Crime

'Why am I dying?' homeless man asks as police try to help outside Bellingham shelter

Video shows Bellingham officers struggling with homeless man who later died

Bellingham police provided this security and body camera footage of officers' response to a call at the Drop-In Center, an emergency homeless shelter. Robert R. Gagnon, 49, died while in custody.
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Bellingham police provided this security and body camera footage of officers' response to a call at the Drop-In Center, an emergency homeless shelter. Robert R. Gagnon, 49, died while in custody.

Bellingham police have identified the 49-year-old man who died while in custody this week as Robert R. Gagnon, according to a press release.

Police had no history of contact with Gagnon prior to Thursday and an investigation indicated he spent most of his life in Minnesota with stops in Colorado and Seattle, the release said.

Gagnon was previously reported to have no living next of kin, but police said they were contacted by a family member and they have been made aware of the situation.

Gagnon’s death is still being investigated, and an autopsy is scheduled for Tuesday. The medical examiner will determine his cause of death.

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

Gagnon was exhibiting signs of mental and medical crises and appeared to be suffering from delusions and paranoia, according to the release. Drop-In Center staff asked for police to do a welfare check and 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 and whose behavior was unstable, according to Bellingham police.

Someone also called to report that a man was yelling “I can’t breathe,” according to the emergency radio broadcast.

Officers used de-escalation and verbal skills to get Gagnon into protective custody so that he could be taken to St. Joseph hospital for a medical and mental health evaluation, according to the release. He was placed into handcuffs for his safety and the safety of the officers, according to police.

Gagnon began to “doubt the legitimacy of the officers and begins to struggle to get away from them, at one point attempting to run into the street,” according the release. Gagnon was then placed on his side and aid was called, the release said.

Gagnon was outside the center and officers were holding him on the ground when he became unresponsive.



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

Surveillance and body camera footage show Gagnon in the Drop-In Center and the officers' initial contact with him. The footage also shows three officers struggling with Gagnon outside the center, before he becomes unresponsive.

During the footage, Gagnon asks whether they are “real police” before they take him outside the center. After they began leading him to a patrol car, Gagnon yells for help and says they’re not real police. The officers can be heard asking him to relax and saying they need to help him.

Once on the ground, Gagnon tells officers he can’t breathe and tells them to turn him to his other side. The officers are heard trying to reassure Gagnon, but he continues to yell for help and at one point asks, “Why am I dying?,” according to the footage.

After medical personnel arrive, it’s realized Gagnon is unconscious, according to the footage.

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.

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