Family of man who died in custody sues Salt Lake police

Published: Thursday, Sept. 6 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

Eugene Nelson, left, and Kevin Nelson, family members of Allen Nelson, show their emotions during a news conference after attorneys filed a wrongful-death case against Salt Lake police for the death of Allen Nelson Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, in Salt Lake City. An eyewitness says she overheard police say they used a stun gun on the man, but Chief Chris Burbank said no Taser was deployed.

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against the Salt Lake City Police Department by the family of a man who died while in police custody.

Allen Keith Nelson, 44, died while in the process of being arrested on June 9.

But the stories being told by each side vastly differ about what happened that night. At the center of the controversy is whether officers used their Tasers on Nelson.

Nelson's family believes a Taser was deployed on Nelson's chest, causing him to go into cardiac arrest.

Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank, however, said that while his sympathy goes out to Nelson's family, he is confident a Taser was not used that night. Every Taser has a computerized system that records each time the weapon is used.

"Every time that trigger is pulled, it downloads to the computer as to whether or not it was (used), the length and extent it was used. We downloaded that information (from the officer's Taser that night), a Taser was not used," he said. "There was no indication otherwise of any use of force."

But Nelson's family claims otherwise in their civil lawsuit, which is based largely on the testimony of a woman who said she witnessed the event.

The incident happened about 3 a.m. near 717 S. Laconia Court (250 East). Nelson, who had just been released from the Salt Lake County Jail the day before for retail theft, was reportedly visiting an uncle at an apartment complex and left on a bicycle early in the morning.

About the same time, Burbank said his department received several calls of a disturbance in the area and officers were sent to investigate. They found evidence that someone had broken into a home and found Nelson's backpack inside, he said.

An officer spotted Nelson — who initially seemed "very agitated" — and after talking to him, placed him in handcuffs, Burbank said. "He went into custody without a big struggle."

But Darlene Bessonette, who lives in the same apartment where Nelson was visiting, said she saw police using excessive force.

"(Nelson) was crying and he was saying, 'Don't hit me anymore, don't hit me anymore. I didn't do it. I didn't do it,'" she said.

That's when Bessonette said she heard the officers talk about using their Tasers.

"I heard the officer say, 'I Tased him,' and the other one say, 'Oh my … he's not breathing.' And I'm thinking, 'Somebody do CPR, do CPR on him.' … I just stood there and watched and nothing happened,'" she said.

Sitting in the law office of attorney Robert Sykes, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Tyson Powers, Nelson's son, family members cried as they listed to Bessonette tell her story.

"It was like a nightmare to me. I'll never forget it. It scared me so bad," she said.

Bessonette admits she never actually saw a Taser, as she was too far away. But she is adamant, saying: "I know what I heard."

Burbank said it wasn't even a use of force situation because Nelson was compliant while he was being taken into custody. Only one officer was needed to put handcuffs on him, he said.

As the officer was about to put Nelson into a squad car, he said that's when officers first realized something wasn't right.

"In essence, they recognized he was not breathing. There was a lot of, 'Are you OK? Are you OK?'" Burbank said.

Paramedics responded immediately, Burbank said. But by the time they got there it was already too late.

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