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Deputy improperly fired concussion round at Army veteran in Pasco County Jail (w/video)

A video screen grab shows a detention officer shooting at inmate Matthew Trevino through a jail cell food slot last August.
A video screen grab shows a detention officer shooting at inmate Matthew Trevino through a jail cell food slot last August.
Published Jun. 23, 2016

On the evening of Aug. 5, an Army veteran with a history of mental illness was in the throes of an episode inside his solitary cell in the J wing of the Pasco County jail. Matthew Trevino, 29 at the time, had stripped off his clothes and was combative and mouthing off to a handful of detention deputies trying to conduct a routine search for contraband in his cell.

A video of the incident, filmed by a detention deputy at the jail, showed Pasco County sheriff's deputies trying to get Trevino to "cuff up" — to extend his hands through the food slot in the metal door so they could handcuff him and execute the search. Trevino instead grabbed his genitals and mumbled incoherently through a small window in the locked door.

After more than an hour of Trevino refusing to comply, one deputy began recording the video. Minutes later, another deputy produced a shotgun loaded with a Nova distraction round, ammunition designed to be a concussive, indirect-fire diversion and which "should never be fired directly at persons," according to the ammunition's maker.

"Cuff up or we're going to use less-lethal on you," one of the deputies said, gesturing toward the shotgun. "Do you understand?"

When Trevino refused to produce his hands, Deputy Robert Haas shouted, "Cuff up!" twice, then aimed the shotgun toward Trevino's genitals and fired from about 3 feet away, tearing a gaping wound in the flesh of Trevino's upper left thigh and penetrating to the bone. The blast was strong enough to send two adjacent deputies backward.

The dramatic video is a key piece of evidence in a complaint seeking damages that Trevino's lawyer, Lee Pearlman, plans to file in federal court.

"They say in the very beginning of this video that they're going to deploy a Nova round today," Pearlman said. "They all set this up. They're watching, waiting. No one says, 'Hey, don't do that,' or, 'Stop.' They're all sitting there watching."

Trevino, 30 now and living with his mother in the Chicago area, has spent months in a VA hospital and underwent three surgeries to repair the wound. In a phone interview, he said he has been struggling with paranoid schizophrenia since he joined the Army more than a decade ago.

"I start living, like, in an imaginary world," he said. "I start thinking that I'm doing things to help the world, but that's not the case."

He says he landed in the Pasco County jail after he thought someone was trying to kill him and begged a neighbor in Ruskin, in Hillsborough County, to call 911. He was arrested by Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies for violating probation (out past curfew) on a felony fleeing and eluding charge. After a week without incident in a Hillsborough County jail, he was transferred to Pasco County for violating probation on a misdemeanor DUI charge there.

He said he has gaps in his memory of the night he was shot, but he remembers the pain and described it as a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10.

"I have nerve damage and muscle damage," he said. "There's pain every time I try to walk."

He said he now also has severe anxiety when he sees police. "I freak the heck out," he said.

An internal affairs investigation was launched after the shooting, but no officers were disciplined because the deputy who fired the round said he was aiming at the floor and didn't intend to shoot Trevino.

Medical records that Pearlman provided to the Times also showed that deputies claim Haas was firing at the floor. In his own incident report, Haas wrote that he fired the round "when the inmate took a step back." But the video showed that Trevino did not move until after the round struck him.

The investigation also revealed that the training in use of less lethal force did not include allowing deputies to practice using the Nova rounds. The instructor simply demonstrated using the Nova round for the class, and did not train officers in cell extraction at all. But all of the deputies interviewed by internal affairs said they knew the Nova round was not to be shot at a human.

The outcome of the investigation into whether Haas, a six-year veteran, violated policy was "unsubstantiated."

"He was shot with a Nova round and he was supposed to be shot by a beanbag round," said Pasco County sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll. "That was not a proper use of that weapon."

Doll said the shooting was the result of improper or inadequate training with the explosive ammunition, which is similar to a hand-thrown distraction device police sometimes use to enter a barricaded home, but did not violate policy.

He added that Trevino was in a section of the jail where deputies are required to search cells every shift for weapons.

The sheriff's policy on use of force says deputies should use only the degree of force necessary to perform official duties. "The member shall not use physical force against a person except when necessary in self-defense, in defense of another, to overcome physical resistance to a member's performance of a legal duty, or to prevent escape of an arrested person," it reads.

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco was unavailable for an interview, but he justified the shooting of Trevino, who was alone in his cell and unarmed, in a statement:

"Our goal is to use as less force as necessary to gain compliance with our directions. However, this violent criminal's actions dictated our reaction."

"This should never be used in this capacity," said Pearlman, Trevino's lawyer. "They're either improperly trained or they're doing this intentionally."

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office detention system does not use Nova rounds or anything similar, according to Hillsborough Cpl. Justin Johnson. Neither do the Pinellas County or Hernando County sheriff's offices, spokespersons said.

The manufacturer of Nova rounds, Lightfield Ammunition, describes the product as producing a muzzle blast similar to a hand-thrown "flash bang" and warns it can cause injury or death.

"Fortunately, this was videotaped," Pearlman said, "or nobody would have known about it."

Trevino said watching the video of the shooting is surreal.

"It looks fake to me," he said. "In my mind, I remember them passing the shotgun around and joking about who was going to shoot me."

He said he has been mentally troubled since joining the Army in 2003, but medication helps. And he has been stable for the past few months.

But Pearlman, who has known Trevino for several years, said his client is different now.

"He's lost a lot of his lightheartedness," Pearlman said. "He's lost of lot of his trust."

Pearlman plans for the suit to name the Sheriff's Office, Haas, and six other deputies.

In the video, after the shot was fired, Trevino could be heard screaming and moaning as other inmates criticized the deputies.

"There's other ways to do it," one of them said.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at (727) 893-8650 or bmontgomery@tampabay.com. Follow @gangrey.