Though Virginia behavioral health commissioner silent on Irvo Otieno death, here's what his emails reveal

Posted at 4:09 PM, Apr 07, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-07 18:15:15-04

DINWIDDIE COUNTY, Va. -- The Commissioner of Virginia's Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) Nelson Smith has not made public comments about the death of Irvo Otieno, the 28-year-old who died at Central State Hospital as video showed him being restrained by Henrico sheriff's deputies and hospital employees.

Otieno's death was ruled a homicide by asphyxia with restraints.

Since DBHDS is responsible for overseeing the Commonwealth's psychiatric hospitals including Central State, CBS 6 requested, through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Smith's email communications related to Otieno's March 6 death.

Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services Commissioner Nelson Smith
Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services Commissioner Nelson Smith

DBHDS chose not to disclose 94 pages of records, citing correspondence with the governor's office and attorney-client privilege as the reasoning for withholding a majority of those documents.

Here's a breakdown of the records that were provided:


The first communications were documented on March 8, two days after Otieno's death, and the same day CBS 6 Senior Reporter Wayne Covil inquired about the incident.

Wayne's inquiry sparked two separate email threads between DBHDS communications managers Lauren Cunningham and Meghan McGuire and Governor Youngkin's Secretary of Health and Human Resources John Littel, Deputy Secretary Leah Mills, and Deputy Secretary James Williams. Commissioner Smith was copied on all emails.

However, in its FOIA response, DBHDS completely redacted the entire contents of every message, citing the emails as working papers and correspondence with the governor's office which are protected from mandatory disclosure by law.

Central State Hospital
Central State Hospital


McGuire, DBHDS Deputy Director for Policy and Public Affairs, sent an email to Commissioner Smith regarding a FOIA request the department had received which asked for incident reports and surveillance video of Otieno's intake process. 

McGuire alerted Smith that she already reached out to the Office of Attorney General Jason Miyares "a couple days ago" to let them know that "this would be coming."

"However, because the media reported the individual's name, we may be bound by PHI/HIPAA," McGuire wrote.


DBHDS Deputy Commissioner for Facility Services Angela Harvell sent an email to Commissioner Smith, McGuire, and Cunningham alerting them that a Virginia State Police lead investigator would be at Central State Hospital to review "all the documentation they are requesting regarding the death."

Smith forwarded the email to Secretary Littel.

IN-DEPTH COVERAGE: Why Dinwiddie's prosecutor decided to quickly press charges in Irvo Otieno death

Irvo Otieno
Irvo Otieno


McGuire sent a message to staff on behalf of Commissioner Smith. The message stated that seven Henrico County Sheriff's Office deputies who were transferring custody of Otieno were charged with second-degree murder and that three Central State Hospital employees were also charged with second-degree murder.

The message noted that they were placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the Commonwealth's cases. Smith said he was working to ensure Otieno's family "receives information about the tragic events at the hospital."

Smith reminded staff members that if they receive questions about the matter, to follow standard procedures by forwarding inquiries to Cunningham and McGuire.

In its response to CBS 6's FOIA request, DBHDS said it withheld 23 pages of health records that are exempt from mandatory disclosure. It withheld an additional 71 pages that were protected from mandatory disclosure due to client-attorney privilege, working papers, and correspondence with the governor's office.

DBHDS did not charge CBS 6 for the requested documents.

We also obtained employee training records and hospital policies on admissions and restraints. You can read that report here.

Depend on CBS 6 News and for in-depth coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email to send a tip.


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