By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
The family of a 26-year-old black man shot and killed by a Broward Sheriff’s deputy has sued the deputy and Sheriff Scott Israel, alleging wrongful death, serious and repeated failures of police oversight, and cover-up.
Steven Jerold Thompson died shortly after midnight on June 6, 2014 – less than two hours after being shot nine times at a Lauderhill apartment building by Deputy Gerald Wengert, a one-time police reality TV star with a history of violent encounters.
“There existed…a de facto policy by defendant Israel of covering up police misconduct by failing to properly investigate alleged misconduct, and/or by conducting investigations that were intentionally deficient,” says the 32-page complaint filed by veteran Fort Lauderdale civil rights lawyer Barbara Heyer.
Further, the complaint says, BSO covered up misconduct “by listing the problem investigations as ‘ongoing’ long after any investigation had ceased, thereby attempting to insulate” BSO from public scrutiny. Florida’s public records law allows police to keep secret information about cases under active investigation.
“This de facto policy enabled some deputy sheriffs to falsify reports, give false testimony, and create and/or destroy evidence, including but not limited to throw down firearms, in order to justify their misconduct,’’ the complaint says.
The lawsuit, pending in U.S. District Court in Miami, comes amid a grueling national debate about killings involving the police and racial unrest. It includes the allegation that Broward’s elected sheriff has “tolerated and caused a pattern and practice of unjustified, unreasonable and illegal use of force” at BSO and that offending deputies were not prosecuted, disciplined or retrained. Some incidents were “covered up with official claims that their acts were justified and proper,” the lawsuit says.
The sheriff’s attorney, Daniel Losey, filed court papers last week that denied any wrongdoing, asserted that BSO’s use of force was necessary and that Thompson’s own conduct was the sole cause of his injuries.
A sheriff’s spokeswoman said BSO makes “it a practice not to comment on pending litigation.”
Wengert has been on suspension with pay since June 12, 2015 regarding an active investigation into the beating of a suspect. BSO declined to facilitate an interview, and Wengert could not be reached for comment.
An awkward time for Israel
The complaint arrives at an awkward time for Sheriff Israel. He is seeking re-election to a second term and his campaign has portrayed him as a sensitive, reform-minded sheriff working “to bring transparency and accountability” to BSO.
Wengert, who turns 38 on July 26, was hired in 2004 when BSO merged with the Cooper City Police Department. He did not, however, undergo a background investigation, psychological evaluation, drug testing or a polygraph examination as required by BSO policy, the lawsuit says.
From the day he was hired until the day he shot Thompson dead, Deputy Wengert had “73 documented use of force incidents, and ten documented complaints, including three shootings,” the lawsuit says, while noting Wengert was never disciplined for any of those incidents. (Wengert, who starred in TLC/ Discovery Channel’s “Unleashed: K-9 Broward County” in 2011, was criminally charged in 2012 with battery, official misconduct and falsifying records involving the beating of Mark Visconti, but was found not guilty in April 2013.)
Local news accounts at the time, relying on information supplied by BSO, described Thompson as a convicted felon and a robbery suspect when he was killed in a “gunfight” with police.
The complaint paints a much different picture of what happened.
The sequence of events that led to Thompson’s death began after K-9 deputies Wengert, Todd Yoder and Emanuel Koutsofios were dispatched to a suspected armed robbery at a Lauderhill condominium. Two cell phones had been stolen, and tracking located one of them four miles away at the Cypress Grove apartments in the 4300 block of NW 18th Ave. The suspects were described as two black men, one heavyset and dressed all in black and the other tall, thin and carrying a gun. Neither was said to have distinguishing features like scars or facial hair, the complaint says.
Lauderhill officers established a perimeter before the deputies arrived. After searching without their dogs, a tracking system “ping” revealed the phone had moved to the center of a parking lot on the south side of the complex, the complaint says.
Walking toward the parking lot at about 11:16 p.m., Wengert, a white man, spotted Thompson walking out of a building and toward the parking lot. Thompson, who had a beard, moustache and tattoos, was leaving a friend’s apartment, but when he saw the deputies he turned to go back to the building, the complaint says.
