Wardel Davis was expected to be sent to jail Wednesday morning when he appeared in City Court on drug possession and prison contraband charges.
He never made it to court. He was at the morgue instead.
Davis died shortly before midnight Tuesday during a struggle as two Buffalo police officers were arresting him on Hoyt Street, Buffalo police said Wednesday.
According to police, Davis was stopped by two Buffalo police officers, Todd C. McAlister and Nicholas J. Parisi, on Hoyt Street, just north of West Ferry Street, on the city's West Side when he tried to flee and began fighting with the officers.
Buffalo Police Lt. Jeff Rinaldo told reporters that police officers were eventually able to handcuff the man. After he was handcuffed, the man appeared to be in some type of "medical distress." The officers took off the handcuffs and began to administer CPR, Rinaldo said. He was taken by ambulance to Buffalo General Hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Davis' girlfriend told The Buffalo News on Wednesday that Davis expected to be sent to jail on Wednesday morning for failing to show up at drug court, and Davis had no reason Tuesday night to scuffle with or flee from the police.
"I will be OK with visiting him in jail," said Jashalyn Washington, his girlfriend. "I'm not OK with him being dead."
"I want to know what happened," Washington told The Buffalo News. "I feel like I'm not going to get justice. I want some answers. But I'm not OK with 'He just stopped breathing.' "
Police said no shots were fired during the incident.
An autopsy on Davis was scheduled for Wednesday morning.
Several investigations are underway, including by the Buffalo Police Department's Internal Affairs Division, Buffalo homicide detectives and the state Attorney General's Office, Rinaldo said. The AG's independent investigation stems from a 2015 executive order issued by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office directing the office to investigate cases of civilian deaths involving police.
Mayor Byron W. Brown reached out to Davis' grandmother, Thelma Davis, to let her know that his death would be fully investigated, his office said.
“Obviously she was sad, but seemed appreciative that I’d called and assured her that there would be a complete investigation and we would get to the bottom of what happened with her grandson,” the mayor said.
The mayor also met at 3 p.m. with the Concerned Clergy Coalition of Western New York and other clergy to dispel a rumor that Davis had been shot and to provide additional information on the process that is now underway. With the mayor were Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda, First Deputy Commissioner Byron Lockwood and Rinaldo.
“One of the incorrect rumors out there in the community was that Mr. Davis was shot and the preliminary autopsy makes it clear that he was not shot,” Brown said. “There were no shots fired whatsoever. We wanted the clergy to know that in case their parishioners asked.”
The mayor told the clergy that it could take four to six weeks before the complete results of the autopsy are available. Toxicology tests done as part of the autopsy will show whether Davis had any illegal substances in his system.
“The New York State Attorney General serves as an outside, independent agency that will conduct a full and thorough investigation,” Brown said.
At the meeting with the clergy, Brown said he stressed that what happened “is a tragedy that is unfolding on various levels. And that we need to lead together as one community.”
BPD Lt. Jeff Rinaldo updates Police custody death on Hoyt Street pic.twitter.com/GZUlrCcoqD
— John Hickey (@jhickeyBN) February 8, 2017
Davis was African-American, police said, while one of the officers was white and the other was African-American. Both officers have been placed on administrative leave.
Attorney Thomas H. Burton, who has been retained by the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association to represent the Central District officers, said early Wednesday he was in the early stages of gathering information on the incident.
He gave The Buffalo News this account of what transpired:
The two uniformed police officers were on patrol in the area when they saw Davis coming out of a house on Hoyt Street shortly before midnight.
"They were concentrating on that neighborhood due to increase of narcotics," Burton said. The house was "a known location for drug dealing," Burton said.
The officers knew Davis "from past experience and past arrest records," Burton said.
Then, the officers saw Davis "either reaching for his pocket or putting his hand in his pocket," Burton said. The officers ordered Davis to keep his hands where they could see them.
When the officers attempted to handcuff the man, Davis allegedly tried to hit one of the officers and tried to flee, Burton said.
The officers called for backup as they fought Davis on the street. When they subdued him, they put handcuffs on him, Burton said.
"They went to stand him up, roll him to stand him up, and search him and at that point they noticed he was in distress," Burton said.
