Stabbed, beaten, burned & zapped
Justice can be slow
Aug 6, 2013 at 9:12 AM
That’s what it took for the family of Carlton Benton to obtain some sort of justice after his 2004 death at the hands of police.
The 25-year-old Toledo man died at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center on June 1, 2004, after he was strangled by a deputy’s sleeper hold at the Lucas County jail.
James Telb was the county sheriff.
Lucas County deputy coroner Cynthia Beisser’s initial report said Benton died of a seizure disorder in association with the use of an antidepressant drug.
It wasn’t until March 2010 — more than six years later — before Beisser finally changed the cause of death from natural causes to homicide. A federal investigation forced her to make the change.
Beisser’s examinations in Benton’s death and other cases raise questions about her findings, even when she declares a death a homicide.
She declined to respond to questions or comment.
The decision change Benton’s death certificate happened after federal prosecutors indicted Sheriff Telb and three jailers, charging them with deprivation of rights under color of law, falsification of a document, aiding and abetting, and making false statements.
Telb and one deputy were eventually acquitted of charges, but two others were convicted of falsifying reports, according to court records. Another was convicted of a civil rights violation. One deputy remains in prison until October.
Follow the links to read all four parts:
Autopsy by design
Craig Burdine, sudden death and its causes
Gregory Montgomery, death by suicide despite objections
Deputy coroner's deadly details and difficult questions
Click here for a photo gallery with more information about the people involved and impacted by the investigations into the killing of Jacob Limberios.
A civil lawsuit Benton’s family filed against the four defendants is pending in federal court.
What happened to the Benton family is not an isolated incident. Other reports from the deputy coroner have led to similar difficult outcomes for others left dissatisfied with the official findings in their sons’ deaths.
Craig Burdine died Aug. 11, 2007 at age 37, after an arrest and altercation with Sandusky County deputies and Fremont police at the county jail.
Last week, Jess Burdine, Craig’s father, met with Sandusky County prosecutor Tom Stierwalt hoping to convince him to contact Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and ask DeWine to open a criminal investigation.
Surprisingly, Stierwalt agreed, Jess said.
Stierwalt did not return multiple calls seeking comment for this story.
Jess and his wife, Mardella Burdine, have refused to accept the Beisser’s ruling in their son’s death for the last six years.
A lawsuit they filed against Sandusky County deputies and Fremont police was dismissed earlier this year on appeal, a move Jess attributes to misfiled and missing paperwork that federal Judge James Carr may not have had when he decided to close the case.
Beisser said Craig’s death was caused by drug-induced excited delirium — the same cause attorneys questioned Beisser about in Benton’s 2004 death, according to reports from the Toledo Blade.
If the civil case had gone to trial in federal court, Dr. Michael Baden was ready to testify that Craig died of entirely different causes, Jess said.
The cartilage in Craig’s neck was fractured and he died of asphyxia during an altercation with Fremont police and Sandusky County jailers after he was arrested and taken in for booking.
The Burdine family questions Beisser’s conclusions and the role of coroners.
“We firmly believe she was the key in upsetting the applecart,” Jess said. “‘The coroner said, the coroner said, the coroner said, the coroner said.’ That was it.
“They carry huge power,” he said. “And what if they abuse that power?”
Testimony Baden, of New York — an expert the Burdines obtained for their civil lawsuit — shows Baden directly contradicting Beisser’s findings.
The levels of methamphetamine and alcohol in Craig’s blood would not have caused his death. Rather, his fractured thyroid, bruising on the left side of his neck, and the fact that he turned purple and blue moments before his death, show he died from lack of oxygen.
Officers testified during depositions that they used a Taser three times on Craig the night of his death, in an attempt to subdue him at the jail.
Jacob Limberios died at age 19, after he was shot once in the head in a York Township home on March 2, 2012.
