Matthew Ajibade was a 22-year-old Nigerian-born artist and student at Savannah Technical College whose creative flair led him to pursuits such as fashion photography and designing t-shirts. He even had his own print design company called Afridale.
But Ajibade also had bipolar disorder. And now Ajibade is dead.
He died in a Georgia jail cell under mysterious circumstances after police arrested him for domestic battery and resisting arrest. Police say when they came upon Ajibade and his girlfriend on New Year’s day on a Savannah street, her face was bruised and her nose was bleeding. Ajibade was apparently in the midst of a bipolar episode. But instead of taking him to the hospital, police brought him to Chatham County jail, where they say he got into a scuffle with guards.
A day later, his older brother Chris Oladapo got a phone call from someone at the jail, telling him his little brother was dead.
“We want to know why,” Oladapo, 26, said Tuesday surrounded by family and friends at Wright Square in Savannah. “Why is a young, creative soul leaving us so early?”
To get answers, the family has hired Florida-based attorney Mark O’Mara, who became a household name while successfully defending George Zimmerman after he killed Trayvon Martin.
“There’s no blame yet,” O’Mara told savannahnow.com. “There are just a lot of questions.”
His death is being probed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, at the request of the county sheriff’s department. O’Mara said he wants it to be fair and transparent.
When a young Black man dies in police custody in Savannah, many observers are going to cast a skeptical eye on law enforcement authorities. This is the same city where a 29-year-old Black man, Charles Smith, was killed in September while in custody in the back of a police car. His death led to outraged protests after police claimed that the 6-foot-9 Smith somehow managed to move his cuffed hands to the front of his body and kick out the police car window. And the officers said they suddenly noticed he had a gun, which they apparently missed—so 10-year police department veteran David Jannot shot and killed Smith.
There also have been many other Black men with mental challenges who died in police custody instead of being given access to mental health services.
In Ajibade’s case, his brother and O’Mara asked why the mentally disturbed young man was taken jail instead of a hospital. O’Mara said the girlfriend, who the family said is the person who called police, told them he needed to go to the hospital as she handed them a bottle of his prescription medication, Divalproex, which contained pills to treat bipolar disorder.
But in the police version of events, both Ajibade and his girlfriend refused treatment at the scene and there’s no mention made in the police report that she said anything about bringing him to the hospital.
This is how the initial encounter is described in the police incident report, according to savannahnow.com:
Police say they were called to the intersection of East Duffy and Abercorn streets about 6:15 p.m. Thursday to respond to a domestic incident in which one person was chasing another. Officers saw Ajibade and a woman standing together with a blanket over their heads. Ajibade was holding the woman tightly, but she removed the blanket as police approached. An officer saw the woman’s face was bruised and her nose was bleeding. Police told Ajibade to release the woman, but he refused even after several commands were given. When an officer tried to pull them apart, Ajibade “started to resist apprehension in a violent manner, and was taken to the ground, so that he could be handcuffed,” according to the report.
Police say Ajibade continued to resist arrest, even while on the ground of a parking lot at a convenience store in the 1500 block of Abercorn. Two sergeants came to the scene and medics were called, but police claim both the woman and Ajibade, who wasn’t injured, refused treatment. The woman told police Ajibade had been acting strangely all day, but she did not say why she thought she had been attacked. Police said Ajibade was the primary aggressor, and he was charged with battery under the Domestic Violence Act and obstruction by resisting arrest. The woman gave police a plastic prescription bottle, labeled as Divalproex, that contained pills. Police took Ajibade to jail.
Ajibade arrived at the jail at 6:40 p.m. and was placed in an isolation cell because he became combative with deputies while being booked and his behavior was deemed dangerous, according to Wayne Wermuth, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office. A female sergeant suffered a concussion and a broken nose and two male deputies suffered injuries consistent with a fight. While performing a second welfare check on Ajibade, jail staff found he appeared to be nonresponsive. Medical staff started CPR and administered defibrillation while preparing to take Ajibade to Memorial University Medical Center, but efforts to resuscitate him were not successful, Wermuth said.
Ajibade’s cause of death will not be released until an autopsy, lab results and the GBI’s investigation are completed, officials said, though O’Mara said the autopsy was completed Tuesday.
The jail apparently has a surveillance system, but it’s unclear whether it recorded any of the proceedings. Published reports quote the Chatham County District Attorney’s office as saying a criminal investigation is ongoing and the office will “handle the matter further, should it become necessary.”
Ajibade, who was born in Lagos, Nigeria, was actually studying film at the Savannah College of Art and Design before he became interested in computer science and decided to transfer to Savannah Technical College, according to his brother. The two brothers planned to go into business together and were designing an app.
As he stood in the Savannah square, Oladapo was wearing a t-shirt designed by his brother, who was known to many by his creative alter-ego, Matt Black.
“Matthew was going places, and they were good places,” O’Mara said. “And we need to know why he’s never going to get there.”
Friends have been using the hashtag #justiceformatt to express their outrage over Ajibade’s death.