Aspiring rapper Irvo Otieno streamed his music – with titles like “Man in the Middle,” “Can’t Wait,” “Trapped Out,” and “Frenzy” – under the name Young Vo.
Otieno was 28, could write a song in less than five minutes, and wanted to start his own record label, said his mother, Caroline Ouko.
“He had found his thing. You know that feeling when you find your thing?” Ouko recalled. “He was happy with what he was doing… He would go in his room and shut the door. And he had it. He was brilliant and creative and bright.”
Otieno, whose family emigrated from Kenya when he was 4, was smothered to death on March 6 at Central State Hospital in Virginia, a prosecutor said.
Seven Henrico County sheriff’s deputies and three hospital security guards have been charged with second-degree murder in the death of the promising hip-hop artist whose family said was having a mental health crisis when he died.
“All I’m left with is his voice,” Ouko lamented.
Otieno’s family now wants answers to the questions surrounding his death, including why no one intervened to keep him from being killed.
“Can someone explain to me why my brother is not here, right now?” his older brother, Leon Ochieng, said at a news conference Thursday.
In a GoFundMe page entitled “Justice for Irvo Otieno,” Ochieng wrote: “Being mentally ill shouldn’t be a death sentence.”
‘Irvo is as American as apple pie’
Ouko, holding a framed portrait of a smiling Otieno during the news conference in Dinwiddie, said her son came to the US from Kenya as boy. He went to kindergarten at Tuckahoe Elementary School and graduated in 2012 from Douglas S. Freeman High School, where – according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch – he played football and basketball. He attended college in California.
“Irvo is as American as apple pie,” his mother said. “This is what he knows. This is home for him. And when you’re home you are in a community. We live in a community. We have friends. This young man you see here had a big heart.”
Classmates turned to Otieno when they had problems, Ouko said. He was a listener and a leader who brought his own perspective to the table, she added.
“If there was discussion, he was not afraid to go the other way when everybody else is following,” she said.
“This was my baby. He cared for people. He cared that people were treated right. That was at the core of his upbringing in our home. He cared that people were treated equally.”
In middle school, Otieno would invite classmates eating lunch alone to join him, Ouko said. “He was kind.”
Her son had a mental illness that necessitated medication, Ouko said. There were long stretches where one “wouldn’t even know something was wrong” followed by times when “he would go into some kind of distress and then you know he needs to see a doctor,” she said.
‘I’ve never seen anything like this’
Henrico County officers responding to a report of a possible burglary arrested Otieno on March 3, according to police. The officers, accompanied by members of a crisis intervention team, placed him under an emergency custody order due to their interactions with and observations of him, police said.
According to Virginia law, a person can be placed under an emergency custody order when there is reason to believe they could hurt themselves or others as a result of mental illness.
The officers took Otieno to a hospital where authorities said he assaulted three officers. Police took him to county jail and he was booked on charges of assault on a law enforcement officer, disorderly conduct in a hospital and vandalism, police said.
On March 6, Otieno was taken to Central State Hospital, a state mental health facility in Dinwiddie County, and died during the intake process, according to Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill.
The prosecutor said seven law enforcement deputies, joined by three hospital employees who worked as security guards, “smothered him to death” while restraining him.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Baskervill said, referring to unreleased video that shows the man’s death.
Otieno was held on the ground in handcuffs and leg irons for 12 minutes by seven deputies, Baskervill said. She characterized his behavior during that time as “being distressed, rather than assaultive, combative.”
Baskervill said the security guards passively watched the alleged smothering but eventually joined in and piled on top of the victim along with the deputies.
The Henrico Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, the local law enforcement officers’ union, issued a statement Tuesday that said they “stand behind” the deputies. Attorneys for three of the deputies charged have said Otieno resisted arrest, the officers followed their training, and that they looked forward to trying the case in court.
A preliminary report from the Office of Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond identified asphyxiation as a cause of death, the commonwealth attorney’s office said in a statement.
The seven Henrico County deputies, who turned themselves in to state police Tuesday, are on administrative leave as investigations by their agency and state police continue, county Sheriff Alisa Gregory said in a statement.
“The events of March 6, at their core, represent a tragedy because Mr. Otieno’s life was lost,” Gregory said. “This loss is felt by not only those close to him but our entire community.”
Central State Hospital said the three employees who were charged in connection with Otieno’s death have been placed on leave “pending the results of the legal proceedings,” against them.
“The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and Central State Hospital are fully cooperating with the Virginia State Police in this investigation and are working to ensure that Mr. Otieno’s family receives information about the tragic events at the hospital,” the department and the hospital said in a statement to CNN on Monday.
‘No one stood up to stop what was going on’
Video footage of Otieno’s death has not yet been released to the public.
Otieno’s family viewed the video, provided by prosecutors, on Thursday. His mother said Otieno was tortured.
“My son was treated like a dog, worse than a dog,” Ouko screamed, angry that no one stopped what led to her son’s death.
Ochieng said people should be confident in calling for help when their loved ones are in crisis. He did not believe the people he saw on the video cared about preserving a life.
“What I saw was a lifeless human being without any representation,” Ochieng said, adding that his family is broken and demanding more awareness on how to treat those with mental illnesses.
“Irvo loved sports, music and the beach,” Ochieng wrote on the GoFundMe page. “He often said he wanted to be great one day and help his young relatives back in Kenya with their needs.”
Ouko urged people to take a moment and listen to her son’s music.
“He calls it like it is, but there is goodness in his music. And that’s all I’m left with now. He’s gone,” she said.
“I cannot be at his wedding. I’ll never see a grandchild … because someone refused to help him. No one stood up to stop what was going on. We have to do better.”
CNN’s Steve Almasy, Kimberly Berryman, Sara Smart and Brian Todd contributed to this report.