Autopsy suggests prison not at fault — (St. Petersburg Times)

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St. Petersburg Times

By BRADY DENNIS

Published November 3, 2000

The report says a 21-year-old inmate died choking on his own vomit. His family says they may still sue.

ZEPHYRHILLS — An autopsy report completed last week suggests that a 21-year-old inmate who died July 30 at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution died after choking on his own vomit.

That finding supports the prison’s claim that the death was accidental.

Juan Cabezas, 23, of Miami, who was serving 15 years for armed robbery and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, was showering about 6:40 p.m. when another inmate called for help, saying Cabezas appeared to be having a seizure.

Prison staff and paramedics tried to revive him. He was pronounced dead a short time later at East Pasco Medical Center.

Cabezas’ relatives have expressed skepticism about prison officials’ accounts of the incident and hired high-profile Miami attorney Ellis Rubin to investigate the case.

Rubin acknowledged the autopsy findings Thursday, but didn’t say whether he would still file suit against the prison.

“We’ve eliminated from our investigation any foul play. It looks like he did die as it says in the autopsy,” Rubin said. “That’s what’s giving me second thoughts. But we are still in the process of investigating and haven’t decided yet.”

Cabezas’ sister, Bridget Cabezas, 24, of Miami, was more outspoken. She said the family definitely plans to file some kind of lawsuit, at least in part for negligence.

“We definitely plan to continue with this,” Bridget Cabezas said. “They couldn’t give us any explanation of his death. He was healthy and had never had problems before.

“We don’t really know what happened, we just know a lot of witnesses that say the way they treated him was wrong.”

The medical examiner’s report states that while Cabezas had no history of seizures, he did have a history of gorging by “eating enough for two” and that he “ate enough for several people” one hour prior to taking the shower.

Cabezas also had been diagnosed with an impulse-control disorder as well as some psychotic symptoms with aural and visual hallucinations. He reacted negatively when stressed by such things as having to do a job or take orders. Previous episodes included cutting himself as well as attempting to hang himself on Jan. 30, 1999, the report stated.

His medical history also included possible asthma and a sinus condition. The only medication he was taking prior to his death was Paxil, which is used to treat depression, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and social anxiety disorder, the report stated.

Cabezas had been disciplined six times in the past year for violating prison rules. The offenses included unarmed assault, disrespecting a prison official, destruction of state property and disorderly conduct. Because of Cabezas’ stormy record, relatives have said they suspect there might have been an altercation before he died.

C.J. Drake, spokesman for the Florida Department of Prisons, dismissed that theory and said the autopsy report shows that Cabezas’ death was nothing more than an accident.

“There was no evidence of foul play then, and there appears to be no evidence of foul play now,” Drake said. “Whenever something like this happens, we have a procedure to investigate it.

“It’s not like there was an attempt to conceal anything. We stand by our account.”

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