Those who knew Stephen Gaines remember him as a loving father of three boys, a brilliant lyricist and a spiritual practitioner. (GoFundMe)
In the last weeks of his life, Oakland hip-hop artist Stephen Gaines, better known as Zumbi of Zion I, had started a hopeful new chapter.
In July 2021, he headlined a concert in Nevada City where eager fans lined up for pictures and autographs. He’d come down with COVID-19 after the show, but with his partner of four years, Millaray Rodriguez Avila, he began recovering. The couple visited the beach and went on hikes, and Gaines regained his appetite, eating second helpings of vegan ramen.
Gaines laid plans to release new music and embark upon a Zion I reunion tour with his longtime musical collaborator, Amp Live. He and Rodriguez Avila prepared to sign a lease on a house in Oakland, where they planned to live with Gaines’ mother, his young three boys and Rodriguez Avila’s middle school-age son.
All of those plans ground to a halt on Aug. 13, 2021, when Gaines was killed during a stay at Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley.
The day prior, Gaines had called 911 for help during an apparent mental health crisis and checked himself into Alta Bates. His family and their lawyers say he should have walked out of the hospital alive. Instead, they allege, hospital staff and Allied Universal security guards used excessive force and killed him. According to the coroner’s report, three men, including a patient transporter and a security guard, piled on top of Gaines, placing their weight on his arms, legs and upper torso. They held Gaines to the ground for approximately five to 10 minutes.
The coroner determined that Gaines died by homicide, with the official cause of death as “physiologic stress of altercation and restraint during a psychotic episode,” and COVID-19 and an enlarged heart as contributing factors. Yet more than a year since Gaines’ death, Berkeley police have not announced any suspects nor made arrests. After initially stating that Gaines’ killing did not “appear criminal in nature,” the Alameda County District Attorney’s office reversed course on Oct. 5 and announced that, in light of new information, criminal charges could still be possible.
“The restraints used by a combination of Allied Universal staff and Alta Bates staff [were] homicidal,” says Elizabeth Grossman, one of the attorneys representing Gaines’ mother Carolyn, Gaines’ three boys and Rodriguez Avila. Grossman says criminal charges are likely, and that she plans to file a civil lawsuit against Alta Bates hospital and Allied Universal.
“I think Ms. Gaines said it right when she was talking to Nancy O'Malley, the district attorney, the other day,” says Grossman. “She sadly recognized that she’s joined a terrible, small club of mothers whose sons have been murdered — not only sons, but children who have been murdered — and she called out George Floyd’s mother.”
Law enforcement’s lack of answers and long delays have frustrated those close to Gaines. Now, on what would have been Gaines’ 50th birthday, Oct. 9, loved ones who’d previously stayed silent as the investigation took its course are demanding answers and accountability.
“The only thing I want is charges for the people who are responsible for ending a beautiful life the way that they did,” says Rodriguez Avila.
Lawyers point to wrongful treatment on the hospital floor
According to the coroner’s report, Gaines called 911 on Aug. 12, 2021, to seek help for suicidal ideation. He checked himself into the hospital, where he was placed on a 5150, the code for a 72-hour involuntary psychiatric hold. His toxicology screen was negative, and he was given anti-anxiety medication. Rodriguez Avila says she communicated with Gaines while he was in the hospital, and that he seemed optimistic about his recovery.
After sleeping through most of the night, the report says, Gaines awoke suddenly in his bed as attending nurses discussed ordering a CT scan. Witnesses said he chased nurses through the halls and put a pregnant security guard “in a choke hold.” After security and staff pulled Gaines from the guard, a patient transporter took Gaines to the floor, held him face down, and laid on top of him, straddling Gaines’ upper torso. A security guard later piled on top of the patient transporter, putting additional weight on Gaines’ torso, back, and left arm. A third person restrained Gaines’ legs and left elbow.
“It is unknown how much body weight was placed on Mr. Gaines,” the coroner's report notes. Witnesses estimate Gaines was on the ground for “approximately 5-10 minutes.”
After a few minutes of struggle, according to the autopsy, the men on top of Gaines noticed blood coming from his mouth, and “could not tell if he was breathing.” When Berkeley police arrived, they attempted to handcuff Gaines while the three men stood up. Officers noticed that Gaines was unresponsive, rolled him on his back, and then put him in handcuffs before administering CPR. By then it was too late. Gaines was pronounced dead at 5:51 a.m. on Aug. 13.
