Florida Deputy Loses Bid to Have Wrongful Death Suit Tossed

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CN) – A Florida sheriff’s deputy on Tuesday lost a pretrial bid to terminate a lawsuit in which he’s accused of fatally shooting a man mistaken for a cellphone theft suspect.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke denied the defense’s motion for summary judgment, allowing the wrongful death claim against Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Gerald Wengert to move forward in the federal court in Fort Lauderdale.

According to court documents, Deputy Wengert has faced at least three other excessive force lawsuits in the same federal district. He’s known outside the local community for his appearance on the TLC show “Unleashed: K9 Broward County.”

Wengert is alleged to have shot the victim, Steven Jerold Thompson, during a June 2014 encounter at the Cypress Grove apartment complex in Lauderhill, Florida. At the time, Wengert was investigating an iPhone theft. He and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office contend Thompson fled from questioning and then shot at the deputy, an account which Thompson’s family vehemently denies.

“[The plaintiff estate] disputes almost every aspect of Wengert’s story,” the judge wrote. “Clearly, questions of material fact remain, precluding summary judgment in Wengert’s favor.”

The wrongful death lawsuit says the 26-year-old Thompson had stumbled across deputies in the Cypress Grove parking lot after they tracked a stolen cellphone signal to the property. Thompson tried to go back into an apartment building upon seeing police activity in the lot, and Wengert started chasing him, even though he did not meet the description of the suspect and was not in the immediate vicinity of the stolen cellphone signal, the lawsuit claims.

Deputy Wengert opened fire, and after disabling Thompson, “continued firing at Thompson’s fallen body, hitting him eight more times,” according to the complaint.

He “told the other deputies not to let [emergency medical staff] in right away, claiming they needed to make sure it was safe, in case a second suspect” was on site, the lawsuit alleges.

According to the pleading, Thompson’s DNA, but not his fingerprints, was identified on a Luger Diamondback pistol found 50 feet from his body. The lawsuit maintains that Thompson was unarmed at the time of the shooting, and that the DNA evidence is consistent with the gun having been “swiped across his hand or body” as he lay dead or dying.

The estate, represented by Thompson’s sister Donnett Taffe, claims the sheriff’s office failed to produce  gunshot residue tests, along with fingerprint comparisons to rule out whether Wengert handled the Luger.

Wengert maintains that when he encountered Thompson in the parking lot of the Cypress Grove apartment complex, Thompson failed to “heed [his] lawful commands” to cooperate with the iPhone theft investigation.

He says that after fleeing into the apartment building, Thompson shot at him with the Luger, prompting him to return fire in self defense.

“Thompson continued to ignore repeated commands to stop and drop his weapon. Deputy Wengert’s decision to shoot Mr. Thompson under these circumstances was objectively reasonable and the force was not excessive,” Wengert’s summary judgment motion states.

The Wengert motion attempted to assert qualified immunity, which can shield police from  liability for an act carried out as part of their job, so long as the act did not clearly infringe on constitutional rights. The judge, however, withheld a decision on the matter, noting the divergent accounts of the shooting.

In addition to the counts against Wengert, Thompson’s estate is demanding damages from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office for retaining the deputy in spite of his “long history of violence” and “making false reports to justify that violence,” according to the complaint.

According to both Thompson’s complaint and Cooke’s ruling, between the time Wengert joined the Broward County Sheriff’s Office in 2004 and June 2014, he allegedly had been involved in more than 70 use-of-force incidents, including multiple shootings.

A string of internal  investigations were initiated, but according to the Thompson lawsuit, “in all instances [the sheriff] found the force complied with the policies of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office based upon Wengert’s unilateral version of the incident.”

In 2012, Wengert was suspended for a year pending resolution of a criminal case in which he was charged with official misconduct in connection with his handling of a teenager who had been involved in a roadway conflict with Wengert’s girlfriend. Allegedly Wengert forced the boy out of a car, struck him in the ensuing confrontation and then set a police dog on him.

Wengert was acquitted of the criminal charges in 2013, and was reinstated and granted back pay, according to court documents.

When moving for summary judgment on the Thompson case, the sheriff’s department submitted a supplemental pleading to the court, portraying Wengert as a highly praised deputy who’s received multiple commendations throughout his 13 years as a law enforcement officer in the community.

One letter from his supervisor, recommending him for a 2008 Officer of the Year award, says that “Deputy Wengert has put his life in harm’s way many times.”

“His work ethic and product has been superior and goes above and beyond the call of duty,” the letter says.

Other commendation letters state that Wengert and his canine unit frequently responded to high-risk calls outside the realm of ordinary patrol duty.

The sheriff’s office filing further rebuts the allegation that Wengert was negligently hired and trained. According to the sheriff’s office, he was subjected to a psychiatric evaluation and was adequately vetted prior to his hiring. Citing a statement from a consultant who reviewed Thompson’s shooting, the pleading adds that “the Broward County Sheriff’s Office meets or exceeds the generally accepted policies, practices, training, and legal mandates in law enforcement.”

The attorney for Thompson’s estate, Barbara Heyer, told Courthouse News she is pursuing a trial date in the wrongful death case.

Defense counsel has not responded to a request for comment.

Meanwhile in the same federal district as the Thompson case, Wengert is scheduled for a civil trial this summer on claims that without provocation, he smashed a man’s face into a car door and punched him during a senseless road side stop. The alleged victim, Kevin Buckler, says Wengert harassed him at a gas station, then followed him down the road and pulled him over for “loud music” before commencing the assault.

The confrontation left Buckler with broken facial bones and  his eyes swollen shut, his complaint says.

Wengert allegedly stated that the man sparked the conflict by disrespecting him and throwing a cigarette at him.

In another civil case in the Southern District, Wengert was unsuccessfully sued by Reginald Chatman, a man who was bitten by Wengert’s police dog while admittedly hiding from police. Though Chatman said the dog bit him for several minutes after he had already surrendered, deputies maintained that the canine was called off within a few seconds. The parties also disputed whether deputies had given the man a fair warning that the dog was going to be released. Chatman was convicted of petit theft and other charges in connection with the incident; his lawsuit against Wengert failed at trial in the fall of 2017.

The Sun Sentinel reported that the Broward County Sheriff’s Office entered into a $175,000 settlement in December 2017 in a lawsuit filed against the department and Wengert by two graffiti artists mauled by a police dog. The graffiti  painters claimed that after being confronted by deputies in a train yard where they legally paint graffiti, they peacefully surrendered, but that deputies unleashed the dog onto them anyway, with Wengert calling out, “Eat boy, eat!”

The attorney for Thompson’s estate, Barbara Heyer, told Courthouse News she is pursuing a trial date in the wrongful death case. Defense counsel has not responded to a request for comment.

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