Monday, November 18, 2002

Officer interviews reveal details of Owensby arrest, death



By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati police start internal hearings this week to determine if seven officers should be disciplined in the 2000 death of Roger Owensby Jr., a case that already has sent two officers to trial and prompted multimillion-dollar civil lawsuits.

The officers are accused of improper use of force, failure of good behavior and neglect of duty. One is charged with dishonesty.

City Manager Valerie Lemmie will have the final say on discipline after recommendations from hearing officer Capt. Andrew Raabe and Chief Tom Streicher.

The hearings, which are not public, will draw upon details in two recently released reports by the department's Internal Investigations Section and by the city's Office of Municipal Investigation. The documents still don't agree on some things, including whether officers used too much force in apprehending the unarmed, fleeing suspect in Roselawn.

But they tell more of the story in the officers' own words, including the only interview with Robert "Blaine" Jorg, who gave one statement to internal investigators, then quit the March day he was supposed to talk to OMI. He is not part of the hearing process.

Here is that story, based upon the dozens of pages of interviews with officers and witnesses:

At best, Mr. Owensby shuffled across the parking lot to the police car. At worst, he was dragged. And he lay there until somebody needed to know his name.

He may have been already dead by then.

Eight Cincinnati police officers in the Roselawn gas station parking lot that Election Night 2000 didn't report to supervisors that some of them had wrestled Mr. Owensby to the ground, knelt on his shoulder, held him with a pressure-point tactic to the neck and hit him in the back. No one used the words "chokehold'' or "holding him by the neck."

They called for a supervisor, but mentioned only that a suspect had been Maced.

All eight, to varying degrees, knew more.

Mr. Owensby, an Army veteran and father of one from College Hill, lay in the back seat of a Golf Manor police cruiser unattended for at least seven minutes before a supervisor asked who he was. That supervisor, Sgt. William Watts, found that Mr. Owensby not only couldn't speak, he wasn't breathing.

Officer Jorg, now on the Pierce Township police department, said he'd never been on a scene that grew into such a "cluster."

"Usually, it's just me and (Officer) Pat (Caton) and everything gets done the way it needs to be done,'' Officer Jorg said. "Here, I guess I relied on too many other people to do their part and they didn't do it either. Yeah. I should of. I was the senior officer on that scene that night."

Of pot and paperwork

The officers were near the Sunoco on Seymour Avenue on Nov. 7, 2000, for a mundane reason. Two of them, Alexander Hasse and Darren Sellers, had found a man with some marijuana in his pocket. They wanted to cite him for it, but didn't have the proper paperwork.

Three officers came to give them that paperwork: Blaine Jorg, David Hunter and Patrick Caton.

While there, about 7:35 p.m., Officer Hunter saw Mr. Owensby, who was known on the street as "L.A, walking across the road. Mr. Owensby had run from him five weeks before during a drug investigation.

Officers Caton and Jorg waited for Mr. Owensby to buy a drink inside Sam's Telcom Store. When he came out, they approached him, told him to put the drink on the ground, and patted him down because they thought he might have a gun. He didn't.

They talked to him for one minute and 48 seconds. They asked if he'd ever run from any officers. He insisted he hadn't.

Then Mr. Owensby ran.

He made it a few feet, to the Sunoco lot, before Officer Jorg "hit him from behind and wrapped him up." Officer Caton, at 7:48 p.m., put out an "officer needs assistance'' call. Then he grabbed Mr. Owensby's legs and all three officers fell to the ground with him. Officer Caton "crawled up" Mr. Owensby's legs and lay on his right upper thigh, trying to grab his right hand to handcuff him. Officer Jorg wrapped his left arm around Mr. Owensby's forehead and his right arm around his head.

"He was one of the strongest guys that had resisted us in quite some time," Officer Jorg said later.

He thought Mr. Owensby was keeping both hands under him so he could push himself up off the pavement and start running again. Officer Jorg then applied something he was taught in the police academy - a Mandibular Angle pressure point, with his right thumb to the base of Mr. Owensby's right ear. Officers were yelling for Mr. Owensby to give them his hands and "stop resisting." Officer Hunter sprayed Mace in his face.

