treatment program, was cleared of all charges, according to his parents. He finished his degree at Chico State and held a variety of jobs, including working as a cashier at Walmart, while searching for work in his field. He signed on as a volunteer mentor for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and talked to families and other patients about his experiences with bipolar disorder.
But sometimes he neglected to take his medications properly. At least four times, his parents said, he became so disconnected from reality and so agitated that authorities detained him on an involuntary psychiatric hold. He would be transported to a hospital then released within a few days.
Kathryn and William Robinson were visiting Lake Almanor on July 19, 2014, when Matthew suffered his final breakdown. He had been living with a girlfriend, his parents said, and doing well. The couple had talked about marriage.
That evening, the Robinsons said, Matthew became extremely agitated, prompting his girlfriend to take him to Butte County Behavioral Health, an outpatient clinic in Chico. There, according to court records, he was placed on an involuntary psychiatric hold and transferred to Enloe Medical Center for a medical evaluation.
From Enloe, Matthew Robinson was to be taken to Restpadd, a mental health facility in Redding. During the drive, which would take more than an hour, Robinson became combative and paranoid. Brickwood, the lawyer representing the police officers, said Robinson was “yelling, bouncing around in the back of the car, totally out of control.”
Staffers at Restpadd, upon Robinson’s arrival, said he was “not sufficiently calm for admittance” to the facility and should be taken back to a full-service hospital, according to the lawsuit. The transport van’s driver called police for help in “getting him out of the car and handcuffing him” for safety purposes, Brickwood said.
Video from inside the transport vehicle shows Officer Mike Woods shining a light into Robinson’s face and shouting: “I’m going to get a bunch of officers up here and beat your f’ing ass,” according to court records. Woods and another officer, Aaron Hollemon, struggled with Robinson as he got out of the van. According to the lawsuit, Woods had a can of pepper spray in his hand and hit Robinson in the head with it as they scuffled.
Then, after handcuffing Robinson as he lay face down on the ground, one of the officers placed a spit hood – designed for protection against biting and the spewing of blood and saliva – over his head. The hoods, made of a mesh that fits over the head and light fabric that covers the mouth and nose, are commonly used by police departments in Northern California and around the country. The hood’s manufacturer warns can the device can “cause asphyxiation, suffocation or drowning in one’s own fluids” if used improperly.
The lawsuit says Robinson was bleeding profusely from facial wounds. Within minutes of placing the mask on him, officers noticed that Robinson had stopped breathing. He was taken to a nearby medical hospital, but he never regained consciousness. As he lay in the intensive care unit, his face swollen and bruised, his parents and brother Curtis hardly recognized him. He died a week after the incident.
At the time, Matthew Robinson’s parents knew only that he had been involved in a confrontation with police. They became concerned, they said, after reviewing medical records that detailed his injuries, including broken ribs and a broken nose. “I thought, ‘Something is not right,’ ” his mother said.
She said she was disturbed when she learned that no independent agency would be looking into what happened to her son. Rather, the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department and the district attorney would review the case. The county found that the officers were justified in their use of force against Robinson.
Raven, the county coroner, was assigned to conduct an autopsy that would determine the cause of death. But, according to court records, the county Sheriff’s Office, which works with the coroner’s office in gathering evidence on death investigations, repeatedly refused to deliver “brain tissue samples, bodily fluid samples” and other information necessary to reach an accurate conclusion. According to the lawsuit, she resigned her job in frustration.
An independent coroner chosen to review the case concluded that excited delirium was the cause. “Excited delirium combined with a struggle precipitates cardiac arrest,” wrote Dr. Arnold Josselson. “Often, as in this case, this occurs when an individual has stopped taking his medication.”
Robinson’s lawyer has accused Shasta County, based largely on Raven’s accounts, of conspiring with the city to hide the real cause of Robinson’s death. But the court ruled that the accusation was unproven and dismissed that part of the suit.
The case against Redding and its officers could be taken to a jury early next year, Baumbach said.
Baumbach contends that Robinson would be alive today if cops would have tried to calm him. “Instead they screamed at him and shined a flashlight in his face,” which likely further agitated him and caused the situation to escalate, the lawyer said. “This is not how you treat someone who is mentally ill.
“If Matthew was imagining demons that night, the fulfillment of his imagination appeared in the form of Officer Woods.”
Baumbach said that mucus and blood from facial wounds Robinson suffered during the ensuing altercation soaked through the spit hood that officers applied, likely cutting off his breathing.
But Brickwood said his clients are guilty of nothing more than a poor choice of words. Woods, he said, should not have threatened Robinson with a beating when he first encountered him. He said the officer “was reprimanded for using inappropriate language.”
“He wanted to get Mr. Robinson’s attention,” Brickwood said. “But those words were not well thought out.”
However, he said, Woods “is a very good police officer” and had taken special training to deal with mentally ill suspects. Brickwood said Woods retired with a back injury related to the incident involving Robinson. He said Hollemon, who had minimal contact with Robinson, remains on the force.
For almost three years, Kathryn and William Robinson have been trying to get to the bottom of what happened to their son. They will never stop, they said, until they get answers.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Kathryn Robinson, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. as she clutched a binder filled with information about her son’s life and death. “It has been more than 2 1/2 years since Matt died. Someone needs to be held accountable for what happened to him.”