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Inmate looked dead to medics

A Western Correctional Institution inmate whose death was ruled a homicide had been near death - and might have been dead already - before correctional officers called for an ambulance, a tape of a 911 emergency call shows.

Within minutes of leaving the Allegany County prison with Ifeanyi A. Iko, a paramedic radioed a hospital emergency room seeking permission to cease cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the 51-year-old inmate, who was mistakenly believed to have suffered a heart attack.

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"We're en route to your location with a patient who was in cardiac arrest," the unidentified paramedic is heard telling the emergency room. "I already have rigidity present on the patient. We have, uh, numerous indications that this patient has been down for a little while."

Later on the tape, a 911 dispatcher tells a physician that "the patient had actually been down a good while prior to the arrival of the ambulance."

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The recording, obtained from the Allegany County 911 emergency center, calls into question prison authorities' accounts of the circumstances surrounding Iko's death on April 30. He had been forcibly removed from his cell earlier in the day and taken to a special housing area away from other prisoners, according to inmate witnesses in accounts to The Sun.

Last week, the medical examiner's office ruled Iko's death a homicide and listed asphyxiation as the cause of death.

One day before that announcement, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services called in Maryland State Police and the Allegany County state's attorney's office to assist its internal investigation into Iko's death.

Inmate witnesses, in letters to The Sun, stated that correctional officers sprayed Iko with three cans of a chemical substance and beat him. They also stated that Iko appeared lifeless when he was bound and taken from his cell.

15-minute checks

Corrections department spokesman Mark Vernarelli said last week that Iko would have been checked every 15 minutes by correctional officers or medical personnel during the time he was held in the special housing unit.

Vernarelli said an ambulance was summoned after Iko was discovered motionless during one of those checks.

But paramedics, who arrived within five minutes of receiving the 911 call at 4:37 p.m., reported soon after leaving the prison that Iko's body already showed signs of "rigidity."

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The 911 tape and call logs show that the ambulance arrived at the prison at 4:42 p.m. Thirteen minutes later, soon after the ambulance left the Cresaptown facility, the paramedic sought and received permission to stop performing CPR on Iko.

That suggests that he was very near death - or possibly already dead - when he was loaded into the ambulance.

Iko was officially pronounced dead at Sacred Heart Hospital in Cumberland at 5:10 p.m., according to prison authorities.

Vernarelli said he could not respond to the 911 tape's contents because of the department's investigation.

Onset 'varies quite a bit'

Dr. Michael D. Bell, chairman of the National Association of Medical Examiners, said that the onset of rigor mortis "varies quite a bit" depending on circumstances.

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He said its onset can range from "an hour or a little less, to several hours" and that strenuous exertion before death usually speeds the process.

"It's not a terribly accurate way of telling when someone has died," said Bell, the deputy chief medical examiner in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has declined to answer many questions about the investigation into Iko's death.

For example, Vernarelli would not say yesterday what time Iko was forcibly removed from his cell - a process known as "cell extraction" - how long he was in the special housing unit or what else occurred that day.

"The integrity of the investigation is of the utmost importance," Vernarelli said. "It simply cannot be jeopardized. Every aspect of this inmate's final day is potentially a part of that investigation."

Letter to Iko's family

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An inmate who says he witnessed Iko's forcible removal from his cell wrote in a May 30 letter to family members that he has seen investigators around but that neither he nor other inmates who witnessed the incident have been interviewed by them.

Vernarelli responded: "Before this investigation has been concluded, there will have been dozens of interviews done with staff and inmates."

Vernarelli did disclose for the first time yesterday that six correctional officers involved in the incident have been temporarily assigned to other parts of the prison.

'Routine procedure'

"It is routine procedure for the warden and his executive staff to rotate to another area of the prison any employees who were involved in an incident that is under investigation," he said. "In no way does this suggest a punitive action; it's done for the sake of everyone's safety."

Iko, a Nigerian immigrant, had been in a cell in the segregation unit, where prisoners are separated from the general inmate population for disciplinary, administrative or other reasons.

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He had been sent to prison in 1991 to serve a three-year sentence for drug distribution in Prince George's County, court records show.

In 1992, he stabbed and bit a correctional officer while at the Eastern Correctional Institution and eventually received an additional 20-year sentence, records show.

Iko had been housed in several institutions across the state before ending up at WCI in January, Vernarelli said.

He said that WCI staff was shocked and distressed by Iko's death, "which was totally unexpected."

WCI, a medium-security state prison, opened in 1996. It houses about 1,600 inmates.


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