That morning, Rodriguez Avila got a call from the hospital director. The partner she had been building a life with was dead.
“I kind of collapsed,” she says now, over a year later. “I lost myself, where I was. I thought it was a movie.”
“I want the truth,” Rodriguez Avila continues. “What happened that day? How did security and hospital staff end [the life of] a person who was so beautiful?”
She and friends who knew Gaines for decades describe him as a kind, gentle soul — a loving parent, partner and friend. They remember him as a health-conscious meditation practitioner who aspired to be his best self and encouraged people to be kinder to each other. That message was audible in his music, which often dealt with themes of societal injustices.
“He taught me love,” says Rodriguez Avila. “In our relationship, the beautiful thing is that love, that passion that we had for each other, it was around us, too. It was with our kids. It was with our friends. Everywhere we [went], we projected and received back love.”
“I remember him as somebody who always spread love and spread light, and somebody who was an innovator, extremely creative, original,” says friend and fellow hip-hop artist Dustin Sharpe. “Almost like a God-sent prophet because he always spoke wisdom. He always looked at the positive side of things.”
The people close to Gaines say he didn’t have a history of mental illness. He dealt with normal life stressors from parenthood and his career as an artist.
“When I heard that he brought himself to the hospital, I knew that something was up, that he must have been going through something,” says longtime friend and musical collaborator The Grouch. “People can reach a point of struggle, and whatever happens in that hospital, the hospital is the professionals, and they should be trained to take care of the situation.”
Federal regulations outline safe techniques for restraining patients in hospitals. “They specifically call out in the federal regulations that there cannot be positional asphyxiation,” Grossman says. “Most importantly, the regulations require that medical aid be given while restraints are being applied. These regulations were written with a history of understanding that mental health situations often result in restraints being used, and trying to correct bad practices.”
“In this case, every bad practice happened,” Grossman continues. “For the five to 10 minutes that he was being restrained with three men lying on his back, there was not one ounce of medical care offered to save this man’s life. That is ugly beyond belief.”
Friends of Gaines are frustrated law enforcement hasn’t named any suspects. “What are the names of these people who laid on him for five to 10 minutes thinking that was right, whether he was having an episode or not?” says Gina Madrid, a friend and fellow hip-hop artist. “Because you’re not going to kill our brother like that.”
“People have to be held accountable,” says hip-hop artist Deuce Eclipse, who had been close with Gaines since the two were in high school. “The bottom line for me is he should still be here. There’s no reason I can find in my mind, my heart, my spirit and my soul why he would be killed in the hospital.”
Berkeley police, Alta Bates or its security company, Allied Universal, did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.
Loved ones call for accountability for hospital security guards and staff
In the eyes of his partner and friends, Gaines’ death is another example of authority figures treating the life of a Black person as disposable. For Rodriguez Avila, the loss was shocking, but it also felt disturbingly familiar.
“It’s happened before in this country. It’s happened in California. It’s happened in the Bay Area before,” she says. “And there’s so many families, mothers, brothers, sisters that are waiting for answers for other brown, Latino and Black people that have been killed by use of force.”
For others, what happened to Gaines is indicative of abuse and racism in the medical and criminal justice systems. “I think that there needs to be a magnifying glass put on the hospitals and how they function,” says The Grouch.
“We need the same type of pressure that happened with police officers to happen with private security,” Styler says. “I think the fact that no one even really considers it an issue is huge.”
The investigation into Gaines’ death lasted for over a year, the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau has said, because of delays in obtaining the toxicology report. Meanwhile, the delay in the district attorney’s decision on whether or not to file charges is “becoming detrimental to the case, and also just to the emotions and the sentiment of those who are close to him as we try to process this,” says musician and longtime friend Kev Choice.
Now, Gaines’ friends and family fear there could be further obstacles. O’Malley, the Alameda County District Attorney, will retire when her term ends at the beginning of 2023. A spokesperson for the D.A. told KQED on Oct. 7 that there is currently no timeline for a decision in Gaines’ case.
“It’s been 14 months,” says Rodriguez Avila. “What is gonna happen to the review of the case she says that she’s doing? I want to know the result of the review … I want her to [file] charges before she leaves office, before the elections in November next month.”
“I’m learning for the first time how to go day-by-day without my love. Without the person that was helping to raise my boy, too,” Rodriguez Avila adds. “That’s why I’m screaming for justice.”
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