When Nicholas Herrera, 31, died in the Taos County Adult Detention Center sometime in the early morning hours of January 5, 2022, none of the cameras in his cell block were recording to capture exactly what happened. However, his autopsy report — released by the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator this spring — says he officially died of morbid obesity, with a contributing factor of chronic ethanol abuse.
According to recent documents, video footage and an autopsy report obtained by the Taos News, Herrera’s block was checked on by a guard nearly every half-hour, as is stated protocol. However, because the cameras in the juvenile detention block — where he was kept due to COVID procedures — were “not recording” at the time, according to jail director Michael Garcia, it is impossible to know exactly how Herrera may have died.
“From what I understand, a piece of the equipment for the cameras on the juvenile side went bad when there was a power outage,” said Garcia in an email. “The cameras would show live footage, but it was not recording.” Garcia said the outage occurred before he began working at the jail in January.
When the Taos News originally covered Herrera’s death, Herrera’s mother, Natalie Richards, and the wife of another inmate both said they had heard security checks were not properly performed throughout the night, specifically between the hours of 3 a.m. and when breakfast was served at 6:45 a.m.
According to recently obtained video footage from the Taos County jail, a male guard can be seen entering the juvenile block every half hour except for missed checks at 2:30 a.m. and 3 a.m. According to an observation log filed by the guard on duty, Herrera was laying down most of the night, on his right side, then his back.
At 4:33 a.m. a guard wrote they observed Herrera lying on his stomach until 6 a.m., when the shift changed. When the new guard logged Herrera’s physical position after 6 a.m., it is not clear whether the new guard wrote that Herrera was still lying on his stomach (for which the code AD is used), or on his right side (the code AB is used). Both AB and AD appear to be written on the log, but it is not clear which was written first.
While the observation log states Herrera was alive through the night, this can't be confirmed via video footage.
In the autopsy report, the Office of the Medical Investigator concluded Herrera’s manner of death was “natural” and was caused by “morbid obesity” with a contributing factor of “chronic ethanol abuse.” However, Richards denies that her son was a severe alcoholic.
On his intake documents, the nurse on duty at the time wrote that Herrera said he was “hungover” when he was first brought to the jail, but answered “no” when asked if he would be detoxing off any drugs or alcohol. He also denied heavy drinking lately, according to the form used to assess intoxication and risk of detainees. It was noted that his blood pressure was high: 201/125.
When asked how often morbid obesity (defined as having a body mass index greater than 40) is a leading cause of death, Sarah Lathrop, DVM, PhD, an Epidemiologist for the Office of the Medical Investigator said “it's fairly unusual to have that listed as the cause of death, but it's not unheard of.”
After reviewing the report and speaking with the attending pathologist, Lathrop said Herrera’s heart was “three times larger than a normal adult heart, but the coronary arteries were clear, leading to the cause of death being “morbid obesity” with chronic alcohol use rather than arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD).”
She explained that morbid obesity is used as a cause of death in younger people when the heart may be enlarged but ASCVD has not developed yet. “Several of the pathologists more commonly use this as a cause of death in younger decedents as it’s more accurate than the ASCVD designation seen in older decedents,” said Lathrop.
After seeing the autopsy report, Richards is upset that her son wasn’t given the adequate treatment he needed. She said she wished he had been treated differently since the moment he was arrested.
“If he was hungover… and his blood pressure was highly elevated, then he should be taken to a medical place,” she said. However, court documents say Herrera denied any medical treatment. Still, Richards said “there should have been a protocol for that. If somebody's coming in with some kind of medical condition that's obviously a red flag indicator that's not normal.”
Herrera was initially pulled over on State Road 150 while on his way to work at the Taos Ski Valley. According to the statement of probable cause filed in Taos Magistrate Court, Herrera was going 74 miles-per-hour in a 45 zone. Herrera then tried to evade the officer by turning into State Road 230, where his vehicle slid out in the snow.
According to the statement, Herrera allegedly got on his phone and refused to get out of the vehicle. The sheriff’s deputy drew their gun and pointed it at him, demanding he drop the phone. The statement says Herrera then told the cop to shoot him, an allegation Richards denies. “Nick was on the phone with his girlfriend. He was telling them, ‘don't shoot me, don't shoot me,’ and then the cop in the police report is saying he said to shoot him,” she explained.
She also said Herrera, who is a tribal member from Ignacio, Colo., should have been picked up by tribal police. “He wanted the tribal police to arrest him since he was within the exterior boundaries of the Taos reservation,” she said. “His girlfriend was expecting him to be at the tribal police department, but he was transported to the Taos detention center. All this time, she was looking for him to call her police department.
“I don't understand why he was held there and not transported to the tribal police department. That's violating his rights as a Native American male,” she said.
Richards said she has been in touch with an attorney to see what else can be done to look into any potential wrongdoing. Most of all, she said she deeply misses her son. “It’s hard every day… He was a good person too. He would smile, joke around,” she said, tearing up. “Learning to live without seeing him and knowing that he was needing me… He shouldn't have to go and leave this earth without anybody holding his hand, anybody trying to help him, without me being there.”