Investigation launched in inmate death

Nigerian immigrant succumbs at hospital

Officials await autopsy results

Family members say they feared for his safety

May 19, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Maryland prison authorities are investigating the death of a 51-year-old inmate from the Western Correctional Institution in Allegany County who was found motionless in his cell April 30, a prison spokesman said yesterday.

Ifeanyi A. Iko, an immigrant from Nigeria, was discovered at 4:30 p.m. by a corrections officer, and prison employees performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on him until paramedics arrived and took him to Sacred Heart Hospital in Cumberland, said Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Iko was taken from the prison at 4:45 p.m. and died 25 minutes later at the hospital, he said.

A spokesman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversees the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said officials were awaiting autopsy results.

But Iko's death has triggered an investigation by the department's internal investigative unit, Vernarelli said. "The state police, who are commonly called in to assist in prisoner-death cases, were not requested to help in this case," he said.

Iko's death surprised and outraged members of his family -- also Nigerian immigrants -- many of whom live in Maryland and Northern Virginia. On the day Iko died, prison officials made several attempts to notify family members, but were unsuccessful, Vernarelli said.

Family members didn't learn of Iko's death until nearly two weeks later, when a reporter called a sister and a sister-in-law for information about him.

"There are a great many questions that have not been answered at this point," said attorney Bruce L. Marcus, who was retained by Iko's younger brother, Rex, who lives in Houston.

"Our client is looking for an explanation on how this unfortunate incident occurred, and to the extent that there are persons who are responsible for the death of Mr. Iko, our client is hopeful that they will be held legally accountable," Marcus said. "At this point, the institution has not provided our client with any substantive evidence, leaving unanswered a myriad of questions," Marcus said.

Rex and sister Ada Iko, who lives in Maryland, expressed concern that foul play was involved in their brother's death.

"I know he wanted to get out of that facility because he didn't feel safe there," said Ada Iko.

Iko was held in a special housing area of the prison where he was checked by guards every 15 minutes, Vernarelli said. State law does not permit him to disclose an inmate's medical information or housing details at the prison, he said.

Vernarelli said the prison agency was awaiting the medical examiner's findings, which would likely yield a cause and manner of death. No one in the prison -- inmate or prison employee -- has been singled out as a possible suspect or disciplined in connection with Iko's death, Vernarelli said. He said the internal investigation was in the "early stages."

"We have no reason to believe there's any foul play involved," Vernarelli said. "It's a mystery at this point why he died. Our staff who were working the evening this happened were very upset about it."

WCI is a medium-security state prison that opened in 1996 in Cresaptown. It houses about 1,600 inmates, who have an average sentence length of 266 months, excluding those serving life sentences, according to the prison's Web page.

Iko first entered the state prison system in 1991 after he was given a three-year sentence in Prince George's County for a drug manufacturing charge, according to Vernarelli and court records.

While housed at the Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County, Iko received at least another 20-year sentence for biting a corrections officer and stabbing him with a 56-inch-long "shank" in a 1992 incident, according to Vernarelli and court records. The officer survived, he said.

Since entering prison, Iko has been housed in several institutions across the state before ending up at WCI in January, Vernarelli said.

Relatives said Iko came to the United States from Nigeria in 1981, and settled first in Hyattsville with family. He attended Southeastern University in Washington, D.C., but never graduated, they said. But he met his former wife, Loreen Jones, at the school, and he has two teen-age children with her. They were living together at a house in Silver Spring when he was incarcerated, Jones said.

"It was such a minor drug charge, that's what makes it so sad," Jones recalled yesterday. "It's unfortunate that the guard incident happened." She said Iko characterized that incident as self-defense and had since expressed concerns for his safety in the prisons.

Jones indicated that she and her children have kept in loose contact with Iko over the years, but she was surprised that she and others didn't learn of his death sooner.

Vernarelli said that Iko's next-of-kin contact information was minimal and incorrect and that prison officials turned to the visitor log to find and contact relatives who visited him. The prison chaplain found a brother who lives in Northern Virginia, but when he called the house, a woman on the phone refused to take a message, he said.

Iko's family members finally were told of Iko's death when a reporter contacted relatives last Thursday evening.

The next day, a sister called the prison to confirm Iko's death, Vernarelli said.

Vernarelli said prison officials will typically rely on state police agencies or local law enforcement to make family notification when a prisoner dies, but that request wasn't made in Iko's death.

Sun staff researchers Jean Packard and Sarah Gehring contributed to this article.

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