Johnathan Binkley lay face-down in the dirt, his ankles and wrists shackled together behind his back. He rocked from side to side on his stomach, yelling incoherently, as Knox County Sheriff’s Office deputies stood around and watched.
“Hey, listen up,” Deputy Christian Gomez said as he patted Binkley on the back, the scene captured on video footage from his body-worn camera. “We’re done, OK? Calm down.”
Another deputy knelt on Binkley’s side and back as he asked Binkley his name and date of birth. Binkley, who was bloodied, breathless and unarmed throughout the encounter, managed to say his last name and the number “11.”
After two minutes, much of it with the deputy’s weight on his back, Binkley stopped answering altogether. Officers began clapping in front of his face, saying his name and rubbing his sternum. Gomez jogged to a cruiser to retrieve Narcan spray, which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, and administered it to Binkley through his nose.
“He’s faking, I think,” Gomez said after a minute had passed.
Binkley wasn’t faking.
The deputies removed his shackles, gave him a second dose of Narcan and attempted CPR before an ambulance arrived. Nothing worked. Binkley died in Knox County Sheriff’s Office custody on July 27, 2019.
Now, his mother is suing over his death.
A Knox News review of body camera footage, court records and police documents in the case shows Binkley, 35, led deputies on a car chase that night after one spotted him in a pickup truck in a park after dark. When Binkley got the truck stuck on a dead-end road, a group of deputies pulled the 279-pound man through the open driver’s side window; punched, kicked and kneed him; “hog-tied” him by shackling his wrists to his ankles behind his back; periodically pushed his back and head into the ground; and left him face down on the ground until he fell unconscious and died.
The deputies said they thought Binkley was resisting arrest when he grabbed them, refused to give them his hands and fell down after being ordered to stand. Prosecutors didn’t charge any of the officers with a crime, saying they used only reasonable force during the arrest and that none of them knew Binkley was overdosing on a combination of methamphetamine and the powerful opioid fentanyl.
Knox County Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Christopher Lochmuller performed an autopsy on Binkley one day after he died and three days before investigators retrieved body camera footage in the case. The autopsy report contains no mention of the force or controversial restraint used by deputies and instead states Binkley “died of combined fentanyl and methamphetamine intoxication.”
“Other conditions that significantly contributed to death are hypertensive cardiovascular disease and obesity,” the report reads. “The manner of death is accident.”
Lochmuller, through a spokesman, declined to speak with Knox News about the case.
Binkley’s cause of death — and the extent to which deputies played a role in it — will be central to a federal wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit brought by his mother, Ann Ledford, against Knox County, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler and 14 deputies involved in the case. Some of the deputies were trainees.
In a complaint filed about a month ago in U.S. District Court in Knoxville, attorney Wayne Ritchie II wrote that, despite the autopsy’s finding, Binkley would be alive today had the deputies not used excessive force and been “deliberately indifferent to his condition and obvious distress, especially after he was already subdued and restrained.”
Binkley clearly couldn’t breathe, the complaint states, and the fact that the deputies didn’t realize he might have been overdosing is part of the problem.
County attorneys had not filed an answer to the complaint in court as of early this week, and sheriff’s office spokeswoman Kimberly Glenn said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. She referred questions to the Knox County Law Director’s Office. Deputy Law Director David Wigler, who is handling the case for the county, similarly declined to comment.
Ritchie told Knox News in a brief statement that law enforcement “has an essential role for each of us individually and for our community as a whole.
“With that role comes great responsibility for how law enforcement deals with the people it serves. The videos in their entirety display what happened and how it happened, and what’s seen in the videos leads to important questions.”
What the videos show
The Knoxville Police Department investigated Binkley’s death under an agreement between the two agencies that was in place at the time. Knox News reviewed the autopsy report, body camera footage, court records, a memo from prosecutors explaining their decision not to file charges and the police department’s 44-page investigative file, which includes an incident report, written statements from deputies and other documents.
The records show the following.
The night of July 27, 2019, Binkley and a woman, Maranda Jordan, were sitting inside a pickup truck at Sterchi Hills Park. Jordan told police the two had been living inside the Dodge Ram for about four months, and that they’d done heroin together about 2 p.m. that day. A police summary of her statement doesn’t say whether she and Binkley did drugs at the park, but officers ultimately found used syringes and other drug paraphernalia inside the truck.
Knox County Sheriff’s Office Deputy James Bradshaw spotted the truck at the park about 9:40 p.m. When he approached the vehicle and announced he was law enforcement, Binkley asked, “Can I help you?” then sped off. Inside the truck, Binkley told Jordan he couldn’t go back to jail. Court records show he had a history of opioid use and theft but no local record of violence. He had a suspended license and a warrant for misdemeanor theft that would have landed him in jail if picked up by law enforcement.