Officer Jorg released the man's head, then knelt on his left shoulder, using his legs to hold Mr. Owensby's left arm. Officer Jason Hodge, who'd arrived with Officer Sellers to help, used one of their batons to pry Mr. Owensby's right hand out.

They handcuffed Mr. Owensby and took him to the nearby Golf Manor cruiser.

Officer Jorg said Mr. Owensby was cussing officers out all the way to the car. But Officer Hunter described Mr. Owensby as "silent and motionless'' and his feet as being in light contact with the ground - "like a drag." Officer Caton pulled him across the interior of the cruiser, then shut the doors.

Confusion followed. Officers saw blood on Officer Jorg's sleeve and thought he'd been hurt. Officer Hodge cut the sleeve off to see what was bleeding, revealing that the blood hadn't come from Officer Jorg.

"As I was turned to hold (Mr. Owensby) down, he brought his head up," Officer Jorg told Sgt. Watts in a conversation taped at the scene by a recorder in a cruiser. "I had to push it back down. He hit his head on the ground. Wasn't intentional move.''

Officer Caton, responding to another officer's question about what happened that night, said, "We kicked his ass."

When Sgt. Watts arrived, he walked over to the cruiser and found Mr. Owensby "laying on his right side, almost in the shape of a U.'' His body "was folded and his chin was pressed against his chest.'' He thought it would be difficult for someone to breathe in that position and thought "a guy who had just gotten through struggling with the police would be breathing a lot harder.''

Sgt. Watts reached in to check Mr. Owensby's pulse. Blood and saliva came out of Mr. Owensby's mouth.

Sgt. Watts shouted to Sgt. Shirley Browner to call for a rescue unit.

She called for medical help at 7:56 p.m. At the same time, Officer Caton and Officer Hasse, a former emergency medical technician, started CPR. The first fire department personnel arrived four minutes later and had taken over CPR by 8:01 p.m.

Mr. Owensby was declared dead at University Hospital at 8:47 p.m., about an hour and 12 minutes after he was first spotted crossing the street. But Dr. Daniel Schultz, who performed the autopsy, said he believes Mr. Owensby was dead long before then, probably before he was put into the cruiser.

The buck stops here?

In the end, none of the eight officers thought he was responsible for Mr. Owensby. Their explanations vary.

Officer Jorg said he didn't check on Mr. Owensby because he didn't think he was "his'' prisoner.

Officer Sellers saw Officer Caton hit Mr. Owensby after he was handcuffed, yet didn't see any injuries.

Officer Hodge saw blood on Mr. Owensby's face and knew he was injured. But he, too, said he didn't think Mr. Owensby was his prisoner.

Officer Hunter said Mr. Owensby's position didn't look right. The top of the man's head was pressed against the left side door, forcing his chin into his chest. But he didn't tell anybody that.

Officer Abraham Lawson's attention was divided, watching both the struggle and trying to keep an eye on the growing crowd. Mr. Owensby "fell into the car," he said, and an officer pushed his legs in behind him.

Officer Brian Brazile shined his flashlight on Mr. Owensby and told the Golf Manor officers nearby: "This looks f---ed up. Can he breathe? Don't look like he can breathe?" He then was told to stay with a witness.

Officer Victor Spellen, who wasn't directly involved in the arrest, would later get in trouble for downplaying the kind of hold Officer Jorg told him, after-the-fact, that he had used on Mr. Owensby's head. Officer Jorg was Officer Spellen's field training officer.

"It was Officer Hunter's arrest," Officer Jorg said. "It was his investigation. The fight happened. Hunter, Sellers and Caton take him to the car.

"Well, whose responsibility is it once he's put in, especially in another jurisdiction's patrol car?" Officer Jorg asked. "Whose responsibility is it to keep an eye on the prisoner?"

E-mail: jprendergast@enquirer.com



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