Four in-custody deaths go to grand jury

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine 

Grand jurors this week are investigating more than the death of a 39-year-old man who was shot in the back by Omaha police.

While Danny Elrod’s Feb. 23 death is expected to take up most of the grand jurors’ time, two other can’t-believe-your-eyes cases are also scheduled to be reviewed. In those cases, two 32-year-old men died after acting out while under the influence of wet — marijuana laced with PCP.

Under the direction of Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, the grand jury will review:

» The Aug. 27 shooting deaths of Cortez Washington and Bryce Dion. The deaths occurred while Dion, a sound engineer, was trailing Omaha police for the “Cops” television show. Washington was robbing a Wendy’s at 4308 Dodge St. when Omaha police arrived.

Washington pointed a gun — later found to be a pellet gun — directly at officers and fired. Omaha Police Officers Darren Cunningham, Brooks Riley and Jason Wilhelm fired back more than 30 times, killing Washington and inadvertently killing Dion, who was struck while in an east doorway into the restaurant.

Washington, 32, died of multiple shots to the torso, according to an autopsy. The autopsy found high levels of phencyclidine (PCP) in his system, as well as marijuana and alcohol.

» The Oct. 7 death of Michael Harris. Harris, 32, died at Immanuel Medical Center a couple of weeks after a bizarre outburst at a liquor store. He was taken to the hospital after police were called to Sugar Hill Liquor at 5627 Ames Ave. by workers who say Harris attempted to assault another customer with a bottle.

The employees told officers that Harris entered the store about 11 p.m., raised a bottle and seemed ready to smash it into the head of a customer. Employees intervened.

Harris, who was 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, then pushed an employee through the glass door of a large refrigerator. Another employee was bitten on the arm during the struggle.

Police arrived and placed Harris in handcuffs and leg restraints in the back of a cruiser. Harris broke a dome light and began eating the plastic — as well as “pieces of the headliner which he had pulled down and the wiring behind it,” a police report said.

“At one point he began chewing on his hands, causing severe lacerations,” the report said. “He also pulled out three of his own teeth and possibly ate one of his socks.”

Harris was “extremely uncooperative”; police and paramedics were unable to treat him.

An autopsy determined that Harris died of “excited delirium” caused by schizophrenia and his ingestion of PCP and marijuana. His delirious state also was “associated with physical and chemical restraint by law enforcement and medical personnel,” according to a report.

Those cases will come on top of the scrutiny of Elrod’s death. Omaha police tracked down Elrod after he robbed a Family Dollar store on South 13th Street. Officers repeatedly told Elrod to show his hands and get on the ground. He refused.

Elrod — who was later determined to be unarmed — reportedly reached into his waistband several times. Officer Alvin Lugod warned him he was “going to get shot.”

Elrod hollered at officers: “Shoot me? Shoot me? For what?” After 98 seconds, Elrod turned his back and grabbed a fence. Lugod shot Elrod twice in the back.

Grand jurors must decide whether Elrod was an imminent threat to Lugod or other officers at the scene.

Two other cases being probed by the grand jury involve the deaths of inmates.

Robert Price, 62, died of complications of cancer on Nov. 18.

Joseph Losteiner, 43, died of methamphetamine toxicity shortly after arriving at the Douglas County Jail on Oct. 31.

Grand jurors began meeting Monday afternoon. Deliberations are expected to take most of the week. This grand jury will not review the circumstances of the death of Tiffany Terry, 39, who was shot to death after throwing a knife at an Omaha police officer.

Kleine said autopsy results were not completed in time to include Terry’s death in this grand-jury probe.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1275, todd.cooper@owh.com

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