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Fact-finding review held on Las Vegas man’s death in police custody

Tasha Baxter comforted her mother Thursday morning as they watched body-camera footage of David “Davy” Baxter being handcuffed by Las Vegas police, moments before he stopped breathing.

Baxter, a 37-year-old man from Hurricane, Utah, died Jan. 31 after his friend called 911 to report that Baxter had taken a large amount of narcotics in a possible suicide attempt. The first officer arrived at the friend’s home to find Baxter in the garage, rocking back and forth, and waited about 12 minutes for backup to arrive before Baxter was handcuffed and received medical attention, according to body-camera footage released for the first time during a Thursday public hearing regarding the in-custody death.

The Clark County coroner’s office in March ruled Baxter’s death a homicide due to methamphetamine intoxication, with significant conditions being a police restraint, severe coronary artery disease and cardiomegaly, meaning an enlarged heart. During the fact-finding review Thursday at the Clark County Clark County Government Center, representatives from the Metropolitan Police Department and Clark County District Attorney’s office said Baxter was experiencing “excited delirium.”

Baxter’s mother and sister, 28-year-old Tasha Baxter, drove from St. George, Utah, on Thursday to attend the fact-finding review. They both dispute that David Baxter was suicidal and questioned why he was not given medical care sooner.

Tasha Baxter said the hearing gave her no comfort.

“It’s just them trying to cover their mistakes, she said.

Fact-finding reviews are held when the district attorney’s office “preliminary determines” not to criminally prosecute officers involved in deadly police interactions. The Clark County Commission appoints a hearing master and ombudsman to represent the public and ask questions of the Clark County District Attorney’s Office.

Excited delirium

Portions of body-camera footage were released during a press conference in February, when Clark County Assistant Sheriff Chris Jones said Baxter showed signs of “excited delirium.”

Metro Detective Jason Leavitt, who oversaw the internal investigation into Baxter’s death, testified Thursday that the department considers the condition a “state of extreme excitation, usually associated with illicit or prescription drug use” which can result in “sudden or unexplained death.”

Signs of excited delirium include a high body temperature, talking incoherently, paranoia, “violent resistance” and shedding clothing, Leavitt said.

Not all medical associations recognize the condition, which is often used to describe in-custody deaths, according to the Washington Post. Former Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg, who oversaw the coroner’s office when Baxter’s cause of death was determined, told the Review-Journal on Thursday that he believes the condition is real.

He said that when he was coroner, the office would use more specific terms when listing a cause of death, such as drug use, mental illness or other health conditions.

“When I was the coroner, we absolutely believed in the concept of excited delirium,” he said.

‘We feel worse’

The body-worn camera footage released Thursday showed Baxter taking off a shirt, shaking and remaining seated when Officer Steve Saxton told him to stand up. Leavitt said during the hearing that first responders did not feel safe approaching Baxter until more officers arrived.

Saxton and the other identified officers — Sgt. Brett Levasseur and Officer Ryan Thacker — declined to make voluntary statements for the hearing, Leavitt said.

Once more officers arrived, they handcuffed Baxter and lifted him onto a gurney. First responders asked for the handcuffs to be removed so he could be put into different restraints, and to do so, police placed hands on Baxter’s neck and leaned him forward.

Baxter stopped breathing once he was laid back down, the body-camera footage shows.

Lisa and Tasha Baxter said they don’t believe the 37-year-old was a threat.

“This is Vegas, and I feel like cops out here have seen a lot worse,” Tasha Baxter said. “It just seems like they’re exaggerating the excited delirium.”

David Baxter worked in construction as a framer and went to Las Vegas a week before his death to meet up with a relative, said Lisa Baxter, who wore a dogtag with her son’s picture on it. Tasha Baxter said her brother was her best friend, and “the most loving, caring, kind person.”

“The last time we came out here, the cops wanted to make sure that we knew that the officers involved felt bad,” Tasha Baxter said. “Well, I don’t care, we feel worse.”

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter.