Kathy Pearson called Prince George's police because her unemployed husband, despondent and brooding, had smoked so much of the drug PCP that it seemed he had lost his senses. The small, frightened woman left their apartment and got into a car with her relatives, carrying her 4-month-old baby, but her husband followed them in the couple's 1974 Chevy.
Two Prince George's police officers, responding to the call for help, spotted the cars on Pennsylvania Avenue near Silver Hill Road and pulled them over. Accounts differ as to what happened next on that night in February, but there is no dispute about the final result.
Curtis Robert Pearson, 28, died. A state medical examiner ruled Pearson's death a homicide, the result of injuries suffered during a struggle in which police officers used nightsticks to subdue the drugged man. Pearson died March 24 after lingering in Prince George's General Hospital for four weeks.
An initial investigation after the death, completed in two days by the police department's internal affairs division, cleared the arresting officers of wrongdoing and allowed them to return to duty after their 48-hour leave. A second, more extensive investigation has been conducted by the homicide division and is being sent to county prosecutors this week for review.
Police Chief John E. McHale said that the officers--Joseph M. Reading and Thomas E. Murphy--had to use what proved to be fatal force because the 5-foot-9, 145-pound Pearson "was so violent and uncontrollable" under the influence of PCP, or "angel dust," that "nothing less would suffice." Reading and Murphy would not comment on their actions.
But according to Kathy Pearson, who watched the arrest on the night of Feb. 22 with her two sisters and her brother-in-law, her husband's beating was unnecessary and deliberate.
"He didn't have a chance to do anything," said Pearson, a secretary in the Justice Department. "They were just beating him like he wasn't anybody . . . like he was a dog." Pearson has hired attorneys to prepare a multimillion-dollar suit against the officers and the county.
County police regulations say that "reasonable" force may be used by officers when "reasonable" alternatives will not work. Use of nightsticks is authorized "to repel force or the threat of force that could cause injury when the use of less force is impractical or unsafe."
Capt. Charles Wolfe, in charge of police training, said that there are no special procedures for arresting drugged suspects, despite the fact that incidents involving drug users, and PCP in particular, have been increasing. In the case of PCP, users have been reported to display unusual strength and not to feel pain.
Wolfe conceded that the rules on use of force were vague, but necessarily so.
"You have to depend on the officers' training, judgment and experience," he said.
But Kathy Pearson said she has lost faith in the judgment of law officers.
Pearson, 25, said the couple's problems began when Curtis was laid off from a job with the District of Columbia government in February 1981.
Once outgoing and fond of playing with neighborhood children, he became depressed and a regular marijuana and angel dust smoker, according to his wife.
"He'd look for a job but couldn't find one. I tried to be as helpful as I could. But he wasn't himself after a while."
On the night of the beating, she and her husband were arguing over the car keys and who should leave their garden apartment. She called police and according to a police spokesman, officers Reading and Murphy responded. They advised her that she would have to swear out a warrant if she wanted her husband removed. They left and Pearson noted that her husband had ordered one of the officers out of the apartment.
Shortly afterward, two of her sisters and a brother-in-law, Harvey David Porter, arrived from Southeast Washington and took the woman and child away with them. Porter spotted one of the police officers on Pennsylvania Avenue and told him that Pearson, who did not have a driver's license, was following them.
Police pulled both cars over and, according to their report, Pearson and his brother-in-law began to fight.
"Reading and myself attempted to separate the two. At this time the defendant began striking and kicking Pfc. Reading on various points of the body," Murphy wrote in his statement of charges against Pearson.
"Mr. Porter began to yell, 'Don't hit him; he's on drugs,' and grabbed one of the officer's arms," said police spokesman Robert Law. Porter, who could not be reached for comment, was later arrested and charged with interfering with an arrest. He was released without bond.
The officers called for backup help and at least three other officers arrived. But, according to police spokesman Ron Smith, only Murphy and Reading "subdued" Pearson.
Kathy Pearson said there was no fight on the side of the road that night. Her husband was simply beaten, she said.
"I don't think he knew what was going on," she said, noting that he was silent during the struggle.
Medical examiner Dr. Virginia Dolan said Pearson was "obstreperous and argumentative" when he arrived at the hospital, but went into shock one hour later.
His lungs and kidneys failed and he had blood-clotting problems, Dolan said. Emergency surgery to repair a hole in his abdomen succeeded, but Pearson never recovered from his other injuries.
Kathy Pearson still asks why her husband died.
"If they had to take some action, I'm sure they have a way to hold a person," she said plaintively. "Is that the only way they know how to control a person, to beat them to death?"