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Tampa man's family sues police over fatal pot raid

TAMPA — The mother of a man who was shot and killed by Tampa police officers during a raid on his home in 2014 has sued the city, its former police chief and the officers involved over her son's death.

The lawsuit, filed late last week in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, accuses the police of negligence for acting on the word of a confidential informant with a history of heavy drug use and criminal activity. It also says that officers used excessive force against 29-year-old Jason Westcott, who was killed, and his boyfriend Israel "Izzy" Reyes, who was 22 and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

TIMES INVESTIGATION: Confidential informer blows whistle in fatal Tampa SWAT raid.

Referring to the informer as "an untrained, drug addicted, convict," the lawsuit filed by Westcott's mother Patricia Silliman, blames his handlers for "negligent use of a confidential informant," they either knew had a shadowy past, or failed to vet. In addition to naming former Tampa police Chief Jane Castor, the lawsuit names six police officers and two corporals, all of whom still work for the department.

"She wants to clear (her son's) name," said Tampa defense attorney TJ Grimaldi, who represents Westcott's mother and Reyes. "She also wants to make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else."

Citing a policy of not discussing pending litigation, a police department spokesman declined to comment.

The shooting, which the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office found justified, took place on the evening of May 27, 2014, when both men were asleep at home.

While Reyes dozed on the sofa and Westcott slept in their bedroom, a Tampa Police Department SWAT team pulled up outside in a BearCat armored personnel carrier. The officers were there on the word of an informer named Ronnie "Bodie" Coogle, 51, who had purchased less than $200 of marijuana during repeated visits to Westcott's house over four months, records showed.

With a search warrant for marijuana and the belief that they were confronting a pair of hardened drug traffickers, the officers entered the rented bungalow at 906 W Knollwood St. and announced their presence.

According to the lawsuit, two police officers yanked Reyes off the couch, threw him to the floor, and pinned him there.

Westcott, who had previously sought the police department's help in dealing with a man who had threatened to rob him, was immediately on high alert. As men rushed into his house, he grabbed his gun. But before he could fire it, he was shot by Cpl. Eric Wasierski and Officer Edwin Perez, both of whom are named in the suit.

The lawsuit alleges that neither Westcott nor Reyes heard the officers enter. It says their dogs didn't bark; their neighbors didn't hear the cries of "police" and "search warrant," that the officers say they made.

Despite assertions that Westcott was a drug dealer, the SWAT team found only 0.2 grams — approximately $2 worth — of marijuana in the house, according to public records.

In interviews with the Tampa Bay Times, Castor defended the investigation of Westcott and Reyes and said the officers acted appropriately and out of fear for their lives.

But several weeks after Westcott's death, Coogle told the Times that the raid was based on lies he told his police handlers, as well a drug purchase they encouraged him to fabricate.

Coogle said he told the officers that the men were selling heroin and a large amount of marijuana that he claimed to have personally seen in their house. Neither was true, he later said.

Westcott "wasn't a drug dealer. He sold a few grams of pot to smoke pot and stay high," Coogle said.

Coogle also said that one night, when he returned from Westcott's home empty handed, police officers nudged him to sign paperwork saying he had bought $20 worth of marijuana. Lying was easy, he said, because his handlers didn't record his drug buys, although this is commonly done as a way of monitoring informers' work.

Castor, who initially vouched for Coogle's truthfulness, later said she still believed the information he gave to narcotics detectives.

But as for his accusations against police officers, the chief said: "I don't believe him at all."