Cop Killing Called 'Intentional Discrimination'
SCRANTON, Pa. (CN) - Police in eastern Pennsylvania shot a man in the back and killed him as he opened the door to his own home, then conspired to cover it up, one of many acts of "intentional discrimination" against the town's Hispanic residents, his sister claims in court.
In a federal lawsuit, Veronica Garay claims Hazleton police officers' killing of her brother is typical of the police department's "intentional discrimination." She claims that police supervisors and city policymakers encourage a "culture of negative treatment towards people of Hispanic descent and minorities in general" and ignore complaints from citizens about the discrimination.
Hazleton, pop. 22,200, is northwest of Allentown and southwest of Wilkes-Barre.
"In effect, supervisors and the mayor communicated to the [Police] Department and the public that any attempt to reform the department would be discontinued and that the custom and practice of the Hazelton City Police Department would remain intact. Many of these complaints were from minority victims," the lawsuit states.
Police shot her brother to death in the early morning of Oct. 5, 2013, as he unlocked the back door of his house, Garay says. Two days later, she told local ABC News affiliate that a Hazleton officer "took the gun off my brother's holster and threw it. My brother never had a gun in his hands. This man murdered my brother."
A "Rally and March for Answers" led by the Garay family followed on Oct. 11, and a public meeting in which one man suggested that Hazleton police should be required to carry body cameras.
Garay says in the lawsuit that on the morning he was killed, her brother Jonathan he was with friends in or around the Capri Bar on Alter Street and police were called at around 2:30 a.m. to deal with a fight involving 10 to 15 people outside of the bar. Jonathan was not involved in the fight; he left the bar with a friend to return his to nearby home, his sister says.
"At this point, nobody requested that the decedent or his friend remain on Alter Street, and in fact the police were clearing Alter Street and wanted people to disperse from the area," the complaint states.
Jonathan walked into his back yard, latched his fenced gate behind him, and began to unlock his back door when Officer Scott Nicholas entered the back yard through the closed back gate. "What ensued following the illegal entrance of defendant Nicholas into the decedent's backyard was wholly avoidable and nothing short of a tragedy," the complaint states.
"Clearly, defendant Nicholas was not authorized to enter decedent's fenced-in back yard nor did he have permission to do so.
"While trespassing on the decedent's property, defendant Nicholas approached the decedent from behind and assaulted the decedent on his back porch/inside the doorway of his home without justification.
"At about the same time defendant Nicholas was assaulting decedent, defendant [Michael] Colasardo also unlawfully entered the backyard of decedent and drew his weapon.
"Upon information and belief, within seconds of entering the decedent's backyard, defendant Colasardo fired his weapon, without justification, two times, striking the decedent in the head and body. ...
"Paramedics and other law enforcement personnel arrived on scene within minutes of the gunshots, and the Decedent was taken to Hazleton General Hospital.... [Jonathan] was pronounced dead at Hazleton General on October 5, 2013 at 3:35 a.m."
Garay claims that bullet trajectory evidence indicates Jonathan was shot in the back, and that the Luzerne County Coroner called it a homicide by multiple gunshot wounds.
Garay claims that "a mere 11 days after the shooting and weeks prior to any autopsy report even being completed," Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie J. Salavantis issued a statement justifying the shooting.
Salavantis is not a party to the lawsuit.
"The version of events described in the report (from the officers) defies physical science and common sense." (Parentheses in complaint.) "The report indicates that defendants, one or both, stated that the decedent was pointing a gun at defendant Colasardo when the fatal shot was fired" and that "the evidence was 'consistent with Mr. Garay having been shot outside and stumbling backward into the doorway.'"
Veronica Garay claims that the evidence, and her brother's fatal wounds, "directly contradict the defendants' version of events."
"It is illogical to suggest that someone stumbling backwards is consistent with being shot in the back. Common sense suggests the gunshot to the back would propel and individual forward," the complaint states.
"Clearly the wounds suggest that the decedent was not facing defendant Colasardo when he was shot, and, in fact, was killed when he was shot in the back while attempting to gain entry into his home or was already in his home.
"There was no pointing of any gun by the decedent at defendant Colasardo, or anyone else, thus there was absolutely no need for the use of deadly force.
"The trajectory of both wounds, and the fact that the decedent was shot in the back, makes it physically impossible for the decedent to be pointing a gun at defendant Colasardo when he was shot either time."
Garay claims that her family was in the house and heard Jonathan speak before he died, but police refused to let them attend to him.
She claims the family was "unlawfully corralled by the Hazleton City Police Department and taken into the family room, only feet from where the decedent lay dying from his wounds."
"Further, immediately following the shooting, while decedent was dying on the kitchen floor, the decedent's family members observed one of the defendants remove a firearm from the decedent's waistband and throw it aside of the decedent."
She claims the officers also subjected her and her family to insults, including "negative racial remarks" immediately after the shooting, "while they were held captive in their living room and their family member dead or dying only feet away."
And, she claims: "While 'clearing' the home immediately following the shooting, other members of the Hazleton City Police Department physically assaulted the brother of the decedent when they kicked in his door, woke him from a deep sleep, threw him to the ground and Tased him - in his own bedroom."
Garay claims that the city and its police force offer no appropriate training or written rules regarding private property entry, use of firearms and deadly force, and that the police routinely use excessive force and destroy evidence.
She seeks damages for 21 counts, including unlawful entry and seizure, excessive force and physical brutality, false imprisonment, supervisory liability, nonsupervisory failure to intervene, civil conspiracy, municipal liability, due process violations, violation of equal protection, assault and battery, trespass, false arrest, illegal imprisonment, negligence and wrongful death.
Named as defendants are Officer Michael Colasardo, Officer Scott Nicholas, Police Chief Frank DeAndrea, Mayor Joe Yannuzzi, Ten Does and the City of Hazleton.
Garay is represented by Joshua Karoly, of Allentown.