Official Secrecy Shrouds Fatal Arrests
Prince George's Police Hamper Prosecutors

By Craig Whitlock and David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 4, 2001

Last of four articles

Prince George's County police said they didn't seriously injure Clarence Stewart. Yet his autopsy report shows he was bludgeoned on his head, right shoulder, back, legs and arms with a metal nightstick.

Police said they didn't hurt Elmer Newman, except for a few bruises. They suggested he broke his own ribs and two bones in his neck as he thrashed around.

They said Charles Huddleston suffered "superficial injuries" to his head. Yet his face was so discolored and swollen that relatives had trouble identifying his body.

The three men died after they were arrested and handcuffed. Contrary to the official police accounts, autopsy reports show they were severely beaten, two of them so badly that Maryland's chief medical examiner declared them homicide victims.

No one knows how many people have died while in the custody of Prince George's officers. Police said they don't keep track of such deaths.

By examining autopsy reports and other documents, however, The Washington Post was able to identify 12 people who have died in police custody since 1990. The records suggest that police often sought to cover up beatings and were sometimes slow to obtain medical care for the victims.

Police have kept one man's death a secret to this day, four years after he was handcuffed and collapsed. Police never notified prosecutors, preventing them from conducting an independent investigation, The Post found.

No Prince George's officer involved in an in-custody death has been disciplined by the department.

State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson (D), whose office is supposed to review each of the cases, said he was troubled by the injuries inflicted on many of the men. He said the police have thwarted attempts to hold officers accountable.

"I'm absolutely concerned about that," he said. "The whole question of how the police department deals with people [while they're in custody] must be examined."

No reliable national statistics exist on the number of people who die in police custody. In general, such deaths are rare.

The District police department said it has investigated two in-custody deaths in the past two years. Montgomery County police said two people have died in their custody since 1995. Baltimore police reported three since January 2000.

By comparison, four people died while in the custody of Prince George's police from April 1999 to May 2000.

Prince George's police attribute most of the deaths to "excited delirium," a term they use to describe the behavior of suspects so affected by drugs or mental illness that they possess incredible strength and are unaffected by pain.

By the time officers are able to subdue them, police say, the suspects often stop breathing or suffer heart failure.

Last year, county Police Chief John S. Farrell ordered all of his officers to undergo what he called "a massive retraining" after three people died in police custody. Instead of relying on bullets or brute force, police are now taught to use pepper-spray guns, straitjackets and other "nonlethal weapons" when dealing with drug-addled or mentally ill people.

"It's a scary thing," Farrell said. "And it's a scary thing for the police officers when they're called to the scene and are forced to deal with it."

Farrell said a "cluster" of excited-delirium arrests resulted in fatalities since he became chief in 1995, though police refused to identify specific cases in that category.

"You've got a lot of folks out there doing drugs and doing damage to their cardiovascular systems," he said. "There's tremendous struggles, and their hearts just give out."

The Post found that illegal drugs contributed to the cause of death in four of the 12 men who have died in police custody since 1990. Mental illness played a role in two other cases, according to autopsy reports.

At the same time, eight people suffered serious injuries at the hands of police officers, from internal bleeding to bone fractures to gunshot wounds.

"There are injuries -- there is no question," Farrell said. "People get injured, including the cops."

'No Sign of Resistance'

For 14 years, Clarence Edward Stewart and his wife, Elaine, lived in a house on Colton Street, surrounded by apartments and busy highways. For 16 years, he worked the same job, on the maintenance staff at Prince George's Community College, within walking distance of his home. Most days, he dodged the traffic and got around on a mountain bike, rarely leaving the confines of a community known as Largo-Kettering.

On May 19, 2000, Stewart had the day off. Sometime after lunch, the 51-year-old man with a gray-streaked beard hopped on his bike and pedaled over to the Kettering Plaza Shopping Center.

He had some errands to run but also wanted to pass out fliers advertising an auto-detailing service that he operated in his spare time.

About 3 p.m., Stewart walked into the Target department store. A manager accused him of bothering customers and asked him to leave.

He did, but he returned later. This time, the store manager called police.

By the time Prince George's Officer Stephen A. Vitko arrived at the Target, Stewart had left again. The officer found him on a sidewalk outside a jewelry store.

Police officials said Vitko was firm but polite. They said he tapped Stewart on the shoulder and asked him to accompany him back to the Target so he could apologize to the store manager.

Witnesses portrayed a different scene. Shawn L. Reeves, of Upper Marlboro, said the officer screamed at Stewart -- "Stay out of my store!" -- and grabbed him by the arm.

"The police officer was cussing at him and just being indignant," Reeves said. "He was grabbing him and shaking him around. He was just harassing the guy. It was really unwarranted."

