There is little in the 400 pages of evidence a judge released last week to indicate why 42-year-old Gregory Rachel died during an encounter with the Mobile Police Department nearly three years ago. But the material, part of a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and individual defendants pending in U.S. District Court, does present an argument suggesting how it happened.
The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences concluded Rachel succumbed on May 1, 2012 to “excited delirium,” a spontaneous, medically dubious condition increasingly cited in the deaths of subjects in police custody. While his autopsy documented dozens of contusions and abrasions received at the hands of police officers and also found tertiary evidence of “hypertensive cardiovascular disease,” Rachel’s manner of death was ruled a homicide.
The evidentiary material, excerpts from an investigation spawning thousands of pages, was released in response to a joint motion for summary judgment from the defendants, which is expected to be taken under consideration by the end of the month. Rachel’s widow Amy, who originally filed the lawsuit in November 2013, is seeking a jury trial for unspecified damages on three counts of federal civil rights violations and a state charge of negligence.The MPD has spoken little about the case since issuing a press release acknowledging the death a few hours after Rachel expired. According to its initial account, the MPD responded to a domestic complaint on Estate Drive at approximately 3 that morning.
Officers located an injured victim, Amy Rachel, in a neighbor’s house. She reported to the officers that her husband was in their house across the street and had been displaying “delusional behavior” during the assault.
The account continues to explain how the officers approached the residence and located Mr. Rachel in the front yard: “After receiving several commands from the officers, Mr. Rachel began to actively resist the officers’ efforts to place him in custody for domestic violence. During the physical confrontation, Mr. Rachel was tased with little or no effect and had to be physically restrained. Soon after the physical confrontation, Mr. Rachel began to show signs of medical distress. Mobile Fire-Rescue responded and transported Mr. Rachel to Providence Hospital where he died.”
But the complaint, which was amended in last month to remove former Police Chief Micheal Williams as a defendant, claims “at no time did Gregory Rachel offer resistance to the police officers.” Instead, it suggests Rachel fell to the ground after being tased, and when he began to pull off the electrified probes, the two responding officers, Christopher McCann and John Jackson, “began to kick and stomp” Rachel, while also using their batons “to physically beat” him.
Two other officers arrived on scene and the complaint claims that after Rachel was both handcuffed and shackled — “hogtied” as Officer McCann described it in deposition — “one or two of the officers were observed sitting on his back.”
It wasn’t until several minutes later, as the officers prepared to lift Rachel and place him in the back of a patrol car, did they notice he was nonresponsive.
‘IT GOT PRETTY BRUTAL’
The complaint appears to be corroborated in part or whole by at least three eyewitnesses, one of whom was an EMT who lived in the neighborhood and performed chest compressions on Rachel before an ambulance arrived.
“I thought the officers looked worried,” paramedic Patrick Phillips wrote to the court, explaining how he heard the commotion as he was preparing to leave his own house for a 5 a.m. shift at work. “I told the officers I thought Rachel was dead, but started compressions, which I continued until the Mobile County EMTs arrived on scene.”
While Phillips appears to have known Rachel, declaring he recognized his neighbor when he looked outside and saw him in a confrontation with police, he did not witness the entirety of the encounter. His wife Nicole however, kept on eye on the action while her husband got dressed.
In her own declaration, Nicole Phillips said she “saw Greg Rachel in the ditch in front of his house. Two Mobile Police Department officers were sitting on top of him and I thought they looked exhausted … I honestly believe that the police officers were really agitated from resisting and I think that they were being aggressive. The police officers looked worn out and appeared to be agitated.”
Similarly, neighbor Kristie Adams, who responded to Amy Rachel pounding on her window around 3 a.m. and made the 911 call that summoned police, also believed it was “too much force.” In a statement provided hours after the incident, Adams told investigators she “saw the whole thing from beginning to end.”
“[Police] went over there, [Gregory Rachel] came running down the driveway with his hands up screaming something crazy about Obama or something. Anyway, they hit him four times with a taser,” she said.
An investigator asked Adams if she heard the responding officers give any commands, but she indicated the physical confrontation unfolded swiftly.
“… Next thing, and that’s a big ol’ boy, I mean, they had a hard time. So the other two (police) came up and they had [Rachel] in the ditch and it got rough, it got real rough. They couldn’t subdue him or whatever and they took their baton …”
The investigator stopped to ask if Rachel was fighting with the officers, and Adams’ answer appears to begin with speculation about the effects of the taser.
“… I don’t know if he took them out or what but he was just freaking out. He didn’t look like he was fighting to me, the best that I could tell,” she concluded.
Investigators asked Adams what Rachel was doing with his hands, but she responded by telling them how he was saying he didn’t want to go to jail. Then they asked whether he was on the ground at that point or standing up.
“He was standing up, then they [tased] him, he was on the ground and he was in that ditch … they couldn’t get him to go down on his stomach, so they took the baton and whipped him on that and there was some kicking going on. It got pretty brutal, you know it really did, that I mean I understand he was under, not under control. They got the shackles and that neighbor came out, they thought he was passed out and they had him on concrete, just laying on his stomach and they thought he was incapacitated, you know, just passed out.”
The investigator wanted to know how long Rachel was in the ditch, at which point, Adams remembered that she had forgotten one detail:
“Two officers were standing there and one of them was sitting on [Rachel’s] back … straddling him.”
After another round of questions, Adams said the officer “stayed” on Rachel’s back “for a while.”
“I think he may have been at that time maybe incapacitated or something you know just from kicking and all that wrestling around,” she said. “‘Cause he sat on him for I don’t know, a few minutes, and then they got him and put him on his stomach and then on his back.”
The detective asked Adams to clarify “a few minutes.”
“Give or take, a good five minutes I would imagine. And [Rachel] wasn’t moving at the time,” she replied.
Detectives asked if Adams thought the officers did anything wrong.
“I think it was too much force, honestly I do,” she replied, noting that she was previously married to a cop. “I think it was a little obsessive you know? When you’re on somebody’s back and sitting for so long and they can’t breathe and I think it was a little excessive personally … the man was actin’ up but it wasn’t like he was … I think it was a little excessive.”
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