(CN) – A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit over the police shooting of a schizophrenic man, revealing information much more favorable to the city in the five months since a ruling that furthered the case along.
Ronald Btesh, a 55-year-old man with the mental capacity of a 9-year-old, was shot three times by police in his Maitland, Fla., apartment. Two female officers had responded to the scene in December 2008 after Btesh’s Spanish-speaking, live-in caregiver called 911 for help.
The lawsuit filed by Btesh’s guardian claims that an emergency operator had mishandled the report, did not request help from a Spanish-speaking co-worker and erroneously informed officers to respond to a rape and sexual battery.
Proceedings over the last few months has established that the Spanish speaking co-worker was handling another emergency call, but it is unclear whether the English-speaking operator tried to conference in a remote interpreter.
Btesh’s caregiver of 36 years, Nohemy Castelblanco, had not in fact been raped, but a transcript of the call shows that Castelblanco had difficulty communicating how she was attacked when she called for help. Since then, the court has found that Btesh hit Castelblanco on the head several times and screamed, “Die, die, die,” as he kicked her when she fell to the floor.
(A description below of the police response below draws from the court’s findings.)
Thinking they were responding to a sexual assault, Officers Rebecca Denicola and Amanda Payne entered Btesh’s home with guns drawn. Btesh was locked in his bedroom and eventually threw the door open and stood with his hands together at his chest.
Denicola said she thought Btesh could have been hiding a weapon in his hands because Btesh was “very tall.” In fact, Btesh was only 2 inches taller and about 12 pounds lighter than the 5-foot-9, 275-pound Denicola.
Payne, the other officer, said later that she could tell Btesh was not carrying a weapon and that “it was obvious he was not completely there.”
But the confrontation escalated when Btesh began approaching Officer Payne, causing her to walk backwards till she was standing outside of the apartment. Btesh then locked the front door on Payne and turned on Denicola, who said the suspect still had his hands clenched.
Btesh did not respond to Denicola in English, either speaking gibberish or one of the four languages he knows. Denicola said she shot Btesh in the torso when he would not stop approaching her, and fired two more shots because he kept advancing.
After the shots, Btesh fled into his bedroom, Denicola repositioned herself to cover the door, and Payne kicked down the front door along with backup. Another officer found Btesh lying on his bed with his hands clenched.
Btesh’s lawsuit against the two officers, city of Maitland and Chief of Police Gary Calhoun claimed negligence. It said the officers tried to stage a cover-up by making it seem as though Payne had kicked in the front door because Btesh had become violent and locked her outside the apartment.
On March 6, U.S. District Judge Patricia Fawsett ruled that Calhoun cannot be liable for Btesh’s battery claim, since he never touched or shot the man. But the judge refused at that time to dismiss the civil rights claims against the police chief.
Three weeks later, Payne was voluntarily dismissed from the case.
On July 28, Fawsett threw out the rest of the lawsuit, which had claimed that the inexperienced officers were not equipped to respond to calls involving the mentally ill in crisis and also did followed improper protocol for responding to a sexual assault.
Btesh had also claimed that the Maitland Police Department has documented his mental condition in four prior incident reports, but still failed to send adequately trained officers.
The lawsuit relied on a grand jury that found fault with the 911 dispatchers and the officers’ response. It had also said that Btesh’s address could have been flagged as being occupied by a mentally ill individual if the department properly trained officers.
But Fawsett said this evidence is inadmissible and untrustworthy. She also found that Denicola is entitled to immunity and credited her “split-second judgment” to use deadly force.
Btesh may not have been actually armed, but “the totality of the circumstances” suggested Btesh posed a threat to her and others, according to the 83-page ruling.
Since there is no evidence that the officers violated Btesh’s rights, the city and police chief are also entitled to summary judgment, Fawsett concluded.