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.