An autopsy could not determine the cause of death of a California man who was wounded in a wild gunfight with Albuquerque police in August 2021 and found dead months later in a federal holding cell.
James Ramirez booking photo. (SOURCE: MDC)
The state Office of the Medical Investigator listed the cause and manner of death for 28-year-old James Ramirez as “undetermined,” according to the autopsy report released to the Journal on Friday.
The autopsy also recovered several bullets and bullet fragments from his body, still embedded from the shootout that left four officers injured, one almost fatally.
Ramirez was found dead on Feb. 15 at the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan. He was being held at the facility while awaiting trial on charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm in the police shooting.
The Village of Milan Police Department is investigating the death but did not return calls for comment Friday.
In March, Milan Police Sgt. Joe Galindo told the Journal the department did not suspect foul play in Ramirez’s death. He said Ramirez had been on suicide watch with checks taking place every half hour.
Staff at the facility believed Ramirez was using drugs and had repeatedly slammed his head into the cell wall, according to an incident report. He spent five hours in the hospital before being brought back to the facility. The next day, Ramirez was found dead in his cell, his body covered in blood and bruises.
Months earlier, on Aug. 19, 2021, Ramirez got into back-to-back shootouts with police in Northeast Albuquerque outside a crowded drive-thru before being shot and detained. The gunfire began when police tracked Ramirez and another man — who eluded capture — to an alleyway after the pair allegedly robbed a man at gunpoint.
The injured Albuquerque Police Department officers — Mario Verbeck, James Eichel Jr., Harry Gunderson and Sgt. Sean Kenny — were hospitalized and later released.
Ramirez had been held at the prison in Milan since September, with a cell to himself.
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During Ramirez’s autopsy, four bullets and one bullet fragment were pulled from his back, chest, leg and butt, but none were “associated with acute injuries.”
OMI said the autopsy “revealed an obese man with no major trauma and multiple retained projectiles from remote gunshot wounds.”
The autopsy found Ramirez had numerous cuts, bruises and other blunt-force injuries to his face and head, including a broken nose, but noted “those injuries failed to reveal fatal trauma.”
A urine screen found PCP and buprenorphine — a drug used to treat opioid dependence — and a blood screen found Narcan, ketamine and lorazepam, the latter two of which can be used for sedation and anxiety relief.
OMI found up to nine times the prescribed dose of the anti-depressant mirtazapine in Ramirez’s blood but noted overdoses of the drug are very rare, with people surviving “30-50 times the prescribed dose.”
In Ramirez’s case, according to the autopsy, the drug “was not likely the cause of death.”
A postmortem nasal swab on Ramirez tested positive for COVID-19 but there were “no signs of severe pneumonia, the most common serious complication of this infection.”
OMI also determined microscopic examination of his organs and “submission and examination of additional sections beyond routine submissions, did not reveal findings to explain the cause of death.”
“It is possible that Mr. Ramirez had succumbed to a natural event, not elucidated at autopsy, that may or may not be related to the blunt trauma he sustained,” according to the autopsy.
When staff at the facility found Ramirez’s bloodied body he had swollen hands and “heavy dark bruising” around his eyes and forehead, according to the incident report. Milan police said Ramirez arms were at a 90-degree angle and his left foot was crossed under his right leg.
The facility’s captain told Milan police Ramirez was “not acting like himself” the day before and they suspected he was using drugs.
According to the report, the captain said Ramirez was hospitalized after slamming his head into the wall and “beating himself up.”
The next day, officers were delivering dinner around 5 pm when they found Ramirez dead in his cell. By the time facility medics got there, he “appeared to already be deceased,” according to the report.