CHESTERFIELD, Va. – Hundreds of mourners joined family and friends of Irvo Otieno Wednesday to celebrate his life and call for reform in mental health care for minorities in the wake of the 28-year-old’s apparent suffocation at a Virginia mental hospital earlier this month.
Otieno’s brother, Leon Ochieng, called him “the big brother I never had” even though Otieno was younger than him. Ochieng, who was coming home to the Richmond, Virginia, area to help his brother start his musical career when Otieno died on March 6, has vowed to fight for justice in the memory of Otieno.
“Irvo’s life has given me purpose,” Ochieng said as he stood over the flower-draped casket of his brother.
Otieno, whose family said he had long struggled with mental illness, died March 6 after he was pinned to the floor by sheriff’s deputies and others while being admitted to Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie County. Seven deputies and three hospital workers have been charged with second-degree murder in his death, and an investigation is ongoing.
Three days before his death, Henrico Police came to Otieno’s home investigating a burglary in which a neighbor claimed he was involved. When they got there, Otieno was in the midst of a mental crisis, and his mother was asking them to take that under consideration. Otieno was taken to Henrico Doctors Hospital for treatment and then, as his mother claimed, “whisked out the back door” of the hospital and taken to jail.
Surveillance video released by the Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office showed Henrico deputies manhandling a lethargic and unmedicated Otieno in his jail cell. Later, video from the hospital showed the seven deputies and three hospital security guards atop him for 12 minutes, during which he reportedly suffocated.
Otieno’s mother, Caroline Ouko, spoke to her late son directly in her remarks. She called him a “soldier” and “the man.”
“When I took my son to the hospital, this is not what I envisioned,” Ouko said. “Son, this is where we are and I’m sorry. We will get to the bottom of what happened to you. We will stand for you. We will walk for you”
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The two-hour service at First Baptist Church of South Richmond’s Chesterfield campus drew hundreds of people. The auditorium was opened early so mourners could file past Otieno’s open casket and pay respects.
The service was delayed for about an hour because civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton, who delivered the eulogy, was late in arriving from New York to Richmond.
In his eulogy, Sharpton called for increased awareness of mental health awareness among minority communities, especially in the way Black mental patients are treated as opposed to white patients or other races.
“The disgrace is not that Irvo had mental illness,” Sharpton said. “The disgrace is how you treated him [referring to the deputies and hospital personnel].”
Sharpton called on Gov. Glenn Youngkin to prioritize minority mental health treatment in Virginia. He encouraged Youngkin to remember Otieno’s death by championing “Irvo’s Law” which would address inequities in mental health treatments.
Earlier in the service, Richmond City Councilor Mike Jones, one of two Scripture readers at the service, also spoke on mental health.
“Mental health should not be stigmatized like it is,” Jones said. “As a legislator, we need to do more.”
Mourners celebrate Otieno’s life
The two-hour service was also a celebration of Otieno’s life.
A tribute video showed various family photos with Otieno, and many of them focused on his love of playing football and basketball in youth leagues and at Douglas Freeman High School. While the pictures were shown, the soundtrack featured Otieno, an aspiring musician, performing an original rap song.
At the end of the video, an image of Irvo Otieno was superimposed over the scene of a sunset. As it faded, mourners leaped to their feet cheering, clapping, and shouting praises and hallelujahs.
Classmate Zachary Weiss remembered Otieno displaying “a lot of humility that I admired.” He said he would miss Otieno’s “laugh and his million-dollar smile.”
As the service ended, Bishop Daniel Wainaina, one of the family’s pastors, encouraged mourners to leave the church feeling “forgiveness” because that is what Otieno would have wanted.
Bill Atkinson (he/him/his) is an award-winning journalist who covers breaking news, government and politics. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @BAtkinson_PI.