Teen-ager Dies After Police Use Chokehold
John Gomez Hampton loved nothing more than to hang out with his friend Rick Lopez.
The 16-year-old Mira Mesa High junior seemed a permanent fixture at the house Rick and his parents shared on Elkins Cove on the edge of the Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve. If they weren’t listening to music, they were honing their Nintendo skills.
But on Friday evening, something went terribly wrong with Hampton at the Mira Mesa home, prompting four San Diego police officers to pin him down outside and one to place him in a chokehold. An hour after the confrontation, Hampton was dead.
When the telephone rang that night at the home of Hampton’s parents, Dennis and Sun Yo, the message was terse. Their son had been taken by ambulance to the hospital. They should come right away.
“My husband asked ‘What happened?’ ” Sun Yo Hampton said Saturday. “They said, ‘We can’t tell you over the phone.’ We knew then there was a big problem.”
Police eventually explained that John had been watching television with Rick and his mother, Betty Reyes, when John suddenly stood up and broke two plate glass windows, bloodying his hands. He walked into a hallway and punched a hole in the wall.
Terrified, Betty Reyes grabbed a telephone and dialed 911 and John tried to snatch it out of her hands, San Diego police said. The mother told Hampton someone was outside and the young man bolted out of the house.
When police arrived a few minutes before 6 p.m., Hampton was standing outside in only his underwear and socks, drenched in blood. Head first, he plowed through a wooden fence gate that was fastened shut and sprinted into a back yard, where he bounced off a fence. Upon seeing officers, he assumed a karate pose, Lt. Paul Ybarrondo said.
Officer Paul Libassi, 28, with six years on the force, approached and Hampton kicked him in the chest. Libassi and officer Kyle Kelley called for cover and three more officers arrived, all of whom wrestled Hampton to the ground, Ybarrondo said.
Kelley, 26, and on the force only six months, put Hampton in a carotid restraint hold, which cuts circulation in the neck arteries. As they bound his feet, one officer noticed that Hampton had difficulty breathing. They began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and after paramedics arrived, full cardiopulmonary resuscitation. He was pronounced dead about 7 p.m. Friday night at the hospital.
From his Mira Mesa home Saturday night, Dennis Hampton wondered how his son, about 5-foot-7 and 135 to 140 pounds, could be any match for five police officers.
“How could these officers not subdue him without my son dying?” asked Hampton, a senior chief hospital corpsman at Miramar Naval Air Station. “Did they have to do what they did? I could see if one or two were there and they felt threatened, but for Christ’s sake, five . . . of them were there. How many do they need?”
Police said Hampton seemed to be uncommonly strong as he struggled with officers. Ybarrondo said it is not uncommon for those on drugs, particularly on PCP or cocaine, to exhibit signs of greater strength because they feel less pain.
Hampton “was very resistive and strong,” Ybarrondo said. “One of the officers is about 200 pounds and 6-foot-3 and got hold of (Hampton’s) leg. That officer was flailing around.”
Dennis Hampton said a detective told him that his son had died from a “sudden-death syndrome associated with drug use.” John Hampton had been cited twice for possessing marijuana, his father said, but did not make drugs a habit.
The county Medical Examiner’s Office said Saturday night that an autopsy had been concluded but the matter was still under investigation; the cause of death would not be released without further study.
An average student at Miramar Mesa High, John Hampton was a “teen-ager with normal teen-age problems,” his father said. He was respectful of adults, good with small children and loved football, playing three years for a Pop Warner league until he was 14, he said.
Hampton and Rick Lopez were fairly inseparable, Dennis Hampton said, and his son enjoyed spending time with Rick because his family had a sophisticated music system and Nintendo games at their home.
While serving in South Korea with the U.S. Army, Dennis Hampton met and married Sun Yo in 1966. The Hamptons have two daughters, one a 22-year-old senior at San Diego State University and the other a 19-year-old student at Miramar Junior College.
Ronnie Reyes, 30, the father of Rick Lopez, said police had Hampton in a chokehold for a full five minutes.
Reyes got home just as his wife had dialed 911.
Hampton, whom he has known two years, “kind of went wild,” Reyes said, and “kicked a policeman once, and then tried to kick him again. Then the police hit him with nightsticks a couple of times.”
Hampton calmed down and stopped running, then started scuffling with the officers again.
“One of them grabbed him around the neck and threw him down and held him in the chokehold,” Reyes said, pointing to the part of his drive-way just beyond his front porch.
Reyes watched as five officers tried to hog-tie Hampton. “He was struggling the whole time,” Reyes said.
As the police pinned Hampton’s arms behind his back to handcuff him, Reyes watched Hampton pass out.
Ybarrondo said police were “very careful” in applying the chokehold. He said Kelley repeatedly asked the other officers whether the hold was being properly applied and was assured that it was.
“There is nothing to indicate that (Hampton) choked,” Ybarrondo said. “The carotid restraint is a force option that can be used if necessary. And the officers in this situation thought it was necessary.”
Last May, a 31-year-old man with a history of mental illness died from a San Diego police chokehold restraint but the district attorney’s office ruled that the hold was justified. The man’s father called the incident “murder.”
Times staff writer Paul Chavez contributed to this story.