The officers "immediately" uncuffed Davis and began CPR.
"That continued until the Fire Department and an ambulance arrived at the scene," Burton said.
One of the officers was treated for minor injuries at Erie County Medical Center, the attorney said.
Burton added that neither pepper spray nor a Taser were used on Davis.
Washington told The News that her boyfriend wasn't feeling well Tuesday night. Davis was planning on going to the hospital late Tuesday to get checked out, Washington said. Davis had been sick for three or four days and she wanted him to go to the hospital. He didn't seem gravely ill, but he also has asthma, Washington said, and she thought it would be a good idea for him to be seen by a doctor, especially considering he was likely to be sent to jail the next day.
Davis was scheduled to appear in City Court Wednesday morning on charges of drug possession and prison contraband, both misdemeanor counts, according to Kevin Stadelmaier, chief attorney of the criminal defense unit at the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo. Records show Davis was arrested on Nov. 8.
Washington said Davis had failed to show up for drug court and knew that when he went to court Wednesday, the judge was more than likely to send him to jail.
"We talked about it," she said. "He already knew he was going to jail."
She said she talked to Davis on the phone at about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday and he told her that he would call her again at about 11:15 p.m. to meet up so that they could take a taxi to the emergency room.
Washington does not know what happened on Hoyt Street. But she got a phone call at 11:52 p.m. from a friend who said Davis had been shot.
Washington doesn't understand why her boyfriend would have fought the police. "Meech is not like that," she said, using his nickname. "He's not feisty. He's not a bad kid at all."
She told The News that she has heard an array of stories about what happened to Davis. She said she just wants to know the truth and would accept a finding from authorities that he died because of a medical event.
But she wants to know.
"I just want justice for my baby," she said. "I want to know what happened ... He really didn't deserve to die."
Wednesday morning, Davis' friends came to the scene of the struggle after hearing about his death on social media.
They said they knew the young man as "Meech" and "Meecho" and that he had grown up nearby on West Ferry Street.
"He was a baby," said a man who said he knew Davis from the neighborhood.
Another woman called Davis a "good person."
On Wednesday evening, a crowd of about 50 people gathered for a memorial rally at Hoyt and Arnold streets in the Grant-Ferry neighborhood where Davis died.
Traffic on Hoyt was diverted to Arnold Street.
Some taking part in the event carried signs that read "Police Accountability Now," and occasionally joined in chants of "Black Lives Matter."
The hurt and anger of those who knew Davis seemed to be raw. Some chanted epithets about the police.
Brenda Miller-Herndon, who lives in the neighborhood and attended Wednesday night's rally, said she knew Davis well.
"He was a nice boy. I know everybody says when somebody dies it was a nice kid, but he really was a nice kid. I used to see him every day. I saw him two hours before he died. I said, 'you better stay out of trouble.' He said, 'I know. I'm on my way (home) right now,' and I wake up this morning and find out that boy was dead," Miller-Herndon said.
John Washington, who works in the neighborhood with the organization PUSH Buffalo, also knew Davis.
"He was a beautiful person. Obviously, all these people had a deep love for him because he had their backs," Washington said.
"The average person wouldn't agree with his lifestyle, you know, because he sold a little weed, but that's what he does. But as far as being a part of the fabric of our neighborhood, you know, he was a good kid. He was a good person. He wasn't the type of person that would ever assault anybody or ever cause anybody harm," he added.
At La Nova Pizza, located a couple of blocks from the scene of the struggle, workers recognized a picture of Davis and said he was a regular, stopping by once a day.
Davis' Facebook page is filled with jokes and memes about girls, music and marijuana. But he also wrote about his parents, whom he said were both dead.
"Dam it been 10 years since I loss my mother and it been 5 years since loss my father and sometimes I still don't under stand how I still keep my composure and hold my head up high," he posted last month. "I be hiding a lot of pain that nobody know about, it just crazy I never had a chance to say my last word to y'all that really hurt me the most and all I can do it's try to better. R.I.P mother and father. Love y'all forever."
Police asked anyone with information about the incident, especially if they may have recorded video, to call the Buffalo Police Homicide Unit at 851-4466.