Thursday, December 4, 2003

Coroner: Struggle caused heart failure

Family to launch own investigation

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Nathaniel Jones' aunt, Diane Payton, is comforted by her husband, Jeff, during a press conference.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
The enlarged heart of 342-pound Nathaniel Jones gave out because of the stress of a three-minute struggle with six Cincinnati police officers in a White Castle parking lot, Hamilton County's coroner ruled Wednesday.

Dr. Carl Parrott Jr. also said Jones was obese and had intoxicating levels of cocaine and PCP in his blood. Toxicologists found methanol in his system. But the irregular heartbeat - known as cardiac dysrhythmia - that was brought on by the altercation Sunday morning is the official cause of death.

"Absent the struggle," Parrott said, "Mr. Jones presumably would have gone on his intoxicated way."

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What happened, minute by minute

From WCPO:
Slide show of images from video
View the raw police video

The coroner ruled Jones' death a homicide. But he strongly cautioned that the ruling does not imply wrongdoing or excessive force on the part of the officers whose struggle with Jones was caught on a police cruiser videotape. That tape, showing an unarmed Jones, has played repeatedly since Sunday on TV newscasts around the country.

Parrott's ruling, anticipated by City Hall, police officials and critics of the police department, was the biggest development in a day that began with the airing of grainy images of a dancing Jones caught by a security camera inside the fast-food restaurant on West Mitchell Avenue just minutes before officers arrived.

The day ended with more than 500 people packed into a Walnut Hills church demanding to know why Jones became the 18th African-American man to die in police confrontations since 1995.

All of it played out against a national backdrop of live news conferences, increased calls for Police Chief Tom Streicher's resignation, growing support for a federal investigation and angry accusations of police brutality.

Wednesday saw:

• A Cincinnati firefighter who decided his EMT medical crew could leave the White Castle just minutes before Jones needed medical attention faces a disciplinary hearing. That will determine whether he violated a city policy related to care of combative people.

• Members of Jones' family accusing the police of killing a man they called a "gentle giant." Their attorney, Ken Lawson, said they will conduct their own investigation, including an independent autopsy.

• City Council members spending nearly four hours talking with residents and criticizing the police department's handling of the Jones incident and aftermath.

New details

New details captured on the restaurant's security camera made clearer what happened in the minutes before the confrontation between Jones, 41, and the officers. Jones had ingested cocaine three hours or less before he died, and PCP within five hours of his death, Parrott said.

Jones arrived at the White Castle about 5:45 a.m. to meet a woman there, said police Capt. Vince Demasi . He hugged her and the pair walked outside.

That's when the woman "sees his eyes roll back into his head," said Lt. Kim Frey, homicide commander.

Jones rolled down a hill. When the woman couldn't rouse him, Demasi said, someone called 911.

While emergency medical technicians were helping her, Jones returned to the restaurant and began "dancing around and doing deep knee-bends," Demasi said.

Police say the tape, which shows what happened before police arrived and helps fill in a missing 96 seconds from a police video camera mounted in the cruiser, helps exonerate the officers. Demasi said it shows they did not provoke Jones.

Jones' family disagree. They say the loving father of two would never lunge at an officer without provocation.

"This was just not him," said his aunt, Diane Payton.

Confusion at the scene

Confusion during the incident caused four Cincinnati EMTs to leave the restaurant, after believing the scuffle between Jones and the officers was over and police had him under control, officials said.

But realizing Jones was not breathing, officers called firefighters back. They returned to the scene in a minute and 43 seconds, but first thought a screaming female friend of Jones was the person who needed help, Fire Chief Robert Wright said.

It is the decision by firefighter Gregory Adams, a 10-year veteran of the department who was Engine 38's acting supervisor, that is under scrutiny. Adams is on paid stress leave at his request, Wright said. He told the chief he did not feel capable now to do his job.

He will stay on sick leave until he is cleared by a doctor to return.

As the supervisor, Adams is the only one who can be held accountable, the chief said.

Fire union President Joe Arnold asked that judgment of Adams' decision to leave the scene Sunday be withheld until the outcome of the hearings.

Parrott said he could not address whether Jones would have lived if he had gotten quicker treatment from the firefighters who left.

Parrott also said that Jones had superficial bruises on the lower part of his legs, but did not suffer any wounds to his head. He also described the levels of drugs in Jones' blood as "intoxicating, but not lethal" by themselves.

Investigations ongoing

The officers remain on paid leave, which is standard practice after such incidents. Six investigations are continuing, including a review by Hamilton County prosecutors who will determine whether a grand jury should review the officers' action for possible criminal charges.

Streicher said he sent copies of the videos to the FBI and to the U.S. Department of Justice, which said Tuesday that it would start a preliminary inquiry into whether a full-scale criminal civil-rights investigation is warranted.

"Nobody, including myself, can rush to judgment on any single aspect of this instance," Streicher told the church crowd. "The investigations are far from over."

Charles Clingman, a 60-year-old Kennedy Heights man who attended the church meeting Wednesday night, said he was pleased with how much city officials shared.

"This is the first time a situation like this has been brought to the public so quickly," he said. "This gives me a sense of hope for more openness. It's a step in the right direction."

Gregory Korte contributed. E-mail

Coroner says struggle caused heart failure
City Council members livid over release of information
City leads the news
Crowd's questions exceed answers
Family says Jones was never violent
PCP abuse rare here, but catching on

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