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.
The chief said his department conducted a thorough investigation and the officers involved were placed on administrative leave until they were eventually cleared by his office to go back to work.
He also disagrees with Bessonette's claim that the next day she was taken to police headquarters and interrogated for 90 minutes by an officer who yelled at her to try and get her to change her story.
"I'm very disappointed," Burbank said Thursday after hearing that story for the first time, noting that his disappointment was with the story and not the actions of his officers. "I did not see any wrongdoing on the part of our officers or the department."
Sykes, however, is equally confident in his witness.
"Shame on the Salt Lake City Police Department for trying to intimidate a 78-year-old woman out of her testimony, trying to change her testimony, trying to change the facts. Shame on the Salt Lake City Police Department for trying to do that. That was despicable," he said. "I don't know why the officers would make that up at the scene, it goes against their interest. … But they said it twice."
Sykes believes that not only are people within the department lying, but they're hiding something because they have refused to release any police or autopsy reports to the family, arguing that the case is an "ongoing investigation."
"We believe that's an indication of mischief afoot here. They're trying to cover up something," Sykes said.
Powers, 23, said Bessonette had no reason to make up her story as she doesn't have any stake in what happened.
But Powers said he wasn't ready to call Salt Lake police "liars." The lawsuit, he said, was more about getting answers than placing blame.
"I'm not here to badmouth people. I'm here for justice, whatever that may be. That's what I want. I wake up every morning with an emptiness in my heart and in my stomach not knowing what happened," he said. "Nobody deserves to go through what my family's been going through. It's uncalled for, unnecessary. And all for what? Nobody's answering anything, no questions are being answered.
"I'll wake up every morning, not knowing what happened to my father."
As for police reports not being released, Powers said, "I think I have a right to know what happened."
Burbank said his office had not released any autopsy information as of Thursday in part because the state medical examiner was still waiting for toxicology tests to be completed.
The lawsuit names Salt Lake City, John and Jane Doe officers 1-10, police supervisors and Taser International Inc., the manufacturer of the Taser, claiming that the corporation has misrepresented the safety of using the device.
"Tasers are not supposed to be used as a tool of convenience," Sykes said.
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