D.A. to probe prison death of 'Fat Mike'

Mike Davis (above, with his mom, Diane) was not injured on the face (right) when he was hospitalized for the gunshot wound he suffered during the incident that landed him in jail.
Mike Davis (above, with his mom, Diane) was not injured on the face (right) when he was hospitalized for the gunshot wound he suffered during the incident that landed him in jail.
Posted: April 02, 2014

INMATE Michael "Fat Mike" Davis died of "natural causes" on March 3, Philadelphia prison officials said, even though the medical examiner hadn't yet ruled.

But Davis' relatives knew something was wrong as soon as they saw his body in the morgue: He appeared to have two swollen black eyes, a split lip and bruises on his head and body.

And prison sources told the Daily News that his death was anything but natural: They said the 396-pound Davis, who couldn't walk because of a full-leg cast, died after Detention Center guards dragged him facedown to the mental-health unit.

Yesterday, officials referred the case to the District Attorney's Office for investigation, prison spokeswoman Shawn Hawes said, after an Internal Affairs probe "did raise some concerns."

One prison watchdog agreed that the case warrants scrutiny.

"Dragging people - that's not how you do business. He should have been in a wheelchair, on a gurney or something," said Angus Love, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, which has filed class-action lawsuits on prison conditions, including understaffing, overcrowding and abuse. "These things happen all too frequently. They don't have sufficient personnel to run the prisons. That's a systemic problem that would contribute to this problem."

Dragging death?

Davis, 36, was no rookie to the city prison system.

He had at least 10 prior arrests for crimes like rape, aggravated assault, and gun and drug offenses, and eight aliases (in court, he is officially "Mike Jones"). His only convictions came in 2001 for assault and 1998 for drug offenses, records show.

So when he got arrested Feb. 25, he already had a lawyer - Fortunato Perri Jr., whose clients have included such headline-grabbers as rapper Beanie Sigel.

In this case, police say that Davis was in a car with a friend, Jermill Edwards, on Feb. 23 outside the Let Out, a North Philadelphia nightclub a block from Temple University's campus. Edwards allegedly grabbed a gun from Davis' car and shot at an unknown man, prompting a shootout between the gunman and club security guards, police and court records show.

Davis caught a bullet in his left knee and drove himself to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where doctors operated to repair the injury and placed him in a cast from hip to foot.

Davis' relatives insist he had nothing to do with the shootout and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But police charged him, and on Friday, Feb. 28, when he'd recovered enough to be moved, they took him to jail.

What happened during his three days behind bars remains a mystery.

The Detention Center has no weekend visiting hours. When his wife, Jenise Davis, called to ask about visiting on Monday - the day he died - she said, she was told he wasn't yet permitted to have visitors. When she called Tuesday, prison staff directed her to call Aria Health's Torresdale hospital.

The hospital told her to call the morgue.

"No one ever called to tell me he'd been hurt or died," his widow said. "I don't understand why the prison never contacted me."

A prison chaplain did call Davis' mother, Diane, the morning after his death. The chaplain, like everyone else the women called over the next few weeks, had few answers.

And the family had many questions.

At the morgue, Jenise Davis immediately spotted fresh injuries on her dead husband's face. The funeral home found so many wounds that they suggested burying him in a hat, she said.

Diane Davis rushed there to see the injuries herself. What she saw convinced her that her son died after a beating.

Although the funeral home declined to discuss with a reporter the condition of Davis' body, citing privacy issues, Diane Davis photographed her dead son and shared the photos with the Daily News.

Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, a forensic pathologist and legal-medical consultant, reviewed the photos for the Daily News and determined they do appear to show "superficial contusions and abrasions" (bruises and cuts) consistent with being dragged.

"I would not characterize these as evidence of a severe beating; they're injuries that would be consistent that he was dragged and that his face struck the floor," Wecht said.

Prison sources say that correctional officers were ordered to take Davis to the mental-health unit for unspecified reasons - and instead of transporting him on a gurney or in a wheelchair, they dragged him facedown to the unit, one floor down.

Davis' widow said someone in the Medical Examiner's Office told her that prison officials said Davis was taken to the hospital because he had breathing problems and possibly asphyxiated.

"The answer here lies with the autopsy report," Wecht said.

Union: Guards did no wrong

The Medical Examiner's Office hasn't ruled yet on Davis' cause of death and does not issue "preliminary rulings," spokesman Jeff Moran said. Toxicology tests, standard in sudden or unexplained deaths, can take weeks to months.

Still, Lorenzo North, who heads the union representing corrections officers, denies anything improper occurred.

"The inmate was never dragged or beat or dropped. He was carried by officers from one housing area to another. He was never beaten," North said. "I welcome any investigation. I stand by my officers when they say no wrongdoing happened."

Most areas of city prisons are under video surveillance. Hawes declined to let a Daily News reporter see any video that might have documented the Davis incident. And North said he had not seen it.

Looking for explanations, Jenise Davis said she called Detention Center warden John Delaney; Diane Davis spoke with Capt. Steven Angelucci, the prison supervisor the night Davis died.

Both told the women nothing improper occurred.

"I called the prison every day," Jenise Davis said of her quest for information. "They referred me to their chief legal counsel."

Reached yesterday, Angelucci also referred the Daily News to the legal department. Delaney did not return a call for comment.

Frustrated, Jenise Davis has hired a lawyer and is mulling a federal civil-rights lawsuit.

"No one's telling me what happened; everything's hush-hush," Davis said. "I won't sleep until I know exactly what happened to him."

Inmate deaths in city prisons aren't uncommon. Last year alone, 15 inmates died (two suicides; the rest "natural deaths"), Hawes said.

Prison officials typically alert both the Police Department and other public-safety officials - although not the media - when an inmate dies.

In fact, just a day after Davis died, another inmate died at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility of apparent health issues. Inmate Mary Colella, 37, died of natural causes, according to the Medical Examiner's Office. In Colella's case, the prison notified the Police Department's Homicide Unit, which investigates sudden deaths, said Lt. John Stanford, police spokesman.

But the Police Department received no such notice of Davis' death, Stanford confirmed.

When inmates die, prisons officials typically send "flash alerts" to city public-safety officials. Hawes declined to say whether a flash alert was sent in either Davis' or Colella's deaths.

Seeking answers

His family says Davis was healthy despite his size.

"No diabetes, nothing. He just went in for a checkup in January, and they said he was fine," Jenise Davis said.

His mother said, "We know his death is 'pending,' but we also know whatever they did to him in jail triggered his death."

Perri is keeping a close eye on things, as well.

"If our investigation leads to the conclusion that Mike died as a result of excessive use of force or some other civil-rights violation," he said, "then we intend to make a civil-rights claim on behalf of the family."

In the meantime, Jenise Davis stays busy raising their two babies, ages 3 and 7 months. Davis also had three older children.

Davis' widow and mother vowed they won't rest until they find the answers they seek.

On Twitter: @DanaDiFilippo

Blog: phillyconfidential.com

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