Drug influences suggsted in TASER death

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Penn. man stunned with TASER, dies in custody

By Jonathan D. Silver
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — Witnesses have given investigators conflicting information about whether police officers manhandled a Swissvale man after stunning him three times with a Taser shortly before he died.

At a news conference yesterday, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. noted inconsistencies in witnesses' statements about the use of force and provided a timeline of Andre D. Thomas' frantic final minutes.

"The interviews are diametrically different in regard to the use of the Taser as opposed to stepping on his neck and punching him," Mr. Zappala said.

Three witnesses told Allegheny County police a version of events that matched what Swissvale police said, that officers shocked Mr. Thomas but did not lay hands on him. Three other witnesses -- a woman, her daughter and the daughter's boyfriend -- told the media and FBI that excessive force was used.

In describing Mr. Thomas' behavior, Mr. Zappala said the 37-year-old man exhibited hallmark characteristics of someone in the grip of "excited delirium," an agitated state brought on by cocaine or amphetamine use that sometimes ends in death.

Mr. Zappala said Mr. Thomas was described as having "almost superhuman" strength, irrational behavior, dilated pupils, breathing that went from normal to labored and a pulse that became weak.

He noted, however, that the cause and manner of Mr. Thomas's death remain undetermined pending toxicology and other test results, and he declined to say whether he believed excited delirium was at play.

Paramedics on the scene Tuesday night thought they were dealing with a drug overdose and treated Mr. Thomas accordingly with Narcan and epinephrine, Mr. Zappala said. He added that use of a Taser from a distance is a preferred approach to dealing with people experiencing excited delirium.

Mr. Zappala also expanded on Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams' findings that the autopsy of Mr. Thomas revealed no evidence of excessive force.

"What Dr. Williams has been able to tell me is there is no trauma to the neck or the head which is consistent with the type of beating, a very violent beating, a repeated use of the foot, feet, or punching around the head or neck," he said.

While county police yesterday continued to gather information -- including Mr. Thomas' medical history, Swissvale police personnel records, policies and procedures, and any evidence that Mr. Thomas bought drugs in Braddock hours before his death -- a lawyer retained by Mr. Thomas' parents launched his own probe.

Attorney Howard F. Messer said he wanted a second autopsy conducted and was racing to hire someone to perform it because Mr. Thomas' funeral is tomorrow.

Mr. Messer said he spoke to two witnesses who said there was "physical contact" between police and Mr. Thomas. He would not identify the witnesses or characterize the contact.

"We're anxious to get as much information as we can from as many people as we can," said Mr. Messer, a career personal injury attorney who represented eight of the men rescued from the Quecreek mine in Somerset County in 2002.

Mr. Zappala said a friend dropped Mr. Thomas off on Camp Street in Braddock -- what he called a "high crime" area -- around 9 p.m. Tuesday.

The person picked him up two hours later to ferry him to a female friend's home in Swissvale. Mr. Zappala said the driver, whom he identified by first name only, told police that Mr. Thomas began to act "irrationally" and mentioned that people were trying to shoot him.

On Hawthorne, Mr. Thomas jumped out of the driver's vehicle. The friend left.

Panicked Hawthorne residents began calling 911 about a man pounding on front doors saying, "Help me, they are trying to kill me. They are trying to shoot me," Mr. Zappala said.

Five minutes after the first call, three Swissvale police officers arrived. Mr. Thomas told them that men bent on shooting him were behind 2210 Hawthorne Ave. Two male officers went to check behind the house, and Mr. Thomas was left with a female officer, Debra Indovina.

"She orders him down on the ground. He initially goes down. She unholsters her Taser. He, after some amount of time, starts to get up," Mr. Zappala said.

One of the male officers returned to the front of the house, and Mr. Thomas ran between them, Mr. Zappala said. Officer Indovina shot Mr. Thomas with her Taser. Prongs lodged in his buttocks and back. She shocked him three times.

The DA said the officers wanted to restrain Mr. Thomas.

Asked why it was not acceptable for Mr. Thomas to run away when he was not under arrest, Mr. Zappala said, "We intend to consult with the FBI about this, too. He's not a criminal based upon his conduct that evening, People thought he was dangerous ... but as far as I'm concerned, I would not charge him with a crime."

Mr. Zappala said he was not prepared to rule on whether the officers' actions were justified. He said he did not want to invalidate the statements made by the witnesses who claimed they saw excessive force.

However, he said one witness' statements became "more dramatic. So initially, it could be one punch, the second time it's repeatedly punch, the third time more than one officer did in fact punch this guy."

Rose Adams, who spoke with the media and the FBI, yesterday stood by her account that officers punched and stomped on Mr. Thomas. She repeated that she saw a tall, slim Swissvale police officer press or stomp his foot on the back of Mr. Thomas' prone body. The officer who she said punched Mr. Thomas had a stocky build and was bald or wore a close haircut and black frame eyeglasses.

Ms. Adams' daughter, Taniequah Ayton, said the stocky officer punched Mr. Thomas in the back of the head, then stood with a foot on his back while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.

Mr. Zappala said an officer pressed his knee into the small of Mr. Thomas' back while trying to handcuff him.

Ms. Adams said she is now more distrustful of police than when she witnessed the altercation with Mr. Thomas. She said from the earliest interviews with county homicide detectives, the officers were trying to change her story.

She named Detective Ken Ruckel who, at the end of their interview, summarized: "The ambulance and fire department came right away, right?"

Ms. Adams and another neighbor said on Tuesday that about 20 minutes elapsed before police called in the ambulance, and that the vehicle stayed on the scene several minutes more before driving away with Mr. Thomas inside. He died at 12:46 a.m. at UPMC Braddock.

After speaking with the detective, Ms. Adams said she called 411 to get a phone number for the FBI. Her cell phone received a text message after she got the information. The message is a record of her request, she said.

She said she wanted to contact the FBI for protection from what she believes are intimidating tactics by local and county police.

"I've already seen that this was going to get nasty. They're trying to squash my credibility," she said.

County police Assistant Superintendent James Morton had no comment.

June Buck, 75, who lives across the street from the incident, was awakened around midnight by shouting and came downstairs to look out her front door.

She saw Mr. Thomas on the ground, motionless, with officers standing over him.

"A couple of times they would just sort of reach down and touch him gently," Mrs. Buck said. "That's about all I saw. I didn't see any kicking or hitting."

Mrs. Buck's husband, Donald, saw the same thing, and told his version to county detectives who are investigating the incident.

Copyright 2008 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Penn. man stunned with TASER, dies in custody
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