Binkley led sheriff’s deputies on a 25-minute chase that reached speeds of 70 mph before he got the truck stuck on a tree stump on Brownlow Road, north of Halls. Deputies quickly closed in as Binkley revved the engine. Bradshaw walked up to the driver’s side of the truck, ordering Binkley to stick his hands through the open driver’s side window. Binkley obeyed. Meanwhile, Deputy Clay Harrell pulled Jordan from the passenger’s side and reached for the ignition to turn off the truck.
When Harrell couldn’t turn off the truck, he punched Binkley twice from the side. “Get the (expletive) out,” the deputy shouted. “I’m trying, I’m trying,” Binkley said, adding, “I’m hurt.” Authorities later found Binkley might have hit his head on the steering wheel and broken some ribs when the truck came to a sudden stop on top of the tree stump.
Binkley couldn’t get out of the pickup truck because a small tree was blocking the driver’s side door. So deputies squeezed him through the driver’s side window as he struggled and yelled, then dropped him to the ground and punched him as they tried to get control of his hands. Binkley was handcuffed and forced face-down on the ground, bleeding, with deputies pressing down on his back.
Some of the deputies got Binkley’s blood on them and walked away to clean it off. Deputy Shane May called for an ambulance due to a cut on Binkley’s face, but it would take 15 minutes for one to arrive.
As several deputies tried to force Binkley to stand up, one said, “Hey, you just screamed like a little girl, I know you’re awake.” Groaning, Binkley fell back to the ground as a deputy told him, “You better use your (expletive) legs, you lazy (expletive).”
One of the deputies continued to curse at Binkley, telling him to quit moving, as seven officers picked him up and carried him down a hill to a gravel area closer to the road, where they laid him on the ground. One deputy pushed down on Binkley’s shoulder and knelt on his back. A second held down his legs. A third pushed his head into the ground. Binkley groaned repeatedly but didn’t speak.
“You’re done, man, stop fighting,” Deputy Christian Gomez said as he pressed down on the back of Binkley’s head. “Why are you fighting, dude? Why are you fighting?”
At one point, a deputy said, “He’s got a big belly, roll him on his side so he can breathe.”
While Binkley was on his side, deputies shackled his ankles together and connected the restraints to his handcuffs, pulling his arms and legs behind his back in what’s called the hog-tie restraint. Deputies said they hog-tied Binkley because he had kicked them, but Ritchie, the family’s attorney, argues Binkley — as a handcuffed, unarmed man lying on the ground and surrounded by a large group of armed officers — clearly posed no threat to anyone.
Binkley was quickly returned to his stomach and began rocking back and forth on the ground, yelling. The deputies responded by tightening the restraints.
“Hey, guy, we’re (expletive) done,” Gomez said as Binkley continued to rock back and forth. “Hey, listen up, we’re done. Calm down.”
Another deputy knelt on Binkley’s side as he asked Binkley his name and date of birth. The deputy then pushed a hand and knee into Binkley’s back as other officers discussed logistics.
No one voiced to the group any concern that Binkley might be overdosing, according to the body camera footage reviewed by Knox News. No one asked if he needed to be hog-tied. No one argued he should be left on his side.
About four minutes after being hog-tied, Binkley stopped responding. Deputies immediately started trying to revive him and at that point asked Jordan, his passenger who had already been placed in a cruiser, if they had taken any drugs. The deputies performed CPR and administered Narcan twice before the ambulance arrived.
Binkley was pronounced dead at the scene at 11:05 p.m. — about an hour-and-a-half after the chase began.
The deputies’ statements, the police department’s incident report and the memo from prosecutors largely gloss over the use of the hog-tie restraint.
“Very quickly after Mr. Binkley’s hands and ankles were restrained, he became unresponsive,” the memo reads. But, it says in a previous section, “The medical examiner is clear that Mr. Binkley died from a drug overdose with prior health issues playing a contributing factor. The minor injuries suffered by Mr. Binkley that may have been caused by the deputies use of non-deadly force or by the vehicle becoming lodged but operable in the wooded lot did not play a role in his death.”
Ritchie, in the family’s wrongful death lawsuit, argues the hog-tie restraint is “well-known as a dangerous technique due to it causing positional asphyxiation and subsequent death, particularly in individuals who are overweight and placed on their stomach and/or who are under the influence. Accordingly, the practice has been banned from use across the country by police/sheriff’s departments.”
The sheriff’s office, he wrote, failed to properly train its deputies, who “violated numerous nationally-accepted police standards and policies.”
Knox County Sheriff’s Office general orders don’t mention the hog-tie restraint one way or another. The policies reviewed by Knox News vaguely say “all suspects and persons who have been arrested shall be treated in a fair and humane manner,” and that “any restraint shall be applied in accordance with agency policy and shall always be reasonable under the circumstances.”
The sheriff’s office did not conduct an internal investigation to determine whether any of its policies were violated when Binkley died in its custody.