One Miami coronavirus death has an unusual distinction: It’s being investigated as a murder

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MIAMI — Nearly 400 people in Miami-Dade County have died of complications of the novel coronavirus over the last few months. Now, one of those deaths is being investigated as a murder.

The unusual case involves a luckless man named Johnny Copeland, 44, who died late last month of COVID-19 with contributing problems of pneumonia, obesity and hypertension. But with all that, the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the chief cause of death was from complications of a gunshot wound that left Copeland paralyzed in 1997.

With his death ruled a homicide, Miami detectives must try and track down who was to blame in a shooting that happened 23 years ago.

Copeland life was marked by bad breaks . He was also a victim in ongoing criminal court case — his wife, Miami-Dade police said, abandoned him in an empty house and he was discovered dehydrated and disoriented, covered in feces and urine.

And when the global pandemic broke out, Copeland was living at the North Dade Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, a facility that wound up getting hard hit by the virus, with 38 residents testing positive. At least three residents have died.

Copeland’s sister, Robin Jones, says she is frustrated that the nursing home didn’t do enough to prevent the spread of the virus. Copeland, complaining of having trouble breathing, was transferred to Jackson North Medical Center. He sounded upbeat but his condition worsened quickly. He died on April 29.

“He wasn’t scared of anything. He wasn’t scared of death,” Jones said. “He’d already been through the worst of everything.”

Copeland’s death continued a series of heartbreaks for his family. Another of Jones’ brothers also died last month, of colon cancer. Their grandmother — with whom Copeland was close — passed away a couple years ago, also of cancer.

Like her brother, Jones was also the victim of a crime. She was stabbed 15 times by the father of her children; she barely survived and had to learn to walk again.

Through the family’s ups and downs, Copeland was a steadying presence, despite his disability.

He was shot in the summer of 1997, at age 20. Relatives say they know few details about the circumstances of the shooting but do not believe anyone was arrested.

Miami police detectives say they are researching the case to determine the exact date, and whether it even happened within city limits.

“We are pulling the file,” said Miami police spokeswoman Kenia Fallat.

Copeland spent more than a month in a coma and rang in his 21st birthday in the hospital.

“I remember singing happy birthday to him by his bedside,” Jones recalled.

He struggled to accept his paralysis at first. But over the years, while surviving on government disability funds, he became self-reliant. With full use of his arms, he could get out of bed and cook for himself — his favorite dish was spaghetti with sausages.

Copeland even helped care for his sister’s children when she was recovering from the 2009 butcher knife attack by her former boyfriend, Derrick Davis (he made the news after he was convicted at trial, then accidentally released by the jail one day later).

But Copeland’s health — mental and physical — began to deteriorate over the years. He married Jakeya Javon Brown in August 2015, records show. But the relationship became rocky quickly, and the two were living in her sister’s former home in Princeton.

It was September 2015. The home was up for sale and was supposed to be empty. The owner was checking on the property and found Copeland sprawled out on the ground, his wheelchair next to him.

He was in bad shape. He’d just had a heart attack a few days earlier, and had been released from the hospital. Copeland had apparently crawled to the door but could not escape before passing out. He was so disoriented after at least two days abandoned that he could not speak to paramedics and police, according to court records.

A trachea tube, which he’d had to use over the years to help breathe, had not been cleaned and he had bed sores.

The Florida Department of Children and Families opened up a investigation. An investigator finally got a hold of Brown, according to an arrest warrant, who claimed she’d fainted at a nearby McDonald’s and had to be taken to Kendall Regional Hospital.

But none of the McDonald’s restaurants in the area had any records of 911 being called for a customer. And the Kendall hospital had no record of Brown being brought in for treatment, according to the warrant.

Miami-Dade police and prosecutors prepared a warrant for Brown. The charge: felony neglect of neglect of a disabled adult. She remained a fugitive until her arrest in 2019.

She’s pleaded not guilty and the case was still awaiting trial. Brown, reached on Tuesday, insisted the allegations weren’t true — and pointed out that after the incident that Copeland went to live with her for a time in Alabama.

Brown claimed she’d simply overslept from a nap after dropping her daughter at a babysitter and left Copeland alone less than day. Instead, she said, “somebody broke into my sister’s house and did some awful things to him.”

“He told me they beat on him and tried to stab him and basically just mistreated him,” said Brown, who said she had not heard from her estranged husband in years.

After leaving Alabama, Copeland eventually ended up at a nursing home in Pompano Beach, and then last year back with his sister in Miami.

But his health was ailing. Wracked with anxiety, he frequently called fire-rescue for transport to the hospital. He began twitching a lot. In January, he eventually moved to North Dade Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

“It was hard seeing him like that,” Robin Jones said. “He needed full-time care. He needed a doctor.”

The highly contagious virus has ravaged many Florida long-term care facilities whose residents are often elderly or infirm. State data released late last week shows that nursing homes and assisted living facilities have accounted for one in three coronavirus deaths in the state.

According to Florida Department of Health statistics, the North Dade facility has logged 38 positive cases, plus two staff members who have contracted the virus. As of Friday, three COVID-19 deaths stemmed from the facility, and a fourth was under investigation.

The center did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment on his case.

Jones last saw her brother in early March, bringing him his usual favorite bags of gummy candies. Copeland didn’t seem too concerned about the pandemic, even as state began to shut down segments of society and barred visitors from visiting nursing homes.

She had no idea Copeland had been transferred to Jackson North Hospital until the hospital, not the nursing home, called her. Her brother was having trouble breathing. His kidneys soon failed.

“I’m frustrated. How did they not do anything to prevent this?” Jones said of the nursing home. “To me, it’s negligence.”


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