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Did he die in 1977 crash, or at the hands of police?

On a warm night in July 1977, an 18-year-old tourist trying to speed away from a traffic stop near Clearwater Beach rolled his pickup and killed the rookie officer who had pulled him over.

The driver, Michael Scott Niesen, died the next day.

For nearly 30 years, authorities have said Niesen died of injuries from the crash - not, as his family suspects, at the hands of Clearwater officers seeking revenge for the death of 21-year-old Officer Ronald Mahony.

But new witness accounts contradict initial reports that Niesen was unconscious after the crash. Some, including a former officer who was among the first on the scene, say they saw the young man seemingly unhurt and talking.

The new information has led Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein to ask federal prosecutors this week to review the case, specifically allegations of police misconduct and, if warranted, conduct a "criminal review."

Several weeks ago, a Niesen family attorney presented the city with interview transcripts from witnesses. One was from Edward R. Garner, a former Clearwater police officer, who said he saw Niesen "largely uninjured" after the wreck, but later saw photographs of Niesen with "significant wounds."

Garner also said he was "coached" on his documentation of the events surrounding the wreck and investigation, according to Klein's letter to the Justice Department.

Klein was not police chief when the incident occurred; Frank Daniels was.

The new information was gathered by Niesen's older brother, John, and by a former federal prosecutor he hired, Jeffrey Del Fuoco.

The St. Petersburg Times obtained a tape of Garner's interview with Del Fuoco, and also spoke with two former emergency medical technicians who were on the scene and whose accounts were similar to Garner's.

In the taped statement, Garner said when he arrived at the accident, he saw Niesen - wearing no shirt - sitting calmly off the side of the roadway, leaning against a tree. Garner said he spoke to Niesen, who told him he thought he was okay.

Later, Garner - an officer from March 1977 to April 1978 - said he felt "something happened unrelated to the accident" that caused Niesen's death.

Garner said reports of Niesen being unconscious were "grossly untrue" and "absolute lies." Garner, who could not be reached for comment, said in the statement he was scared and worried about his career, so he never came forward.

The two EMTs reached by the St. Petersburg Times also say Niesen was uninjured, lucid and even walking around after the accident. But minutes later he was near death, they said.

One of the EMTs, Richard Walton, described a scene of five to six officers forming a tight circle around a distraught Niesen. The officers, he says, pummeled Niesen with nightsticks until he fell to the ground. They stopped only after other witnesses screamed "they're killing him," Walton said.

"It's become clear to me that they covered this up and nothing was ever done about it," said Walton, who later drove taxis and worked for the city's utilities department.

John Niesen, 52, says he's cautiously optimistic about the potential for a new investigation. But he said he's also bitter.

"This took too long to get here," said Niesen, who lives in Lilburn, Ga., and owns a security business.

Steve Cole, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said officials there are aware of the request for an investigation, but said "it's too early to speculate on what will happen."

Routine stop goes bad

The incident occurred July 13, 1977, with Mahony making a routine traffic stop on Niesen, a Georgia resident who came to Clearwater to meet girls.

Mahony was going to cite Niesen for reckless driving, but in the course of the stop learned the truck had been reported stolen. As he approached the truck, Niesen accelerated and Mahony jumped into the truck's bed, according to initial reports. Niesen fishtailed several times before flipping the truck along Memorial Causeway, across from Island Estates.

The investigation said Niesen died from head injuries incurred when he was thrown from the truck.

After the initial police investigation, the case was reviewed multiple times over three decades by state officials.

The Clearwater police investigation, led by Detective Charles Butler, included brief witness statements that described Niesen's frantic ride, but none that addressed what happened following the crash.

Officers described a badly injured Niesen bleeding from the head and mouth. Mahony was lying in the road nearby in worse shape.

Much of the investigation hinged on accounts taken from former Clearwater police Officers Stephen Brooks, Mark Cairns and Michael Egger. None could be reached for comment this week.

The State Attorney's Office conducted a requisite followup in 1977, using mostly information supplied from that first inquiry.

The state reviewed the case in 1978, 1991 and 1995 after John Niesen sent letters to the governor's office. And in 2001 and 2004, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement examined new autopsy reports from Georgia medical examiners Niesen hired, and talked to some witnesses.

The results, though, were the same: The authorities said the evidence didn't warrant a new investigation, or that the statue of limitations had expired.

Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor said the department has "no qualms, no reservations in addressing the issue. ... We've embraced and encouraged for decades anyone with evidence to bring it forward."

Walton and Denise Kingsley, the former C&R Ambulance EMTs, say they wonder why they were not questioned during initial investigations.

"Once I learned Michael had died, I was certain someone would come talk to me," said Walton, 50, who lives in Largo. "But when no one did I figured it had been handled behind the scenes, that someone had been paid off or the responsible parties had been dealt with behind closed doors."

'Isn't about money'

John Niesen says he's spent at least $100,000 looking into his brother's death. He said investigators have called him "anything from delusional to lunatic to a conspiracy nut."

Last week, Del Fuoco sent a letter to the city, threatening a $100-million lawsuit, claiming police and the city violated Michael Niesen's civil rights.

John Niesen said "this isn't about money - and I tried everything I could do to avoid this. It's been an awful burden to carry around and not to be able to make the wheels of justice turn."

City Attorney Pam Akin said the case was sent to the U.S. Attorney's Office because of the allegations of civil rights violations. She said the city is taking the case seriously, but said officials do have some questions.

"This happened almost 30 years ago, and I think you have to have some questions about the memories ... that go back that far, particularly when reports weren't made at that time," she said. "And now, all of a sudden, people have very clear memories. ... You just wonder how they can have such clear views of things."

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