Homeless man's death while in Bellingham Police custody under investigation

Listen to dispatcher calls about man's in-custody death

Dispatcher calls to fire and aid crews at a Bellingham drop-in center.
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Dispatcher calls to fire and aid crews at a Bellingham drop-in center.

The death of a 49-year-old man who died early Thursday while in custody, and after calling 911 for police and medical care, is being investigated, Bellingham Police said.

Police responded to the call, which was made about 11:37 p.m. Wednesday at the Drop-In Center, an emergency homeless shelter at 1013 W. Holly St. in Bellingham.

Drop-In Center staff also called for help.

"In the middle of the night, while everyone else was sleeping, the man began exhibiting erratic delusional behavior. The man did not respond to redirection efforts by staff, and 911 was called for a wellness check," said Hans Erchinger-Davis, executive director of Lighthouse Mission Ministries, which operates the center.

They asked police to remove the man from the center, according to emergency radio dispatches.

Initial information indicated there was a man who was possibly under the influence of drugs, whose behavior was unstable and who was acting paranoid, according to Bellingham Police.

Someone also called in to report that a man was yelling "I can't breathe," according to emergency radio broadcast that went out shortly before 11:53 p.m. It's unknown if the man was yelling at that time.

A preliminary review of an officer's body camera footage from the scene showed the man was responding to verbal commands, police said, adding he was taken into custody safely.

The man was outside the center and walking down the street in handcuffs when he became unresponsive, according to Bellingham Police Lt. Mike Johnston.

"He was fine and then all of a sudden he wasn't," Johnston said.

He was in handcuffs for his protection and those of the officers, according to Johnston. The man was being taken to St. Joseph hospital for a medical and mental health evaluation.

Police and on-scene medics tended to him. He was taken to the hospital, where he died shortly after midnight Thursday, police said.

An autopsy is scheduled for Tuesday. The medical examiner will determine the cause of death.

Erchinger-Davis said the man was from outside of Whatcom County and was new to the Drop-In Center, where he had been staying for a couple of nights.

"The Mission is deeply saddened by his death," he said.

The Whatcom County Sheriff's Office is helping with the investigation. Including outside investigators is routine when an in-custody death is involved, police said.

Body camera footage will be released when the man's name has been released, police said.

“The loss of life is always tragic," Bellingham Police Chief David Doll said in a news release. “Our condolences will go out to the family once next of kin are identified."

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea