35-year-old Michael Sabbie — a stay-at-home father of four — uttered the words “I can’t breathe” shortly afterfive guards piled on top of him inside the Bi State Jail, a for-profit facility on the border between Texas and Arkansas.
He died not too long after.
“I can’t breathe,” Sabbie said again after a sixth guard pepper-sprayed him as he lay on the jailhouse floor that rest between Texas and Arkansas. Video footage shows Sabbie being pepper-sprayed yet again.
“I’m sorry,” Sabbie said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Then he collapsed.
The guards took him to a cell. At that point, Sabbie had been in custody for 48 hours, officials say. He was dead by morning.
According to initial news reports, Sabbie was arrested on a domestic assault charge. Police said they found him “unresponsive” in the early hours of July 22, 2015. A medical examiner noted his obesity, and that he had significant heart muscle damaged. The examiner deemed the death “natural.”
“If you just looked at the cause of death, you would think that Michael died of some sort of hypertensive heart condition, and that may be true,” said Erik J. Heipt, one of the attorneys representing the Sabbie family. “But if we didn’t have a video, we’d never know that he had been begging for help due to his shortness of breath and inability to breathe. We’d never know that he said ‘I can’t breathe’ 19 times in the nine minutes that we hear in that video.”
Heipt, who represents families of individuals who have died in jails, said the video is “without a doubt among one of the most outrageous.”
“Clearly he’s a person in a state of medical crisis, in medical need, asking for help, and the response to his essentially pleas for medical help is inhumane, which is a term I don’t use lightly,” Budge said.
Sabbie was arrested on July 19, 2015 after getting into an argument with his wife over money, a police report states. Sabbie’s wife told an officer that he threatened her before exiting a vehicle and walking away. Another officer found Sabbie, and he denied threatening his wife. He was arrested for third-degree assault due to the alleged threat.
On July 20, 2015, less than 12 hours after his arrest, Sabbie told jail staff he was having trouble breathing, particularly while lying down. He was treated by a nurse for low level oxygen in his blood, and advised to sit up if he had trouble breathing.
On July 21 at 10:30 am, Sabbie was taken to a nurse station after being found on the jail cell floor, according to officials. He said once again he could not breathe and that he believed he had pneumonia. But a nurse cleared him to go back to his cell.
“So [y’all] aren’t going to help?” he asked, according to police records. He fell on the floor as he began walking back to his cell. The nurse, Tiffany Venable, said she did not see any signs or symptoms of pneumonia during the morning appointment.
She also told an investigator that while she completed a medical form on Sabbie’s visit, she believed she placed it in the wrong file.
During a court appearance that afternoon, Sabbie pleaded not guilty. His bond was set at $2,500. According to a bailiff, Sabbie was “sweating very heavily and coughing.” The judge also saw Sabbie having trouble breathing and suggested he may have asthma or bronchitis. Sabbie said he’d been spitting up blood and needed medical assistance.
He was taken back to the jail after the court appearance around 4:15p, and this is where the video footage comes in.
You can watch the footage below.