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TASER shot cleared in death of Calif. driver

The Modesto Bee

MERCED, Calif. — A bad heart, meth use and poor choices — not a Taser — killed Richard Earl Abston.

That was the message from Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin during a news conference about the death of Abston, a Modesto man who on Feb. 7 barreled the wrong way down Highway 99 in his truck, hit several cars and fought with law enforcement officers.

Based on a toxicology report, Pazin said the 53-year-old Abston had a methamphetamine level of .69 milligrams per liter in his system when he died. Pazin said the euphoric effects of meth for the casual user generally begin with an intoxication level of .01 milligrams per liter. A more experienced user feels those effects with an intoxication level of .05 milligrams per liter, he said.

A forensic pathologist concluded that Abston's death was caused by cardiac arrhythmia from an enlarged heart, compounded by excited delirium with meth intoxication, Pazin said Friday.

The findings will be forwarded to the Merced County district attorney's office to make a final determination as to the ruling on Abston's death.

In addition, Pazin said, Abston previously had heart surgery and had an internal heart defibrillator.

Investigators said the bizarre incident occurred when Abston began driving southbound in the northbound lanes of Highway 99. He collided with five cars along the way, coming to a stop in the median of the highway near the Childs Avenue exit. No one in the cars Abston collided with was hurt.

A California Highway Patrol officer ordered Abston to get out of his truck, which he refused to do. A struggle ensued, according to the report, when the officer tried to remove him.

At that point, investigators said, Abston began waving his arms and became combative with the officer. He fled on foot and climbed on top of a parked big rig's cab.

Merced police had arrived by that time, and Abston was ordered to get off the truck. He was pepper-sprayed by officers while he was on the truck, the report said, and when he jumped off, he ran from officers and was shocked with a Taser.

Police said they tried to restrain Abston after he fell to the ground, but he continued to struggle. Officers then turned him on his back and restrained him in handcuffs.

After Abston was restrained, however, he lost consciousness. An ambulance was called, and he died at the hospital not long afterward.

Three law enforcement officers received minor injuries during the incident.

Pazin and other officers said they didn't believe the Taser played a role in Abston's death.

"I don't know of any proven history where a Taser has been the proximate cause of death," Merced Police Chief Russ Thomas said.

He said Abston received medical care within a short time after his arrest."He had every chance of survival, had his heart not failed to operate," Thomas said.

Medical professionals not with the Merced County Coroner's Office also say Abston's death could have been caused by a bad heart combined with meth use.

Cardiologist Hanimireddy Lakireddy said an enlarged heart, combined with a high dose of methamphetamine, which is a stimulant, can be deadly.

"When they take this methamphetamine, it causes stimulation of the heart," he said. "When it goes irregular and very rapid, the heart cannot take that very rapid heart rate, and they die."

Copyright 2008 The Modesto Bee

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