“Despite the fact that Thompson did not fit the description of the assailant provided by dispatch, and the fact that [he] was exiting the building when the iPhone was already in the parking lot where other people were standing,” Wengert began pursuing Thompson and “immediately drew his firearm and began shooting,” according to the complaint.
The BSO version is that Wengert fired after a fleeing Thompson shot first at him.
“He’s shooting at me”
Thompson, whose back was turned from Wengert, was hit by a bullet traveling from back to front that fractured his thigh bone and caused him to fall forward. Residents reported hearing Thompson scream, “Help…help, he’s shooting at me! I’m shot!”
“Although Thompson posed no risk of harm to defendant Wengert or anyone else, defendant Wengert continued firing at Thompson’s fallen body, hitting him eight more times,” the complaint says. In all, Wengert “discharged 25 rounds, which required that he reload his gun.”
Deputy Yoder called fire rescue at 11:18 p.m. Paramedics arrived in five minutes, but didn’t see Thompson for another 10 minutes because Wengert had instructed other deputies not to let them in right away until they made “sure it was safe in case a second suspect was there.”
During the delay, Wengert went to his car. The complaint indicates he retrieved a 9mm Luger Diamondback DB 9 pistol, planted it in the corridor about 50 feet from Thompson’s body and then “falsely claimed that Thompson had fired twice at him.”
Thompson was pronounced dead at Broward Health Medical Center at 12:57 a.m. During the confusion, the complaint says, the “actual suspect” with the stolen iPhone walked out of the front gate at the apartment complex.
What followed was an “incompetent” BSO investigation that if done correctly, would have shown that “Thompson had no involvement in the armed burglary, that he did not have a firearm, and that he did not shoot” at Wenger, the lawsuit says.
The complaint contends BSO allegedly relied “wholly” on Wengert’s version of events before deciding it was “justifiable homicide.” Evidence that didn’t support Wenger’s story “was either not addressed and/or ignored by defendant Israel.”
According to the complaint, Wengert’s sworn statement wasn’t taken until a week after the shooting. “It was contradicted by the physical evidence and the inconsistent statements of the other deputy sheriffs at the scene,” the complaint says. “Israel’s investigation accepted Wengert’s lies as fact, and then tailored the findings of the investigation to comport with Wengert’s false statements.”
Basic tests not done?
The complaint accuses BSO of failing to conduct “the most rudimentary and obvious evidentiary tests such as gunshot residue tests, fingerprint and DNA analysis which would have determined that Wengert gunned down an unarmed man.”
Specifically, the complaint notes that while the dead man’s “hands had allegedly been bagged and swabbed” by the crime–scene detective, the test kit for gunshot residue was never actually tested. Such a test would have shown whether Thompson recently had fired a weapon.
Likewise, no blood or Thompson’s fingerprints were found on the recovered pistol. The dead man’s epithelial DNA was found on the weapon, but the complaint says it was in a way “consistent with the Luger Diamondback being swiped across his hand or body as he lay dying.”
No DNA or fingerprint comparison was made to determine whether Wengert or anyone else had handled the gun, the complaint says.
At the time of the shooting, the complaint says, Wengert was “unfit” to be a deputy due to his “known history of violence.” Sheriff Israel knew or should have known that, yet despite Wengert’s conduct – and his “large physique” – he was never tested for steroid use.
“It is common knowledge that steroid use increases a person’s aggressiveness and can lead to violence,” the complaint says.
Even so, BSO does not test its deputies for steroid use, the lawsuit says.
BSO spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright confirmed that BSO does not test its deputies for steroids.
“Random drug tests are currently conducted once every quarter,” she said. “A 10-panel drug test is administered in accordance with our policy for pre-employment and random drug tests. Steroids are not included in the 10-panel drug test. However, upon reasonable suspicion, supervisors can order testing for steroids.”
The complaint also contends that BSO has had an “ongoing” investigation of steroid abuses by some deputies since 2008.
Asked about that probe, which involved as many as 26 deputies, BSO released a May 2011 memo by Internal Affairs Lt. Gregory S. Gordon that says IA merely “monitored” two separate federal investigations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that ended with no criminal charges against any deputies.
The memo says that instead of investigating to determine whether any BSO policies were violated by the deputies, all of Internal Affairs’ steroid cases were “reclassified to preliminary investigative inquiries…closed and marked ‘confidential.'”
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Cooke.