A 40-year-old woman begged for her life before Salt Lake City police caused the end of it during a January arrest captured in part on police body camera video. “Help!" Megan Joyce Mohn is seen yelling. "They’re going to kill me! Help me!” She later told officers she didn't want to die and begged for them not to shoot her. They didn't. Instead, an officer held her down for more than four minutes in a prone position multiple experts have maintained is not meant for prolonged use.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump said in a tweet that Mohn “seemed to be experiencing a mental health crisis, when a Salt Lake City (UT) officer pinned her down & put a knee on her back, leaving her in this position until she became unresponsive & later died -- a death that's been ruled a homicide.”
Warning: Videos in this story contain footage of police violence that may be triggering for viewers.
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Police initially encountered Mohn on Jan. 11 after an armed security guard for Marathon Petroleum’s Salt Lake City refinery told an officer she was “walking in circles carrying a piece of rebar in the intersection of 400 West 900 North,” according a police news release.
The officer, whose identity hasn’t been released, was working a secondary employment shift for Marathon Petroleum.
"The SLCPD officer learned from security that Ms. Mohn tried getting into a secure area and accessed the truck exit gate. A truck driver stopped Ms. Mohn who then ran off property and back into the intersection," police officials said in the news release. "At approximately 3:30 a.m., the SLCPD officer contacted Ms. Mohn and saw she had two pieces of rebar in her hand.
“The officer ordered Ms. Mohn to drop the rebar and she complied."
He also had her sit on the ground, police said. Body camera video, which captured the first 30 seconds of video without audio, continued with Mohn screaming for help on the ground.
The footage showed an officer ask Mohn her name and threaten to take her to jail if she didn't tell him. She remained silent until asking for proof the people she was talking to were police officers.
"We are the police," one officer said. "You see the red and blues?"
Mohn responded with screams that they were going to kill her. When she stood up, an officer demanded she “sit down” and “stay down.”
At one point, she asked for water and an officer responded that they would give her water if she told them her name.
“Oh, that’s just exploitation,” Mohn said.
It’s unclear what caused the situation to escalate, but when an officer made good on a threat to cut Mohn’s backpack if she didn’t tell them her name, officers moved Mohn to her back, later putting her on her stomach. They told her to stop kicking and mocked her.
“Say no to drugs, you’d have less problems,” one officer said.
The video doesn’t capture the first moments of the police encounter with Mohn.
“The exact moment in time when the first officer encountered Ms. Mohn is unknown at this time because the first officer did not have a body-worn camera,” police officials said in a follow-up news release.
But sometime after that, officers put Mohn in handcuffs and ankle restraints and she "became unresponsive," police said.
Officers were seen in the body camera footage trying to assist Mohn. She was later taken by ambulance to Salt Lake Regional Hospital in critical condition. She died on Jan. 30 after being moved to an intensive care unit.
“Upon learning of Ms. Mohn’s death, from the medical examiner’s office, the Salt Lake City Police Department consulted with the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office,” police officials said. “The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office advised the Salt Lake City Police Department that the incident did not qualify as an officer-involved-critical-incident at that time. All parties awaited the medical examiner’s findings.”
Police Chief Mike Brown expressed the department's condolences to the Mohn family in the news release, which included the body camera footage. “Ensuring we have a comprehensive investigation into this matter is critical,” Brown said. “This case involves many complex factors. I look forward to the full report of the officer-involved-critical-incident and our department’s internal affairs investigation.”
In the earlier statement, Brown didn’t mention a concern for the victim, only for the officers.
“Police officers make incredibly important and difficult decisions at lightning speed and under incredible stress and volatility. These decisions are heavily scrutinized,” he said. “Our officers acted appropriately, quickly and professionally to save Ms. Mohn’s life. We welcome and respect the officer-involved-critical-incident protocol. We have confidence this will be a fair and judicious process guided by the rule of law and grounded in evidence.”
Chris Burbank, a former Salt Lake City police chief, told Fox 13 News that an autopsy report released on July 28 confirmed in part that Mohn's death was a homicide caused by police. "That interaction caused the death of that woman," Burbank said.
Salt Lake City police said in its review of the medical examiner’s findings that Mohn died of an "anoxic brain injury" due to "cardiac arrest" from “probable methamphetamine intoxication in the setting of an altercation involving physical restraint.”
Chief Medical Examiner Erik Christensen told The Salt Lake Tribune why it took more than six months to release the report. He said establishing a cause of death can sometimes be a more involved process including review of “investigative information obtained,” such as police reports and videos.
“The evaluation of this information is a complex endeavor which requires time and attention,” Christensen emailed The Salt Lake Tribune. “The more complex the case, the longer the investigation potentially takes. Our standard for completion is an acknowledgement that not all cases can be completed within a two-month time frame and the investigation will require more than the usual amount of work and follow-up.”
Dr. Alon Steinberg, a cardiologist who chairs the department of cardiology at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, California, told The Salt Lake Tribune the prone position Mohn was placed in can be fatal, blocking ventilation and circulation.
“When you have a cardiac arrest — meaning the heart’s not pumping any blood flow to the whole body — but the most vulnerable area is the brain,” Steinberg said. “So if the brain doesn’t get oxygen for four or five minutes, it could be quite catastrophic.”
He added: “It sounds like there was a prolonged period of time where she was not getting enough circulation to her brain and she suffered brain death, and she may have suffered other problems.”