BERKELEY — The death of rapper Stephen “Baba Zumbi” Gaines of the Oakland hip-hop group Zion I was not criminal in nature, police and prosecutors have determined, despite a coroner’s finding that he died after being restrained by hospital staff and handcuffed by police, this news organization has learned.
Gaines, 49, died in August 2021 from “physiologic stress of altercation and restraint during a psychotic episode,” with COVID-19 infection and cardiomegaly, an enlarged heart, listed as contributing factors, the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau wrote in a report finalized last May but not released to the public. The official manner of his death was homicide, Chief Forensic Pathologist Dr. Vivian Snyder noted.
Gaines’ death has been shrouded in mystery and controversy after police confirmed they were treating it as a homicide, but no arrests followed. The coroner’s report — obtained this week through a public records request — says that three hospital staffers physically restrained Gaines and lay on top of him for several minutes during what they described as a psychotic episode before they noticed blood was coming from his mouth. Police say they realized Gaines was unconscious only after they placed him in handcuffs. Hospital staff were unable to resuscitate him.
For months, Gaines’ family, loved ones and fans have advocated for criminal charges against those involved, including hospital staff and police officers. None of the names of those involved has been released. Authorities have refused to publish video of the restraint, which the coroner’s report says captured the struggle that caused Gaines’ death. Gaines’ family has criticized authorities for taking nearly a year to finalize the coroner’s report.
“I am dedicated to seeking justice for his killing,” Stephen Gaines’ mother, Carolyn Gaines, said in a public statement issued last February. “My son did not die from COVID. My son did not die from a heart attack.”
An attorney representing Gaines’ family did not respond to a request for comment.
Berkeley police and prosecutors with the county’s District Attorney’s office sat down and reviewed evidence from Gaines’ death before mutually agreeing that it was not criminal in nature, said Angela Ruggiero, a DA spokeswoman.
“Both our office and Berkeley police reviewed the evidence in this case and concluded no criminal charges were to be filed,” Ruggiero said.
In a statement sent Friday, a spokesperson for Alta Bates Summit Medical Center said the hospital “has fully cooperated with Alameda County’s investigation into this tragic incident. We defer to the authorities for any further comment.”
Gaines was pronounced dead a little before 6 a.m. on Aug. 13, 2021, at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, just days after announcing a Zion I reunion tour. The coroner’s report describes the incident in detail, as described to investigators by officers and hospital staff, and paints a picture of a mentally distraught Gaines who appeared to be suffering a panic attack during his final moments.
According to the report, Gaines checked himself into the hospital for a mental health examination a day earlier, on Aug. 12, after expressing suicidal thoughts, saying he suffered from extreme anxiety and “had not slept in a year.” Roughly three weeks earlier, he had reportedly contracted COVID-19.
At around 4:15 a.m. the next day, Gaines was unresponsive during a blood draw but woke up during a CT scan. Nurses told investigators that he then appeared “demon-like,” ran out of the hospital room and chased staff down the halls “for approximately 15 minutes” before putting a pregnant security guard in a “choke hold.” That’s when several hospital staff and a security guard began wrestling with Gains, climbing on top of him.
The report says two men wrestled Gaines to the ground while a third held down his legs and that the struggle continued for “a few minutes” before they saw blood coming from Gaines’ mouth and couldn’t tell if he was breathing. They estimated he stayed on the ground in this state for 5 to 10 minutes before police arrived and handcuffed Gaines. Less than a minute later, they said they realized he was unconscious and began performing CPR. He was officially declared dead at 5:51 a.m.
Gaines’ career spanned 20 years, and he recorded of hundreds of songs, most of which were produced by his group Zion I, which featured him and producer Amp Live . The two met while attending college in Atlanta during the 1990s and released their first album, Mind Over Matter, in 2000. For the next 18 years the group put out dozens of albums and mixtapes, including numerous songs that are considered Bay Area classics. They frequently toured California and the Northwest but were most popular here.
In 2015, Gaines did an interview with this newspaper about the still-unsolved killing of his friend, rapper Dominick “The Jacka” Newton, in which he lamented how some tragedies — such as slaughters in Nigeria by Boko Haram or the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris — were assigned different values. He also talked about high-profile police killings at the time that ended up drawing similarities to his own death.
“When we talk about Black Lives Matter, when a white cop kills a Black dude — like the one who choked out Eric Garner — or a wannabe security officer type of dude kills Trayvon Martin, they market it to us on TV, and they say, ‘Look Black people, we’re still in control, we can still kill you anytime we want to,’ ” Gaines said. “But on the flipside, when a Black dude kills another Black dude, it’s not even reported, it’s not mentioned, and in a lot of ways, we’re not even angered by it. … All of them are tragedies. We need to recognize all of them on the same level. The problem for me is, certain deaths are recognized higher and in a different way than others are, and it makes me contemplate why, because it’s all media-driven.”
As a lyricist, Gaines was an introspective man who wrote autobiographic songs that delved into his spirituality, relationships or feelings in a particular moment. Unlike many of his counterparts in the so-called Hyphy Movement, he rarely used curse words, and his songs are bereft of machismo or misogyny. In the 2015 interview, he said he gravitated toward music that delved into the human spirit but enjoyed finding common ground with others whose music wasn’t like his own.
“If you are a real one in hip-hop, I respect that,” Gaines said. “Even if I don’t necessarily listen to your music, I respect cats who are really about the culture and representing.”
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