Mother sues over son’s death in Hyattsville police custody
BY LISA WOELFL
The mother of a 29-year-old Mount Rainier man who died in police custody has brought a lawsuit against the City of Hyattsville and three police officers.
Her lawyer, George Harper, filed the complaint on Oct. 13, one day shy of the third anniversary of Edwin Morales’ death. Harper argues that Hyattsville police officers falsely arrested and fatally battered Morales, using “unreasonable and excessive force.”
Harper demands a total of $20 million of compensatory and punitive damages for Morales’ mother, Silvia Loyo, through a complaint filed in Prince George’s County Circuit Court.
The original complaint included multiple references to a shooting, which were removed in an amendment Harper shared with the Life & Times. Harper declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The Life & Times obtained documents from the county police this October detailing their internal investigation into Morales’ death. According to the investigators and witness statements, this is what happened on Oct. 14, 2020:
A Maryland resident, who we will refer to as AJ, got off his bike at Shepherd Street in Brentwood and sat down to make a phone call. He heard someone mount the bicycle and saw the man, later identified as 29-year-old Edwin Morales, ride away.
At 3:38 p.m., AJ called the police to report the theft. A woman saw what happened and offered AJ a ride in her car to follow the man on his bike. “He was all over the place riding. He was wobbling,” AJ later told the police.
Patrick O’Hagan, then a sergeant with more than 20 years of experience at the Hyattsville Police Department (HPD), quickly found Morales biking along Baltimore Avenue.
O’Hagan followed him and ordered him to stop. Watching Morales’ face, O’Hagan suspected he might be on drugs. Morales turned right and rode through a parking lot. He attempted to ride up a steep driveway, but fell off the bike. O’Hagan had left his car by then and ordered Morales to stay on the ground, but the young man attempted to run away.
The county police reports conflict regarding an important detail. In the case files the Life & Times obtained, one report states that O’Hagan drew his baton, hit Morales’ leg, and pushed him. Another document says that O’Hagan attempted to hit Morales’ leg, but didn’t make contact. The county police’s records division didn’t respond to multiple requests for clarification.
Morales stumbled and fell into the trees lining the parking lot. He didn’t respond to any commands. More officers arrived.
“The Officers tried to stand him up. He wouldn’t,” one officer said in her police witness statement.
They brought Morales out onto the parking lot, sat him down and managed to cuff his hands, as Morales was trying to resist. At times, two officers had to stand behind him to keep Morales sitting upright. More than once, he fell over and officers put him into a seated position again, the internal investigator’s report states.
“His lips looked a little pale,” the officer noted in her statement. Morales put his head down. He was acting lethargic, and seemed out of breath. Another officer told the police that Morales “did not look good,” and that he had a blank stare on his face. Morales had trouble breathing. The officers called an ambulance, uncuffed Morales and started to perform CPR on him. Morales stopped breathing and could not be resuscitated.
At 4:57 p.m. Edwin Morales was pronounced dead.
The autopsy found that Morales died of a drug overdose, and the medical examiners ruled his death an accident. He had minor injuries on his head, back, arms and legs.
Over two years ago, the county police’s internal affairs division authorized the involved police officers to return to full duty, the case files show.
According to Morales’ mother, he was with her in the morning on the day he died. Loyo says she gave him some money to get his phone repaired, but couldn’t come with him. He said, “OK, mommy, I love you,” she remembers. Morales held and kissed her. When he was done, he would visit his grandfather, he said. She reminded him to do the laundry and that he had work the next day.
Loyo lives in Mount Rainier with her husband and her 16-year-old son. That same night, she remembers, police officers knocked on her door. They told Loyo that her 29-year-old son had died. After the county police concluded their investigation in 2021, Loyo received a letter stating that the officers involved were exonerated.
Loyo’s voice softens when she speaks about Morales. She describes her son as a good guy who had lots of friends. She shares a photo of her late son, printed on a large piece of cardboard. The photo shows him crouching on a step, looking earnestly at the camera. He wanted to have fun all the time, she says, but didn’t use dangerous drugs.
She believes the police officers who arrested him are responsible for his death. “They killed him. I want justice, and I want to see them in court,” she says.
Her complaint is directed at three officers: Sgt. Patrick O’Hagan, who chased Morales, along with police officers Shaun Wesberry and Jonathan Monge, who handcuffed him.
O’Hagan retired from the force in late 2021. All other involved police officers still work for the HPD.
Toxicologists found that Morales had 0.4mg/L PCP, also known as angel dust, in his blood, according to the autopsy. The dose could be high enough to kill someone, though PCP deaths are rare.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks overdose deaths, but lumps in PCP with other drugs. The larger group of intravenous anesthetics accounted for 880 overdose deaths in 2022, according to provisional CDC data. They represent a tiny sliver of the more than 100,000 overdose deaths recorded.
Dr. Avinash Ramprashad, an addiction psychiatrist with the University of Maryland Medical System, sees few cases of PCP overdoses. People high on PCP may experience a feeling of “superhuman strength” while losing sensitivity to pain, Ramprashad explained, which makes them more likely to put themselves and others in danger.
Usually, the drug doesn’t slow down breathing, Ramprashad said, but added: “Exhaustion from stimulating drugs like PCP could potentially lead to someone not being able to maintain their airway and consciousness.”
The Life & Times presented toxicologist Dr. Andrew Stolbach, who is an associate professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine, with a summary of the county police’s investigation of Morales’ death.
“If you’re really sedated, and you’re not protecting the airway, you’re not holding your posture, you slump over — if they leave you like that for a couple of minutes, that could kill you,” Stolbach said. According to his autopsy, Morales was obese. His weight “would make him much more likely to lose his airway,” Stolbach said.
Without a video or complete timestamps, it is impossible to judge if his posture contributed to Morales’ death, Stolbach added.
In general, intoxicated suspects that have trouble breathing shouldn’t sit down and lean forward, he explained. Instead, they should lie flat on their back, chin pointed up, to ensure the chest can move.
Officers repeatedly sat Morales on the ground, even as he slouched over and dropped his head towards his chest.
HPD Chief Jarod Towers declined to comment on the case or share if trainings address the risks of certain positions when handling intoxicated suspects. Towers joined HPD in 2021, one year after Morales’ death.
In a prepared statement, Towers said officers receive ongoing training on how to evaluate individuals in crisis and de-escalate situations.
Between October 2021 and September 2022, 23 people died in incidents involving police officers in Maryland, according to a report by the state attorney general’s office. Most of them died after officers shot them. Three people died in police custody after a medical emergency or drug overdose.
This annual report is the first one to be released after Anton’s Law created a division within the Maryland attorney general’s office to investigate all police-involved deaths of civilians. The law is named after Anton Black, a Black teenager who died in police custody in Greensboro, in 2018.
Loyo still has many questions. The one-page letter she received from the HPD said the officers weren’t at fault, but didn’t explain what exactly had happened to her son. She said she never saw the autopsy report. “My son’s life will never come back. It will never come back,” she says. Still, Loyo hopes for her day in court.
The Life & Times first requested records related to Edwin Morales’ death in August 2021. The paper filed a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request with the Prince George’s County Police Department in April 2022, which was left unanswered. In March 2023, the Life & Times filed another MPIA request. Six months later, the paper received the internal investigation report, after following up with the county police five times and involving the Maryland Public Access Ombudsman.