Earl McNeil
Earl McNeil, who died after an encounter with the National City Police, is shown in an undated photo. (Courtesy Tammy Davis).

UPDATE: Sept. 21, 2018, at 4:30 p.m.: The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office released Earl McNeil’s autopsy report. Click here to view the report.

An ambulance report obtained Thursday by inewsource shows Earl McNeil, who died after being arrested by National City police, had a “shirt pulled over his face” in addition to a spit mask. His death has sparked protests demanding information about what happened and led federal authorities to investigate the incident.

Why this matters

The unexplained circumstances surrounding the death of Earl McNeil have again raised questions about law enforcement’s transparency in use-of-force and in-custody deaths.

The details by paramedics about the shirt is a piece of evidence that has not previously been made public. The report says McNeil flatlined after paramedics arrived at the downtown San Diego jail, where he had been taken following his arrest on May 26 outside the National City Police Department. It lists “cardiac arrest” in the notes.

Former District Attorney Paul Pfingst, who is not connected to the case, told inewsource he would expect the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office to take the report into account in deciding McNeil’s cause of death, including whether he suffocated.

“Is it something that is a significant piece of information in trying to decide why he died? Obviously, the answer is yes,” said Pfingst, who is now a criminal defense lawyer. “Does it mean that it is the reason why he died? Obviously, the answer is no.”

A county spokeswoman said on Thursday McNeil’s autopsy remains sealed.

Doug Applegate, the attorney representing the McNeil family, wouldn’t comment on the ambulance report but said, “This case has a lot of moving parts.”

Applegate said he and the McNeil family are scheduled to meet Friday morning with officials from the District Attorney’s Office and will be allowed to view police camera footage of the incident. They also will be allowed to ask questions of the office’s special investigations unit, he said.

A spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office would not confirm the meeting or comment on the ambulance report because the investigation into McNeil’s death is ongoing.

  • We’ll do the work. You just read it.
    Sign up for our newsletter.

The events surrounding McNeil’s death have been the subject of intense scrutiny by his family and activists who have interrupted several National City Council meetings with calls for more information.

The National City Police Department, District Attorney’s Office, FBI, and U.S. Justice Department of Justice are investigating and reviewing McNeil’s death, according to a department news release.

National City police did not return calls for comment on Thursday.

How McNeil’s arrest and death unfolded

Early on the morning of May 26, a Saturday, McNeil used a telephone in front of the National City police headquarters to contact dispatchers. According to the police, McNeil said “he had a warrant, was high, and wanted to kill Jesus.”

Officers responding to the call found McNeil agitated, acting paranoid and making irrational statements. They arrested him on suspicion of being under the influence of a controlled substance and put him in a WRAP restraint that keeps a subject seated upright with legs bound.

National City Police Chief Manuel Rodriguez later told CBS8 his officers found methamphetamine on McNeil. When he spit at the officers during the arrest, they put a spit mask over his head. The mask used by law enforcement is designed to reduce the risk of communicable diseases.

After McNeil was restrained, officers took him to the county’s downtown San Diego jail, where the Sheriff’s Department refused to book him “for a variety of reasons,” according to Fox5.

According to the ambulance report, upon arrival downtown:

  • Officers tried unloading McNeil from the police cruiser but had “difficulty due to his erratic behavior from suspected stimulant intoxication.”
  • McNeil “had a spit sock on” and “his shirt pulled over his face.”
  • Officers then called paramedics.

Paramedics arrived and noted:

  • McNeil was “calm and lethargic.” Officers told paramedics he “became calm all of a sudden a few minutes ago.”
  • He had a weak pulse and shallow breathing.
  • McNeil then “became pulseless” and stopped breathing.
  • Paramedics began CPR after McNeil “was unhandcuffed and removed from restraints” that police had applied. McNeil was “noted to be in asystole” – or flatlined.

“He had no outward signs of trauma to his body upon examination,” the ambulance report said.

Paramedics took McNeil to the UC San Diego Medical Center in Hillcrest. He remained there, in a coma, until being removed from life support. He died on June 11.


Court records show Earl McNeil was paid informant, suffered from mental illness (San Diego Union-Tribune)

What We Know About Whether Earl McNeil Was An Informant For The DA (KPBS)

Federal Investigators Looking Into Death Of South Bay Man (KPBS)

Who are the social justice organizers pushing for answers in Earl McNeil’s death? (San Diego Union-Tribune)


We’ll let you know when big things happen.

Brad Racino was the assistant editor and senior investigative reporter at inewsource. He's a big fan of transparency, whistleblowers and government agencies forgetting to redact key information from FOIA requests. Brad received his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in...