An Ambridge man says a borough police officer beat him in a holding cell and jammed a gun into his mouth last year, then other officers tried to cover up the assault.
Claiming civil rights violations, David A. Baker, 41, of 614 Melrose Ave. has sued the borough, Police Chief Mark Romutis, officers Richard Heitzenrater, Robert Kuzma Jr. and Michael Slawianowski, and former Borough Manager Kristen Denne.
Heitzenrater and Kuzma are already facing federal criminal charges related to the incident.
According to Beaver County court records, Slawianowski arrested Baker around 4 p.m. Feb. 20, 2009, at 10th Street and Glenwood Avenue after an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old reported that Baker had urinated on a sidewalk across the street from them.
The children reported the incident to a parent; one of the children is a grandchild of Heitzenrater.
Slawianowski said Baker was drunk, disheveled and apparently had soiled himself. Once at the borough police station, Baker refused to get out of the police car, and “officers then grabbed Baker by his jacket and pulled him from the back seat of the patrol car. Once outside the car, Baker fell directly to the ground and refused to stand up.”
Slawianowski also said, “Officers then drug Baker by his jacket into the police garage and then inside the police station,” where he was searched and put in a holding cell.
According to the federal lawsuit, written by Pittsburgh attorney Tony J. Thompson, Slawianowski and Kuzma told Heitzenrater, who had been off-duty, of Baker’s arrest, and he went to the police station. There, according to the suit, Heitzenrater entered the holding cell and hit and kneed Baker in the head and body.
Heitzenrater also “assaulted and terrorized (Baker) by placing the barrel of a firearm into his mouth, thereby threatening him with grave bodily harm and death,” Thompson said.
The lawsuit also alleges that other borough employees didn’t stop the assault and then “conspired to destroy physical evidence capturing the incident, and/or falsified written reports regarding the incident.”
Thompson said Kuzma and Slawianowski allowed Heitzenrater to enter the cell and Heitzenrater and Kuzma, who also had been off-duty, destroyed surveillance video showing the attack.
Thompson also said that “Heitzenrater and other officers of the Ambridge Police Department have a history of acting erratically, violently and with excessive force, and in abusing their authority as police officers.” The borough has been sued by others in the past, accusing officers of violating their civil rights.
Thompson said in the suit that Romutis and Denne “knew or should have known that (Heitzenrater) was not fit to be a sergeant of the Ambridge police.”
Baker suffered severe head injuries and continues to suffer after-effects from the attack, according to the lawsuit.
In November, Baker pleaded no contest to single counts of open lewdness and disorderly conduct and was sentenced to one year’s probation in Beaver County Court. Baker could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Last year, his attorney on those charges, Gerald Benyo, said Baker was in an alcohol rehabilitation program. He added that Baker had about $30,000 in unpaid medical bills related to the beating.
In August, the U.S. attorney’s office charged Heitzenrater and Kuzma with obstruction of an official proceeding and conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding. Heitzenrater was also charged with deprivation of civil rights, while Kuzma additionally was charged with accessory after the fact.
The allegations in the criminal case are similar to the lawsuit, with Heitzenrater accused of beating Baker, and then he and Kuzma working the next day to destroy surveillance footage.
Heitzenrater retired from the Ambridge force last spring. Kuzma, with the rank of lieutenant, was suspended without pay, but collected unemployment from the borough.
Slawianowski has left Ambridge and now works as a Leetsdale police officer. Denne resigned as borough manager in January and now works in Johnstown.
Heitzenrater’s attorney, James Ross of Ambridge, said Wednesday he was moving forward with the criminal case “and we have a defense to it,” but would not comment further.
Kuzma’s attorney, Mark Lancaster of Pittsburgh, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Romutis wasn’t available for comment Wednesday.