A Kentucky man with a heart condition died in police custody on Saturday, and his friend who recorded the arrest said officers never called for medical help even though she insisted she was struggling to breathe.

Clarence Wilkerson, 34, died after Ashland police officers attempted to serve a warrant, the Kentucky State Police said in a statement Monday. The state medical examiner found that Wilkerson’s death was not the result of a «traumatic event» but was possibly related to an existing medical condition, state police said in a statement.

An autopsy began the day after Wilkerson’s death, according to the Boyd County coroner, but an official cause of death has yet to be determined. State police are investigating at the request of Ashland police.

Bethany Bowman, a friend who witnessed Wilkerson’s arrest, said officers did not call for medical help even after she and Wilkerson noticed his difficulty breathing. Bowman, who sometimes referred to Wilkerson by his nickname, «C,» said she knew one of the officers involved in the arrest because he was frequently in the area near his trailer park.

Ashland, Kentucky police arrest Clarence Wilkerson. Bethany Bomwan

On the morning of her death, Wilkerson was playing video games at Bowman’s with her boyfriend. He was lucid, calm and coherent when he left at 11:45 am, he said.

«As soon as he got out of the trailer, he closed the door behind him, and my boyfriend and I heard him talking to someone,» Bowman said.

She said Wilkerson ran around her trailer to avoid the officer. The officer followed him, ran to a clothesline and called for backup, Bowman said.

six minute video

That’s when she started recording.

«The video was six minutes long and I started recording at 12:02 pm,» Bowman said. «In those 15 minutes, he went from being healthy to being on the brink of death.»

Bowman’s video was recorded from a distance, and it is sometimes difficult to hear officers or see Wilkerson’s face up close. Bowman can be heard telling officers that Wilkerson is having difficulty breathing and is losing color.

The beginning of the video shows four officers surrounding Wilkerson, who is sitting in front of a police van with his wrists handcuffed behind his back.

«He’s literally sitting there passing out, man,» Bowman says on the recording.

Wilkerson then says «breathe, bro» to the officers, apparently gasping when the officers ask him to stand up, the video shows. One of the officers told what happened to the others.

«I told him I had a warrant and he started running,» says the officer. «That little red rope got me under my neck.»

‘can’t breathe’

An officer can be heard a few moments later saying that Wilkerson «will not get up.» Two officers then stand on either side of Wilkerson, helping him to his feet as they try to move him into the back seat of the truck.

Wilkerson leans forward as he takes small steps toward the back door as Bowman asks if he’s getting any medical treatment. An officer answers, and although the word «hospital» is heard, the full sentence is unclear.

Bowman said he believed the officer’s response was that he was not going to be taken to the hospital.

“We were asking for medical attention, he was asking for medical attention, he was asking for compassion, and he was denied and mocked,” Bowman said. «They refused to radio for a doctor… The last words I heard before they closed the door on Clarence were a dull, harsh ‘I can’t breathe’.»

Wilkerson is no longer visible after about two minutes, he is blocked by the car door as two officers appear to speak to him. Four other officers are seen at the side of the vehicle.

The remaining four minutes of the video include Bowman talking to officers, even yelling «he can’t breathe» at one point. The video ends with the officers walking away.

Wilkerson was pronounced dead at Kings Daughters Medical Center, the coroner’s office said. It is unclear how long after the recording ended, Wilkerson was taken to receive medical attention.

John Wilkerson speaks at the candlelight vigil for his brother Clarence Wilkerson in Ashland, Kentucky on March 7, 2023.
John Wilkerson speaks at the candlelight vigil Tuesday for his brother, Clarence Wilkerson.Matt Jones/The Daily Independent via AP

Officers on leave; investigations started

All officers involved were placed on administrative leave as part of department protocol, Ashland police said. A spokesman declined to comment further and referred inquiries to state police.

The city of Ashland said in a statement Wednesday that its officials had met with the local branch of the NAACP «regarding the impact on the community of the recent death of Clarence Wilkerson.»

«To ensure a full and thorough independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr. Wilkerson’s death, the City immediately requested that the Kentucky State Police (KSP) conduct the investigation and has fully cooperated with the process,» the statement said. .

The city said it would not comment on the case before the investigation was completed, when the findings would be released to the public.

Wilkerson’s family retained civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who said in a statement Wednesday that officers «did not take his clearly declining condition seriously.»

“In the disturbing video, we hear a bystander say over and over again that he needs help, while officers fail to provide assistance for several critical minutes,” Crump said. «We demand that the Ashland Police Department release all images they have of this incident and conduct a full investigation so the family and community can see the full picture of how this man lost his life.»

Sherri Ford, Wilkerson’s mother; her husband; and Wilkerson’s older brother spoke Monday with the independent journala newspaper in Ashland.

Ford said his son had a heart condition and required a catheterization in his early 20s. She did not elaborate further on her medical condition.

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