The Limberios’ family has questioned Beisser’s findings in the case, as they directly conflict with those of Dr. Cyril Wecht, a private forensic pathologist and attorney who examined Jacob’s body and determined he could not have shot himself.
There was no stippling, or gunpowder burns, around the entrance would on Jacob’s head. If he was shot at close-range, there would be stippling, a burn at the entrance wound caused by the firepower of a weapon.
Sandusky County coroner John Wukie ruled Jacob’s death an accidental suicide on the same night of his death. Wukie never visited the crime scene.
Unsatisfied with Wukie’s ruling, and frustrated by Sandusky County officials who refused for months to open an investigation, the Limberios family and their attorney, Dan McGookey, filed a lawsuit to get the cause of death ruling changed.
Wecht performed his autopsy and, 14 months later, Beisser performed a second autopsy, only after Sandusky County officials finally agreed to open an investigation.
In Jacob’s autopsy report, Beisser stated her findings were “not inconsistent” with Wukie’s ruling that Jacob accidentally killed himself.
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office has since taken over the criminal probe into Jacob’s death, and visiting Judge Dale Crawford has been assigned to oversee the accompanying lawsuit.
As one of three deputy coroners in an office that contracts with about 20 Ohio counties, Beisser, 52, performs about 300 autopsies a year, Lucas County coroner James Patrick said.
Patrick has been elected Lucas County coroner for more than 25 years, and Beisser has been on his payroll for 22 years. She is also an associate professor of pathology at the University of Toledo Health Sciences Campus.
Her personnel file at the coroner’s office, Patrick said, contains no disciplinary records, but no annual evaluations, either.
“Absolutely not,” he said.
Born in Missouri, Beisser earned a bachelor’s of science degree from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., in biology and history in 1982. She earned her medical degree in 1986 from the University of Tennessee, then worked in Wisconsin and Florida before moving to Toledo.
Beisser issued rulings in at least two other police-related deaths that grabbed headlines.
In one case, she ruled the cause of death homicide; in another, undetermined. But the autopsy reports listed other causes — rather than just police-inflicted trauma — as contributing factors in the deaths.
In 2004, Michael Strain, 50, died in a Waterville nursing home, six months after a run-in with police outside a Toledo baseball game. In the altercation he broke his neck, which left him quadriplegic.
In this case, Beisser found the manner of death undetermined, and the cause related to multiple medical complications, including Reiter’s Syndrome, acute alcohol intoxication and the altercation with police.
In 2005, Jeffrey Turner, 41, of Toledo, died after receiving four Taser shocks in the Lucas County jail. This excludes the five other Taser shocks he suffered before his arrest, when he wouldn’t comply with police orders during a suspicious person call.
Beisser ruled Turner’s manner of death homicide, and the cause as hypertensive heart disease.
Both families later filed lawsuits against police. The Strain case was settled in federal court before going to trial, while the Turners was dismissed at the county level.
The day Craig Burdine died, he also suffered multiple Taser shocks at the Sandusky County jail before he was taken to the hospital for treatment. Autopsy photos show a severely injured body, with some of the injuries sustained before he was arrested and others sustained during or after his arrest and booking into the county jail.
His death, however, was not ruled a homicide by Beisser, despite the fractured cartilage in his neck, bruising on his neck, and another expert’s conflicting opinion.
In another case — that of Gregory Montogmery, whose body was found in August 2012 in a Sandusky County field, a knife buried hilt-deep in his chest — Beisser’s report determined the cause of death was suicide.
The report offered no explanation for how she reached the determination in the death of a 49-year-old man who, shortly before his death, sent text messages saying someone was trying to kill him.
When Beisser issued her report in the Jacob Limberios case, in a letter addressed to Wukie, she said her findings were “not inconsistent” with Wukie’s ruling.
“The manner of death, as you know, has to do with the circumstances surrounding the death,” her ruling stated. “It is not determined at the autopsy table, but by investigation of the scene and putting together all of the available information concerning the death.