Vaneesa Hopson pulled the fire alarm at her west Olympia apartment complex early on the morning of Feb 7. There was no fire, but first responders found Hopson half naked and shouting in the street. Police say she was combative with officers, who tried to restrain her, and paramedics gave her medication to sedate her.
Soon after that, she stopped breathing. She was taken to Providence St. Peter Hospital, where she later died.
A report by the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office — which investigated Hopson’s death because Olympia police were involved — found no criminal wrongdoing on the part of paramedics or police. It said officers “did everything they could to help Hopson” and that paramedics followed protocol in administering the sedative that was commonly used without incident by EMS personnel in Thurston County.
The Thurston County Coroner’s Office are waiting for the toxicology report and had not determined Hopson’s cause of death.
Tests at Providence showed Hopson, 35, had synthetic cannabis, cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy in her system, but did not show how much of each drug was present, according to the Sheriff’s Office report.
Hopson’s family said they don’t understand why she had to be sedated after police had her on the ground in handcuffs.
“She was restrained, there was no reason to give her a sedative,” said Hopson’s sister, Crystalyn Asbach, who lives in Centralia and is now taking care of Hopson’s 8-year-old son. “It's been hard. There’s a lot of questions, and there’s not answers to those questions.”
Asbach said Hopson moved to Washington in the fall from Oklahoma with the help of a women’s shelter to escape domestic violence and sex trafficking, experiences that left her with post-traumatic stress disorder and severe anxiety.
“She had a really hard life, but she was a fighter,” said Alli Menendez, Hopson’s cousin who lives in Oklahoma. “I was really hoping that she would get to have that fresh start and have her life back on track.”
Shouts in the night
Hopson lived at the Evergreen Vista Apartments on Fern Street Southwest for less than two weeks. Her roommate, Danielle McCurley, told investigators Hopson “had been acting strange,” that she threw out her phone because she thought someone “had bugged” it and that she was smoking “crack.”
McCurley said a man came to the apartment on Feb. 6 to see Hopson. He left around midnight; about an hour later, Hopson started screaming at McCurley and telling her to get out. She left the apartment, leaving behind her child and Hopson’s son, who police later found sleeping in a back bedroom.
Firefighters responded to the complex shortly after 1 a.m. for a fire alarm. Multiple callers to 911 reported a woman running up the road barefoot and screaming, according to the dispatch log. Neighbors later told investigators they heard her shouting “rape” and “help me.”
Police said they tried to calm Hopson down but she was combative. One firefighter described her as agitated, aggressive, flopping and kicking. Three officers held her down, police said, and she continued to struggle after she was face down on the ground and in handcuffs.
At one point someone put a blanket under her head to keep her from hitting it on the pavement.
Olympia police Sgt. Bryan Houser told investigators Hopson had “unusual strength and believed that she may be at risk of ‘excited delirium,’” according to the Sheriff’s Office report. He asked paramedics to give her something to calm her down.
The paramedic gave her 10 milligrams of midazolam, which goes by the brand name Versed. “Houser believed this would be safer and prevent unnecessary use of force,” according to the Sheriff’s Office’s report.
Paramedics said midazolam typically takes five to 10 minutes to take effect and patients sometimes require a second dose. But Hopson seemed to have an immediate reaction. Within minutes, she stopped breathing, her lips turned blue and she did not have a pulse. A paramedic asked police to take off the handcuffs and she was moved to the medic van where crews started CPR.
By the time they got to Providence, Hopson had a strong pulse.
One paramedic told investigators he thought she was going to make it. He was surprised to hear hours later that she had died.
Law enforcement can request that patients be sedated, but the decision is up to the paramedics. Paramedics with Olympia Fire Department follow protocol set by Thurston County Medic One, which says “chemical restraint” may be used on “patients who are so violent and combative that they cannot reasonably be placed in medical restraint without causing physical injury to the patient or EMS providers.”
It says if the “situation allows,” crews should contact a supervising physician. That didn’t happen in Hopson’s case, and a Medic One official said this situation did not allow for it.
The protocol says midazolam can cause respiratory depression and hypotension, especially when mixed with narcotics, alcohol or other benzodiazepines. Ben Miller-Todd, Medic One’s advanced life support program manager, said these are common risks with sedation and similar medications would have similar precautions.
In Washington, 34 out of 39 counties have approved midazolam for use by EMS personnel, according to the state’s Department of Health.
“Pending the coroner’s report, everything we’ve seen so far indicates the paramedics and EMTs followed procedure,” said Kurt Hardin, Medic One’s director of emergency services.
In 2017, EMS personnel in Thurston County used midazolam for chemical restraint 40 times. It was used another 230 times for other sedation purposes, such as combating seizures or to intubate a patient. Medic One said no patients had adverse reactions in those cases.
Medic One is reviewing its protocol but so far is still using midazolam.
Hardin said in emergencies, EMS personnel often don’t have time to get a patient’s medical history. In those cases, Hardin said, they rely on their training and protocol developed by a physician.
“They have to weigh the fact of greater harm to the patient by not doing anything versus by doing something. In this situation, in order to be able to transport the patient, they can’t transport a patient who is in that situation, violent or otherwise acting out. ...” Hardin said. “With any patient, if there’s a need to get them to a hospital, the quicker you get them there, the better off they’re going to be.”
But Hopson’s family disagrees. Menendez, her cousin in Oklahoma, said no one should be sedated in the field without a physician on hand.
“I don't understand how they had the authority to administer the drug that killed her without a physician,” she said. “Why in the world the police there felt it was OK to do that, I don’t understand.”