A retired Montgomery County police officer who was shopping nearby also saw the encounter. In a written statement provided to Prince George's detectives, Edward R. Hickey reported that Vitko's "face was red and appeared aggravated/angry" and that the Prince George's officer shoved, pushed and yelled at Stewart without provocation.

"There was no sign of resistance by the defendant," Hickey added.

What happened next is the subject of a dispute between the police department and Stewart's widow, who has filed a federal lawsuit against the police and Prince George's County.

Both sides agree that Vitko took Stewart back to the Target.

There, Vitko called for police backup and arrested Stewart. Vitko and Officer Troy L. Wallace took him inside a security office the size of a walk-in closet and closed the door.

When the door opened a few minutes later, Target shoppers saw Stewart handcuffed and bound by his ankles, bleeding profusely from his head. As police laid him facedown on the tiled floor, he lost consciousness.

He was pronounced dead an hour later.

Afterward, police officials painted Stewart as the aggressor. They said he spat in an officer's face, refused to accept a citation for trespassing and wildly resisted arrest.

Another case of "excited delirium," Farrell told reporters.

Police acknowledged that there had been a struggle. But they said the preliminary results from an autopsy found that Stewart had died of an enlarged heart. His injuries had nothing to do with his death, they said.

Authorities kept the autopsy report secret for five months, until The Post obtained it under the Maryland Public Information Act.

The 10-page report concluded that Stewart had been afflicted with heart disease and high blood pressure but that those conditions alone did not kill him.

His heart failure was triggered by "blunt force injuries," including three deep head wounds and contusions to his back and right shoulder, according to the report. He was also beaten on the backs of his arms and legs.

Several of the wounds bore the imprint of a "linear, rodlike blunt object," such as a police nightstick. Cuts and contusions surrounded Stewart's wrists and ankles, evidence that he was injured after police had placed him in restraints.

His face had been doused with pepper spray. Except for the prescription medication he took for depression, there were no drugs in his bloodstream, nothing that would cause "excited delirium."

"Homicide," the medical examiner ruled.

A Prince George's County grand jury investigated Stewart's death but voted not to indict Vitko or Wallace, the police officers who made the arrest. Vitko and Wallace did not respond to letters or telephone calls seeking comment.

Johnson, the county state's attorney, said grand jurors were troubled by Stewart's injuries but couldn't be sure that police had used excessive force because no witnesses saw what happened inside the Target security office.

"Some force was applied in the closed room," Johnson said after the grand jury closed the case in October. "But it's hard to say whether excessive force was used in the closed room."

Clarence and Elaine Stewart were married for 29 years and five months. They were planning to celebrate their 30th anniversary in Jamaica, where they would renew their wedding vows.

On the last day of his life, before he left the house in the morning, Clarence Stewart bade his wife a routine farewell.

"He told me he loved me and said he'd see me in the evening," Elaine Stewart recalled.

"I expected my husband to come home and not be killed by the county police," she said. "The force they used on him, the way they beat him down, it was like he wasn't even a human being."

Police Don't Report Death

Thomas Charles Cox was a hard man to miss. There weren't many taxicab drivers in Prince George's County who stood 6 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 242 pounds.

Cox, 44, died Nov. 6, 1997, while he was being arrested by Prince George's police officers. How it happened is a mystery, however, because the police department has kept his death a secret.

In an interview in May, Farrell said he was "not familiar" with Cox's death. "If it came up, I'm not sure of the circumstances," he said. "How it was handled or not, I don't know."

The state's attorney's office said it has no record that it was ever informed of Cox's death.

"I don't know why the Prince George's police did not notify us," Johnson said. "This case should have been routinely reported."

Police do not have the discretion to keep such cases confidential, he said.

The official silence about Cox's death is emblematic of a pattern of secrecy and poor record-keeping in the police department, the Post investigation found.

The agency denied written requests from The Post for a list of people who have died in police custody since 1990, saying such a list does not exist. When The Post requested records about specific cases, lawyers for the county said it would be "contrary to the public interest" to disclose them.

A few clues about Cox's death, however, can be found in his autopsy report, a public record. It states that he threatened to commit suicide by overdosing on medication "but collapsed while being arrested."

"While being restrained, and after being handcuffed, he suddenly became unresponsive," the report says. The autopsy found two types of antidepressants in his blood and noted that he had a "history of psychosis."

The state medical examiner ruled that he died because his heart began beating out of control while struggling with police.

The autopsy report did not explain the strange marks between his fingers or on his thumb, or the bruises on his wrists. Nor did it say who had arrested Cox.

That answer is revealed in an unlikely place: the Baltimore offices of the Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission.

