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Statements don't match up

Register • Jun 2, 2014 at 6:25 AM

Fremont police chief Tim Wiersma and Sandusky County sheriff Kyle Overmyer both refuse to address apparent discrepancies and contradictory information provided by sheriff's detective Sean O'Connell about the death of Craig Burdine on Aug. 11, 2007.

The Ohio Attorney General's Office said its ongoing investigation — begun in August 2013 six years after Burdine died — is the only criminal investigation ever conducted. O'Connell recently insisted, however, that he headed up a “thorough” probe for the Fremont Police Department despite his earlier sworn testimony he wasn't concerned with how Burdine died.

“I didn't give it a thought,” O'Connell testified in a deposition in October 2010. “What happened out there in the jail between the jailers and Mr. Burdine that's between them. Let them do their investigation.”

Read O'Connell's deposition

O'Connell was a Fremont police detective at the time. His sworn statement in the deposition does not match his recent statements made to the Register, and to other local media.

“There was a very thorough investigation done by the Fremont Police Department,” O'Connell told the Register in early February.

According to a Feb. 21 news article, O'Connell also later told The Fremont News-Messenger he conducted a thorough investigation.

O'Connell told the News-Messenger he interviewed numerous people involved in Burdine's arrest prior to his death, as well as the jail guards and Fremont police officers who were involved.

During the deposition, however, he said he could not recall any specific interviews with them and instead said he relied on written statements provided to him from the officers and jail guards.

“We talked basically off the record,” O'Connell testified regarding the conversations he might have had with the guards and officers.

But he relied on written statements the sheriff's office had provided for the record, he said.

"I did not find the need to go back and conduct another interview on the officers involved when they've already completed a report that I felt was thorough and complete,” he testified.

The written statements from the officers and guards provided to O'Connell all matched up, with each man saying Burdine became combative before he died even though surveillance video from the jail does not reflect that.

In his deposition, O'Connell said he thought Overmyer, who was a sheriff's captain at that time, was conducting the criminal investigation and he was simply reviewing what happened to assure the Fremont police officers weren't culpable in Burdine's death.

“I was told there was an investigation that was going to be done on the sheriff's office behalf and I'm not sure there was,” O'Connell testified.

He also said he asked then sheriff David Gangwer for the jail surveillance videos that might show exactly what happened when Burdine died, but those videos were never provided and he wasn't sure why they weren't provided.

The sheriff's office hasn't responded to questions why surveillance video from a camera in the room where Burdine died was never provided. O'Connell suggested there is no camera in that room, but the Burdine family said they were told that particular camera was malfunctioning on that day.

Other surveillance video was provided, but appears to be damaged and lacks audio at key points when Burdine was dragged into the jail after arriving there in a Fremont police cruiser. Surveillance video that was provided does not show Burdine being combative, as the guards and police officers stated in their written statements.

In his deposition, O'Connell said he was convinced Burdine's death was “self-inflicted” and that the guards and the Fremont police officers were not responsible for Burdine's death, even though he also stated he was not attempting to make a determination how Burdine died.

Wiersma and Overmyer did not respond to questions about the apparent discrepancies in O'Connell's deposition and his recent statements. They both also declined to provide any information whether either agency has a policy or practice that allows apparent inaccurate information to be disseminated from their respective departments.

O'Connell also did not respond to questions about the apparent discrepancies.

Lucas County deputy coroner Cynthia Beisser determined Burdine suffered sudden death due to a condition called “excited delirium,” which is often used when a person dies while in police custody and almost never used for deaths that do not involve police contact.

Beisser did not conduct any independent review of what occurred but simply relied on the same written statements and other information police provided about the circumstances that led to Burdine's death.

Sandusky County Coroner John Wukie ruled Burdine's death an accident. Wukie also never conducted an independent investigation, and he has refused to say how he could make a ruling when no criminal investigation occurred.

Dr. Michael Baden, a well-known former New York medical examiner who currently serves as the New York State police agency's forensic pathologist, reviewed Beisser's autopsy and related reports. Baden determined Burdine was the victim of a homicide caused by the massive injuries he suffered, including fractured cartilage in his neck that caused him to suffocate.

Beisser made note of the injuries but did not find them to be the cause, or a contributing factor in Burdine's death.

Wukie also has refused to say whether he has reviewed the request from the Burdine family to have the autopsy corrected, or address any of the conflicting information and evidence the family has brought forward.

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