Suspected serial robber dies after attempted suicide in jail

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – Portsmouth police have confirmed a man believed to be responsible for at least 11 recent armed robberies in the city has died after an attempted suicide.

The suspect, 34-year-old Pharaoh A. Atum, of Portsmouth, was arrested Monday, June 1 at the intersection of Elm Avenue and South Street. On Wednesday, June 3, while awaiting trial, police say Atum tried to kill himself in Portsmouth City Jail. Police confirmed he died June 9.

“Deputies found Atum unresponsive and immediately began CPR. Once medics arrived, Atum was transported to a local hospital, where he is currently in grave condition,” Detective Misty Holley said in a press release last week, before Atum’s death.

Atum’s father, who asked WAVY News not to identify him, said he recognized his son in three surveillance pictures put out by police.

“I can’t definitely say he did them, you know? Because the evidence to me is that he got zero profit out of whatever robberies he did because he never had any money and he was always asking me for money and food,” Atum’s father said.

Atum’s father said his son struggled with drugs, had been at a crisis center in recent weeks, and was suicidal.

“Wednesday morning, I called the jail and asked to speak to the jail nurse, and I told her my son was suicidal, he needed to be watched,” he said.

Hours later, Atum’s father said a detective showed up at his home. “He knocked on my door and said, ‘your son committed suicide.’ I went all to pieces,” he said.

Atum’s father remembers him as the kid who wanted to be an astronaut, a talented artist. Things started getting worse when his son quit his job in April, he said.

“You have knots in your stomach all the time, but I kept trying,” he said.

WAVY News asked a spokesman for the jail if Atum had been on a suicide watch. He said he couldn’t say and also couldn’t comment on the case until police complete the investigation. A spokeswoman for Portsmouth police said the detectives she talked to said they were unaware Atum was suicidal. It’s not clear if others involved in his arrest were aware.

The medical examiner’s office is working to determine the official cause of death.

At this time, police are not releasing Atum’s photo, citing “investigatory reasons.”

Holley said detectives in Portsmouth, Norfolk and Chesapeake, as well as agents from the Bureau of ATF have been working on this investigation, which involves a series of armed robberies, for over two months. They got a break in the case June 1 through a Crime Line tip about one recent robbery, and were able to find and arrest Atum around 10:30 p.m.

For just two recent robberies, Atum was charged with the following:

  • three counts abduction
  • three counts robbery
  • three counts use of a firearm in commission of a felony
  • two counts possession of a firearm by a felon

After the arrest, Holley said detectives continued investigating and positively linked Atum to at least nine other armed robberies in the city, since April 10.

Investigators believe they will be able to “solve and clear numerous other” armed robbery reports, Holley said.

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