The Tulsa Medical Examiner's Office has ruled on the cause of death of an Ottawa County inmate found dead in his cell last March.
Randy Saffell, a spokesman for the medical examiner's office, said John Owen Bamberl died as a result of excited delirium.
Bamberl, 39, was found unconscious in his cell at approximately 7 a.m. on March 31, according to Jessica Brown, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
According to Ottawa County Sheriff Terry Durborow, jailers performed CPR until emergency personnel arrived. Bamberl was transported to Integris Baptist Regional Health Center where he was pronounced dead.
Excited delirium is a controversial term used to explain deaths of individuals in police custody in which the person being arrested, detained or restrained is highly agitated and may be under the influence of stimulants.
The term has no formal medical recognition and is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but has been listed as the cause of death by some government medical examiners.
Deborah Mash, a professor of neurology at the University of Miami, describes the symptoms of the condition:
“Someone who's disproportionately large, extremely agitated, threatening violence, talking incoherently, tearing off clothes and it takes four or five officers to get the attention of that individual and bring him out of harm's way - that's excited delirium.”
According to Bamberl's arrest report, shortly after midnight March 26, Miami Officer Robert Weaver initiated a traffic stop on Steve Owens Boulevard after observing a 1995 Ford pickup traveling at a high rate of speed.
Weaver said the vehicle reached speeds up to 85 mph traveling east on Steve Owens and accelerated to 95 mph after crossing the Oklahoma Highway 69A intersection.
“He turned south on South 590 Road, drove about 200 feet at about 10 mph then stopped the vehicle and turned off the ignition,” Weaver said.
Bamberl, described as 5 feet, 11 inches tall and 220 pounds, exited his vehicle and attacked Weaver, according to a police report.
Weaver said Bamberl attempted to grab his throat and the two wrestled briefly before backup arrived to assist with Bamberl's apprehension.
According to the police report, an ambulance was dispatched to the scene to check the injuries of the officer and suspect.
Ambulance personnel treated Weaver for minor injuries and stated that Bamberl refused treatment and kept stating “just take me to my dad,” a local physician.
Bamberl was taken to the hospital on March 30, according to Undersheriff Bob Ernst. He was seen in the emergency room for anxiety.
“He was given a pill to calm him down,” Ernst said. “He was then released from the hospital and returned to his cell. He was found unconscious the next morning.”
The medical examiner's office said Bamberl had injuries indicative of being involved in a struggle, but not extensive enough to believe excessive force may have been used.
Mash says excited delirium came to light in the 1980s when cocaine burst onto the scene. Most victims have cocaine or drugs in their systems.
Mash says victims become irrational, their body temperatures rise so fast their organs fail and then they suddenly die.
“It's definitely real,” Mash says. “And while we don't know precisely what causes this, we do know it is the result of a neural chemical imbalance in the brain.”
Nearly all reported cases of excited delirium involve people who are fighting with police. And that's extremely problematic, says Eric Balaban of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I know of no reputable medical organization - certainly not the AMA (American Medical Association) or the APA (American Psychological Association) - that recognizes excited delirium as a medical or mental-health condition,” Balaban says.
According to Dr. Vincent Di Maio, “What these people are dying of is an overdose of adrenaline.”
Di Maio was, until recently, the chief medical examiner for Bexar County, Texas. Di Maio says that he saw three to five cases of excited delirium each year and that there are probably several hundred cases nationwide.