Irvo Otieno had realized his passion: making hip-hop. He could write a song in less than five minutes. And he was streaming his music under the moniker “Young Vo,” while working toward starting his own record label.
“He had found his thing — you know that feeling when you find your thing?” his mother Caroline Ouko told reporters Thursday. “He would go in his room and shut the door. And he had it — he was brilliant and creative and bright.”
But, the mother added, “All I’m left with is his voice.”
Ouko remembered her son’s life at an hourlong news conference that focused primarily on his death March 6 at a state mental hospital in Virginia.
Ouko had just viewed video of Otieno’s final minutes as he was being admitted to Central State Hospital south of Richmond, during which she and her attorneys say sheriff’s deputies smothered him, pressing him down until his body was “clearly lifeless.” His arms and legs were bound, they said, but he posed no threat to the deputies and hospital employees who’ve since been charged with second-degree murder.
Otieno’s biography is now coming to the fore, not for his music, but because of the shockingly inhumane way in which authorities say he was killed. He was yet another Black man to die in police custody in a case that prominent civil-rights attorney Ben Crump, who is also representing Ouko, said harshly echoes the previous deaths of such men as George Floyd. Crump represented Floyd’s family and the relatives of other Black men killed under similar circumstances.
Otieno, who was 28, came to the U.S. from Kenya at the age of 4 but he “was as American as apple pie,” his mother said.
As a child in school, he was the type of guy who would invite a student eating lunch alone to join him, and classmates who needed someone to talk to were drawn to him, she said. He was a leader and a listener, someone who took the time to process what was being said and would then “lean back in,” Ouko said.
“He cared that people were treated right,” she said. “That was at the core of his upbringing in our home. He cared that people were treated equally.”
She added that Otieno wasn’t afraid to offer different perspectives in conversations, to go the other way “when everybody else is following.”
Otieno began dealing with some mental health issues during his last year of high school, his mother said. But she said he also went to college in California, and “had long stretches where you wouldn’t even know something was wrong.”
There were times, though, when he went “into some kind of distress” and needed to see a doctor, she said. Ouko declined to share her son’s diagnosis, saying only that he had gone to a mental health facility before and “came back home.”
“That’s the question that I’m asking: why he didn’t come back home,” she said.
Otieno was taken into custody March 3, according to a timeline provided by Henrico County Police, a separate entity from the Henrico County Sheriff’s Office.
The police department said in a news release that officers encountered Otieno while responding to a report of a possible burglary in suburban Richmond, and that based on his behavior, they put him under an emergency custody order and took him to a local hospital for evaluation.
Mark Krudys, one of Ouko’s attorneys, said that Otieno was experiencing a mental health crisis at the time. He said a neighbor called police over concerns about him gathering lawn lights from a yard.
Otieno’s mother tried to de-escalate the initial response from police officers, with the moment captured on a neighbor’s cellphone, Crump said.
“Caroline is hugging her child, as if she’s trying to protect him from these people who might not see him like she sees him,” he said.
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Added Krudys: “She was imploring them (to) treat him appropriately, bring him to a hospital. And he was vacuumed into the criminal justice system, for which there was no care that was provided, that we saw.”
While he was at the hospital, police said he “became physically assaultive toward officers, who arrested him” and took him to a local jail managed by the Henrico Sheriff’s Office, where he was charged with several crimes.
While Otieno was in jail, he was denied access to needed medications, the family attorneys said. Crump said he was pepper-sprayed, and Krudys said the video showed officers on March 6 charging into his jail cell, which was covered in feces and where he lay naked and handcuffed.
The video shows officers carrying an “almost lifeless” Otieno out by his arms and legs “like an animal” to a vehicle to be taken to the state hospital, Crump said.
Leon Ochieng, Otieno’s older brother, said at Thursday’s news conference that his mother can’t sleep or eat.
“Our hearts are broken,” he said. “But our spirts are strong. And my brother’s spirit is not done.”
A distraught Ouko said that, “When they took my baby away … they took him away from his brother. They took him away from his nieces. They took him away from his friends. And they took him away from a community that cared (for) and loved him.”