The agency's records show that a Prince George's police officer applied for disability benefits for "emotional" problems after he "attempted to restrain [a] violent, mentally ill male" who died Nov. 6, 1997 -- the date of Cox's death.

The police officer also listed the location of the incident as the 3700 block of Edmond Way -- where Cox's mother lives.

The officer's name: Lt. Joseph E. Cox -- the brother of the dead man.

That morning, Joseph Cox received a call from his mother, Alice Cox, asking him to come to her house in Bowie and take his brother to a psychiatric hospital. According to their mother, Thomas Cox suffered from an unspecified mental illness and had "lost it" that morning.

Thomas Cox did not go willingly when his brother showed up, Alice Cox said. A second officer who lived in the neighborhood was summoned to the home, she said.

The officers "had to restrain him to keep him from getting in his car," she said. "While sitting on the ground, he had his heart attack and died."

Alice Cox said that her son was not handcuffed at the time and that police did not use excessive force. "Neither one of them put up any fight," she said.

The ordeal, she said, was traumatic for all involved. She said that "big shots" from Farrell's staff investigated the case and that Farrell "put my son through holy hell," though he was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing.

Joseph Cox did not respond to letters and phone calls seeking comment.

Records show that he was one of five officers involved in a fatal shooting one year before his brother's death. In that case, police shot and killed Julie Marie Meade, a 16-year-old Laurel girl suffering from panic attacks, after she waved a pellet gun at the officers.

Joseph Cox sought disability benefits after the shooting, citing emotional difficulties. He was under the care of a psychiatrist at the time of his brother's death, according to Workers' Compensation Commission files.

Blamed on an Overdose

On April 26, 1999, Charles Ivy Huddleston Jr. was standing in line at a McDonald's restaurant across from Andrews Air Force Base about 9:15 p.m. when several officers tried to arrest him.

A half-hour before, about seven miles away, a carjacker had pointed a handgun at the head of the driver of a Jeep Cherokee who had stopped at an Amoco station in Suitland for a soda and a fill-up. Without speaking a word, the gunman had fired four shots, grabbed the keys and sped off, running over the victim's legs in the process.

Police said Huddleston, 27, had been driving the stolen Jeep when they spotted him in the McDonald's. They said he jumped out of line, hopped back in the Jeep and sideswiped several cars as he tried to flee.

A few blocks away, on Allentown Road, he struck a curb, bailed out and ran, police said. Four officers tackled him.

According to a news release issued by police, Huddleston suffered "superficial injuries," including a minor bump on the head. In keeping with standard procedure for treating injured suspects, the officers called an ambulance to take him to Southern Maryland Hospital Center.

When Huddleston arrived about 30 minutes later, police and paramedics had shackled him -- facedown -- to a stretcher and wrapped a sheet around his bleeding head.

The emergency room staff said he was jerking his body and spewing obscenities. Doctors and medics spent 35 minutes trying to treat him, until he went limp and died.

Police said Huddleston's heart gave out, and they put the blame on drugs. "The suspect appeared to be under some type of intoxicant," the news release stated, adding that he had been "acting in a bizarre manner." Probably PCP or cocaine, a spokesman said.

Four months later, 11 officers who were involved in Huddleston's arrest were cleared by the department. Police officials reiterated that his death was related to a drug overdose.

But an autopsy found no drugs or alcohol in his blood, save for a sedative injected by hospital personnel.

"When they said he was high, I knew better. I knew damn well he wasn't on drugs," said Bonnie Zephrine, Huddleston's mother. "Nothing adds up about this. It smells. It stinks."

The autopsy did find several ugly injuries: a bleeding, swollen eye socket; deep contusions to his forehead, scalp and nose; abrasions and cuts on his wrists and ankles, where the handcuffs and leg restraints had been.

Police denied causing the injuries. Officers told emergency room nurses that Huddleston had fallen while running from them and struck his face on a street curb, hospital records show.

Royce D. Holloway, a police spokesman, said at the time that officers did not restrain Huddleston in the hospital and that he was not in their custody when he died.

But hospital records show that Prince George's officers did help to restrain Huddleston in the emergency room.

The documents also state that police and hospital staff members put a mattress on his head -- while his legs and arms were shackled to a gurney -- and lay on top of him.

The state medical examiner ruled that Huddleston's heart failed while he was being restrained, in part because of an "anomalous" coronary artery. The injuries by themselves were not lethal, according to the autopsy report.

A pathologist hired as an expert witness by Huddleston's family came to a different conclusion.

Michael Baden, a former deputy New York City medical examiner, examined tissue slides from the autopsy and found blood in Huddleston's lungs. He wrote that Huddleston died while being restrained because he was unable to breathe. Baden found that the injuries also contributed to Huddleston's death.

