San Francisco Man Dies After Being Handcuffed, Held Down by Police and Fire Crews

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Authorities are investigating the death of a 35-year-old man who twice told police and fire crews he couldn’t breathe as he was being held, face-down, after being handcuffed for several minutes, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit has learned.

“I can't let go because I don't know what happened to my son,” said Mary Ellen Hannigan about the March 16 death of her son Kurt von Boehrens.

His death is now being probed by both the police and fire departments, as well as the District Attorney’s office.

San Francisco fire officials issued a statement saying the incident began when they responded to a fire alarm just before 4 p.m. in the 1400 block of Halibut Court on Treasure Island.

The first arriving crew found no smoke but someone screaming for help while a man told them he had been held hostage, according to the statement. The battalion chief called in police for help with von Boehrens, according to a recording of the radio traffic that day. “Be advised engine we are going to need a Code 3 (emergency) police response for a potential domestic dispute,” the battalion chief radioed in. The fire department’s account describes von Boehrens as being verbally abusive and erratic.

“He was not in his right state, whether he was high or not,” said neighbor Michelle-Lael Norsworthy. “It's not for me to say so.”

Von Boehrens talked about his troubles with drinking in a 2014 YouTube video, saying they began after he started jump school in the military.  

“I just kind of went haywire-- I was out there man, getting wasted.”

It is not yet known whether von Boehrens was intoxicated when the first two officers arrived. Norsworthy said officers were not confrontational and attempted to calm von Boehrens.

But according to the Fire Department’s account, he “continued to show acts of violence, including throwing objects and breaking windows.”

According to those familiar with the officer-worn body camera footage of the incident, police detained von Boehrens after he attempted to enter an apartment through a broken window. He was then placed face down on the ground outside the apartment as fire crews and the police officer attempted to transfer von Boehrens to a gurney.

Police have not released the officers’ body-worn camera footage from that day, and declined comment for this story due to the ongoing investigation.

For several minutes, as crews attempt to put him onto the gurney, one firefighter puts his knee against von Boehrens’ back. Throughout the struggle, no one checks his vital signs. Even after von Boehrens can twice be overheard saying “I can’t breathe.”

About five minutes after being handcuffed, von Boehrens was unresponsive. The battalion chief radios for help, “Code 3, please,” according to the dispatch recording.

Norsworthy said she watched as medics tried to revive him. “They were running compressions on him all the way to the ambulance and in the ambulance,” she said.

Mary Ellen Hannigan says when she got the call from the hospital that night, her son was unconscious and near death. It was then, she said, that hospital staff asked her if she wanted to speak to him via speaker phone.

“I spoke with my son,” she said. “I don't know if he was able to hear me. I was able to say my goodbyes to him. I wasn't ready to say my goodbyes to him. And when they called me and they told me that he had passed away, I fell on the floor screaming. I was absolutely shocked.”

More than two months later, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has yet to determine a cause of death. The District Attorney’s office is awaiting the outcome of that examination as it conducts an independent probe.

The Fire Department said that while the investigation is continuing, their role was to assist officers “in restraining the individual in a manner that would allow them to provide additional care.” 

But a fire department bulletin, issued days after the incident, stressed that the department’s police requires that one firefighter “shall be assigned to continuously monitor the patient’s level of consciousness” and other vital signs without being directly involved in the restraint.

Hannigan says that no one has given her a detailed account of what happened that day. She says her son will be buried later this month at the Willamette National Cemetery.

“I'll never hear from my son ever again. I'll never see my son again. And I don't know why. And I want to know why.”

In his videotaped testimonial about his struggles back in 2014, von Boehrens appeared in an orange jumpsuit – typical garb for those being held in jail – but seemed determined to turn his life around.  

“It’s not over yet,” he said. “I feel like I still have a chance.”

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