A 64-year-old man who died from a drug overdose last year after being arrested in Queen Anne’s County was having seizures and banging on his jail cell door for help for almost 20 minutes before Maryland State Police opened his cell and summoned medics, a new report by state investigators shows.
Armar Womack, of Delaware, was arrested for drug possession after a Jan. 21, 2022 traffic stop in Millington. Troopers put him into a cell while he was still in possession of cocaine, which he ingested before suffering seven sets of seizures over an 18-minute period despite an officer monitoring a camera in his cell, the report says.
The Independent Investigations Unit of the Attorney General’s Office, which investigates police custody deaths statewide, also found that troopers understated and omitted information about Womack’s signs of distress — as well as police efforts to help him — in their official reports.
The state investigators’ 34-page report discusses the potential for criminal charges, including reckless endangerment and misconduct in office but, by policy, stops short of saying whether they believe officers should have been charged. They note that there was “no evidence that the officers intended to cause Mr. Womack’s death.”
Attempts to contact Womack’s family were unsuccessful.
Last month, Queen Anne’s County State’s Attorney Lance Richardson declined to bring any charges. He provided The Baltimore Banner with a letter he sent to the attorney general’s office in which he wrote that the evidence “sways me to ultimately decide that this in custody death was a culmination of multiple cumulative oversights which created a medical emergency that none of these troopers expected.”
“Hypothetically, the seizures could have been seen and treatment rendered sooner but I do not find the actions of any of the involved troopers rises to the level of criminal negligence,” Richardson wrote in his declination letter.
State Police spokeswoman Elena Russo said Friday that the troopers involved remain on full active duty status, but there is an active and ongoing administrative investigation.
The report was released as new Attorney General Anthony G. Brown has said he plans to push the General Assembly for the authority to bring charges in such cases. Brown said Thursday night at a public safety forum in Northeast Baltimore that he think it’s “very likely” he will prevail.
Womack was pulled over by state troopers on Jan. 21 at 7:36 p.m. on U.S. 301 at McGinnes Road. He was arrested for possession of drugs and taken to the state police barrack in Centreville, and was conscious and responsive to questions, officials said at the time.
About two hours later, Womack “began exhibiting signs of distress and became unresponsive,” officials said at the time. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead at 11:44 p.m.
The investigative report provides a detailed timeline of the events, as well as photos from a jail cell camera. Womack had been pulled over after a trooper said he saw Womack’s vehicle cross over the white shoulder line twice, then “stop with all four of its wheels past a stop line,” the report says.
After stopping Womack, a trooper said he found a scale, suspected trace amounts of cocaine and a baggie of marijuana, the report says. Back at the barrack, while being booked, cameras captured Womack reaching into his mouth and removing a small baggie and then transferring it to his pocket. The trooper can be seen standing right next to him, apparently completing paperwork and unaware.
Womack was left alone in a cell at 9:39 p.m., and a minute later can be seen taking an item from his pocket and putting it in his mouth. He was observed standing up and staggering, then at 9:59 began having tremors while sitting on a bench, the report says.
The first seizure occurred at 10:01, and Womack fell to the floor and can be seen having a seizure on the floor. He kicked the cell door multiple times. At 10:04, Cpl. Gregory Smith opened the door and spoke with Womack. Womack kicked the door again as Smith closed it.
Womack fell back on the floor, and his eyes can be seen rolling back in his head as he experienced tremors. Over the next 15 minutes, Womack pounded the door with his fist, and “alternates between periods of quiet and periods pounding on the door.” He experienced small tremors before having another seizure at 10:18.
At 10:19, a trooper opened the door of the cell and police called for medics. A paramedic arrived at 10:35.
The state investigators wrote that the troopers had a duty to provide medical care, and said that Sgt. Brian Curley, who was the “duty officer,” had a particular obligation to monitor the camera and check on Womack.
They appeared to fault both Curley and Smith for how they described their observations of Womack. For example, in his written reports, they said Curley failed to note that Womack suffered a visible seizure that lasted more than a minute, and said he had a conversation with Womack in which Womack said he was “fine,” while video footage shows Womack “shouting and gesticulating emphatically.”
“A finder of fact could find it misleading that Sgt. Curley described Mr. Womack’s behavior as ‘calm,’” investigators wrote.
In a recorded phone call, Curley called a supervisor, Lt. Robert Connolly. “I didn’t see him fall — I just saw him standing up. ... I look over and I see him back on the floor,” Curley said. “I was typing away — it might have been, I don’t know, 30 seconds. I look back at the camera. I see him on the ground shaking. I yell at the guys, ‘Get in there, come on, let’s get in there.’ We go in there, OK, sure enough he’s having a seizure.”
“That call is misleading in a number of ways,” state investigators wrote. “Sgt. Curley claimed that within 30 seconds of Mr. Womack falling to the floor, he sent troopers in to assist him and called EMS. In fact, the time period was 18 minutes. Sgt. Curley also said that troopers actively assisted Mr. Womack into the recovery position, when in fact troopers did not move or reposition him.”
The state investigators said Smith also understated Womack’s signs of medical distress, while overstating the efforts of officers.
The investigators said their statements provide at least some evidence that officers ”did not ‘honestly represent what [they] purported’ them to be, ‘with the intent to deceive.’”
“However, a factfinder might also determine that the variances were not significant enough to rise to the level required by the statute, or might emphasize the fact that the variances were omissions in the name of brevity rather than mischaracterizations written ‘with the intent to deceive,’” the report says.
Richardson, the county prosecutor, said that he found it credible that Curley’s attention was divided and that could have affected his recollections. He said officers are trained that seizures are “rarely life-threatening.”
They also spoke with medical professionals, including the chief medical examiner’s office and an emergency room physician who treated Womack, who were not willing to give an opinion about whether earlier intervention would have had a substantial effect on Womack’s chances of survival.
“Accordingly, it would be difficult to prove that Mr. Womack would have survived ‘but for’ the conduct of the involved officers,” the investigators wrote.
Brown, the new attorney general, has said he supports the legislature giving his office the power to prosecute police officers in deaths. He has said he’s open, though, to allowing the state’s attorney to first decide whether to bring charges.
Local elected prosecutors have previously opposed giving such authority to the state, saying the decisions should rest with their offices.
Richardson, the Queen Anne’s County state’s attorney since 2009, said that he is open to Brown’s proposal. He said either the attorney general’s office should have full authority to charge, or local state’s attorneys should have it.
“I believe it would be present a myriad of problems if the AG’s Office could override the decision of the respective state’s attorney’s offices,” he said.
Banner reporter Dylan Segelbaum contributed to this article.