"He was choking because he couldn't breathe," said David L. Shurtz, an Arlington attorney for Huddleston's mother. "It was clear that he was fighting for his life."

Seven months before Huddleston's death, police officials had singled him out for a different reason. They invited him to headquarters so they could present him with a special citation for saving the life of a police officer who had been trapped in a burning car.

During the ceremony, Chief Farrell put his arm around Huddleston, posed for a photograph and proclaimed the Oxon Hill man a hero and a friend of the county police.

Contradictory Accounts

Elmer Newman's body was battered and broken as he lay dying on the cement floor of a police holding cell Sept. 22, 1999.

He was barefoot and handcuffed. His clothes were soaked from the rain. Officers stood around, laughing, as they watched him struggle to breathe, according to one witness.

The autopsy report indicates that two of Newman's ribs were fractured, as were two bones in his neck. Muscles in his neck and chest were hemorrhaging. He had been beaten repeatedly on his back.

After his arrest two hours earlier, an officer blinded him with pepper spray. Then someone squeezed his throat so hard that the whites of Newman's eyeballs filled with blood, according to the autopsy report.

By the time police decided that Newman needed medical attention, it was too late. He died in the back of an ambulance before it could leave the parking lot of the police station in Oxon Hill.

Afterward, police officials depicted Newman, 29, as a crack addict who had violently resisted arrest and injured himself. They said officers weren't to blame for his death but promised a swift investigation.

"We don't have anything to indicate there was anything done that was improper," said Holloway, the department spokesman.

Internal affairs detectives waited more than six months to question the five officers who arrested Newman at his apartment in Suitland.

No one could provide an explanation for Newman's injuries, according to confidential transcripts of the interrogations that were obtained by The Post.

Sgt. Chris Cotillo, of the internal affairs division, asked each officer the same questions: Did you strike Newman? Did you squeeze his neck? Did you see anyone else do so?

"No," said Officer Edward S. Finn, the first officer on the scene, repeating his answer more than a dozen times.

"No," said Cpl. Stacy Hampton.

"No," said Cpl. Carl Copeland.

"No," said Cpl. Fred Brockington, the officer in charge.

The fifth officer, Jason C. Johnson, was the only one to admit hitting Newman. He said he struck Newman "three or four times" on the knees with his nightstick. "It's the first time I ever had to hit somebody," he said.

The officers' stories contained several contradictions.

For example, police couldn't agree on why they arrested Newman in the first place.

"For assault," Finn told the investigator, explaining that Newman had tried to punch Copeland.

Not so, said Copeland, who had trouble pinpointing what Newman had done wrong.

"I'm not sure exactly what he was being arrested for," he said. "What I can assume or guess is for hindering, maybe hindering, resisting."

There were also conflicting accounts of whether Newman was armed.

At the time of his death, police officials said Newman was not carrying any weapons. But several months later, during his interrogation, Finn said that Newman was clutching a steak knife and that he ordered him to drop it.

Johnson, who was standing next to Finn in the apartment, said that was news to him.

"You don't recall anything about a weapon or him saying drop, drop the knife?" the investigator asked.

"I don't remember the word knife being used," Johnson replied. "I heard no specific mention of weapons."

According to department regulations, police are supposed to take suspects to the hospital immediately if they become injured, appear high on drugs or "exhibit bizarre behavior."

Police said Newman was sweating heavily, speaking gibberish and immune to pain. They also described him as "discombobulated" and "bizarre" and "agitated."

But the officers said it never occurred to them that he might need medical attention.

"I had no reason to transport Mr. Newman to the hospital," said Finn, who drove him to the station house instead. "He hadn't complained of any injuries. We did not inflict any injuries on him. He didn't show any signs of anything."

The state medical examiner ruled Newman's death a homicide. The official cause was listed as heart failure, brought on by "cocaine intoxication and multiple neck and chest injuries related to restraint during police custody."

Finn declined to comment. The other officers did not respond to phone calls and written requests for interviews.

A county grand jury investigated Newman's death and concluded that the police had used excessive force. But the grand jury was unable to indict anyone because it couldn't determine which officers had injured Newman's neck, said Johnson, the state's attorney.

Newman's family is suing the police and Prince George's County in federal court for wrongful death and civil rights violations. The lawsuit accuses the officers of beating and choking Newman, as well as waiting too long to get him medical help.

In May, a federal judge dismissed parts of the case in a pretrial hearing but allowed claims to proceed against Finn, Brockington and Johnson.

In November, after an investigation that lasted 13 months, the police department announced that the officers involved in Newman's arrest had been cleared of all wrongdoing and would not be disciplined.

Police officials have not amended their explanation for Newman's injuries. They said he hurt himself by banging his head against the bars and floor of his cell.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company