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Widow sues over Clearwater police's fatal restraint

CLEARWATER — The widow of a Tampa man who died after a violent confrontation with Clearwater police in which he was handcuffed, Tasered and restrained facedown by three officers has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city.

Nicole Tipton's suit seeks more than $50,000 in damages in the death of her husband, Thomas C. Tipton, 34.

Tipton, a staffing firm manager, went limp after struggling with police on April 5, 2006, at the Tropic Isle Motel on north Clearwater Beach. He died after rescue workers tried to revive him with a portable defibrillator that had a dead battery.

Nicole Tipton's lawsuit, filed March 31 in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, contends that the officers who restrained Tipton and the rescue workers who tried to revive him were negligent, reckless, improperly trained and supplied by the city with "faulty and life-threatening" equipment.

Clearwater officials declined to comment on the lawsuit. Tipton, who now lives in Ohio, did not return calls Friday.

According to official accounts, this is what happened on the day Thomas Tipton died:

He and several male employees of Maxim Staffing Solutions took a limousine from Tampa to Clearwater Beach and spent most of the afternoon and evening at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill, where they met a group of nurses.

Tipton picked up three bar tabs: $185, plus tip, at 3:45 p.m.; $559, plus tip, at 9:07 p.m.; and $68, plus tip, at 10:52 p.m.

At 11 p.m., his demeanor changed and he said he didn't want to go to another bar because he might get in a fight.

Tipton left the group and, during the next half-hour before his encounter with police, authorities suspect he used marijuana and cocaine.

At 11:30 p.m., Tipton walked into the courtyard of the Tropic Isle Motel, not far from Frenchy's. He knocked over several patio chairs and broke jalousie windows, prompting the motel manager and a guest to call 911.

Clearwater police Officer Larry Harbert arrived first and found Tipton in the roots of a banyan tree. Officer David Higgins then pulled up and helped coax Tipton out from the tree.

They determined Tipton was very intoxicated and thought he was in Tampa. The officers decided to call him a cab.

Then Tipton became upset, throwing a patio table at Harbert, and returned behind the banyan tree.

Sgt. Joe TenBieg arrived and told Tipton he would be Tasered if he didn't come out. Harbert deployed the Taser, which seemed to have little effect. It was deployed again and this time the officers got Tipton's hands cuffed.

After complying for a time, Tipton suddenly became enraged, kicking and yelling at the officers.

They eventually were able to take down Tipton, who weighed 270 pounds. They held him face-down, but Tipton continued to resist, at times resting before fighting again.

Then Tipton went limp.

Paramedics, who already were on the scene after responding to a call, tried to resuscitate Tipton with a defibrillator, but its battery was dead. So was the backup.

When a third battery was retrieved from the nearby firehouse, the heart monitor showed no activity.

Tipton was taken to Morton Plant Hospital and pronounced dead at 12:28 a.m.

The Medical Examiner's Office ruled his death a homicide, with cocaine and alcohol listed as "contributory" conditions.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe concluded that Tipton died in an excusable homicide at the hands of officers who used force that was "reasonable, necessary and justified."

Tipton alone, McCabe wrote in a letter summarizing his review, "escalated the encounter from a situation in which the police sought to simply send him home in a cab to a prolonged, violent fight." The officers "consistently used the least amount of force available," McCabe added.

Medical examiners concluded that Tipton's asphyxiation resulted from his being facedown on a patio as the officers compressed his chest. Officials also have said the alcohol in his system may have hastened the asphyxia, a lack of oxygen usually caused by an interruption of breathing that leads to unconsciousness.

Toxicology tests showed Tipton had marijuana and cocaine in his system while his blood-alcohol level was 0.227 percent, nearly three times the level at which Florida law presumes a person to be impaired.

A Clearwater Police Department review board ruled that Harbert, Higgins and TenBieg followed all policies and procedures when restraining Tipton.

TenBieg retired in January; the other two officers are still with the department.

Paramedic Dwayne "Chris" Vaughan was fired in June 2006 for the way he documented the incident.

After the death, Vaughan, as is standard procedure, produced several documents related to Tipton's care. He printed an internal log generated by the defibrillator itself, but later admitted he removed sections of it, officials said. He also wrote in a patient care report that Tipton had a normal heart rhythm, something he couldn't have known without a working defibrillator.

Vaughan was stripped of his medical license and fired. But on Jan. 18 of this year he was rehired as a fire medic. According to a settlement reached between the city and the fire union that avoids arbitration, Vaughan is prohibited from treating patients or performing any duties that require paramedic certification.

Jeffrey Kyle Wallace, the other rescue worker involved, was not disciplined and continues to work as a firefighter.

Widow sues over Clearwater police's fatal restraint 04/04/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 5:28pm]

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