Thursday, November 09, 2000

Council demands answers in choking

By Jane Prendergast and Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The death of a suspect in Cincinnati police custody spread anger Wednesday through City Hall and pain to the College Hill family wondering why their son didn't survive his arrest.

        The parents of Roger Owensby Jr. sat in their living room talking about seeing him lying in a body bag.

[photo] Roger Sr. and Brenda Owensby talk Wednesday about their dead son, Roger Jr.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        City Council members blasted the Cincinnati Police Division for offering too little explanation in a highly controversial situation involving five officers.

        The key issue: mechanical asphyxia. That's what killed Mr. Owensby, a 29-year-old father and Army veteran. Although police say he was suspected of assaulting an officer recently, Mr. Owensby's record shows one misdemeanor drug conviction and three traffic offenses.

        According to Hamilton County Coroner Carl Parrott Jr., preliminary autopsy results show that something external caused him to suffocate — maybe a “choke hold that went bad” or several people “piling on” the man.

        District 4 officers say they recognized Mr. Owensby a little before 8 p.m. Tuesday in a parking lot at Seymour Avenue and Langdon Farm Road in Roselawn. Surveillance videotape from a store shows the officers talking to him, Chief Tom Streicher said, before Mr. Owensby ran.

[photo] Roger Owensby Jr. (left) in a snapshot with his daughter Myiesha, 9.
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        After a brief chase, officers caught him and sprayed him with chemical irritant. When that didn't subdue him, officers said they got into a struggle and then were able to handcuff him.

        They then noticed he was unresponsive and called for medical help. Mr. Owensby died at University Hospital.

        The chief could say little to defend his officers because the details are part of the homicide investigation.

        But City Council members said the Police Division must release more information. They accused officials of stonewalling and said the public deserves as many details they can provide — especially given how strained citizen-police relations have become in the wake of several police shootings.

        “The police should not have given a performance like that,” Mayor Charlie Luken said after Col. Richard Janke, an assistant chief, refused to elaborate on what killed Mr. Owensby. “They do have an obligation to the community to be honest about what happened.”

        That left council members interrupting Wednesday's meeting to phone the coroner for an explanation. Councilman Paul Booth came back and said that according to the coroner, “The man's death was caused by a choke hold that went bad or too many people that piled on top of him, or both.”

        Mr. Owensby's parents, Roger Sr. and Brenda, wondered aloud Wednesday afternoon about how they would tell their 9-year-old granddaughter, Myiesha, that her dad was dead. Mr. Owensby planned to go back to school to learn to be a music producer.

        They were confused about the crime officers suspected their son of committing. First they were told it was murder, his father said, then burglary. Then nobody was sure, he said. They call their son “Little Bit” because he was born prematurely at only 3 pounds.

        “I think it just all turned bad,” his mother said. “It got out of hand.”

        The officers will stay on paid administrative leave for seven days, a routine move in a case involving a death, spokesman Lt. Ray Ruberg said.

        They are: Alexander Hasse, who turns 26 today, a former Union Township emergency medical technician who has been on the force 10 months; David Hunter Jr., 33, an officer since late 1996; Darren Sellers, 32, a Navy veteran on the force more than two years; Patrick Caton, 34, a former Marine and an officer 3 1/2 years; and Officer Robert Jorg, 28, a former Ohio State Highway Patrol auxiliary officer on the division since June 1996.

        None of the officers involved has previous histories of similar incidents, according to their personnel files. Officer Caton, however, was suspended in June for 24 hours after being convicted of off-duty drunken driving and using weapons while intoxicated.

        Officers Hunter and Sellers were reprimanded for missing court hearings. They and Officer Caton were given otherwise good evaluations by their supervisors.

        Fraternal Order of Police President Keith Fangman asked that the community wait for the full report on what happened before lashing out against these five officers or police officers in general.

Two die in incidents with police
Suspect in shoplifting grabbed cop's gun
- Council demands answers in choking

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