Injured man's pleas for help were ignored Drug suspect died in paddy wagon, prisoners say

March 07, 1992|By David Simon and Roger Twigg | David Simon and Roger Twigg,Staff Writers

Following a fight with a drug suspect on an East Baltimore corner, several arresting officers may have ignored the injured man's request for medical attention and left him in a paddy wagon driven by an officer who showed no concern -- even when it became apparent that the prisoner had lapsed into unconsciousness.

The fatally injured suspect, Robert E. Privett, 29, suffered four broken ribs and a ruptured spleen, all caused by blunt-force trauma, an autopsy has indicated. Mr. Privett's dentures were also found lodged in his throat. Medical examiners are still listing the cause of death as "pending" as they await more medical tests and investigative efforts by police.

A longtime drug user, Mr. Privett was pronounced dead in the rear of the Southeastern District lockup by paramedics about an hour after his arrest on a drug charge at East Fayette Street and North Linwood Avenue.

But interviews with several of the other prisoners in the paddy wagon indicate that during much of that wagon ride, Mr. Privett was lying unconscious in the rear of the wagon and received no medical attention -- even though the wagon driver was aware of his condition.

At least twice, the wagon operator, identified as Officer John W. Kuhl, opened the rear doors of the vehicle to usher more prisoners inside. Both times, Mr. Privett was in a prone position on one side of the wagon, other prisoners said.

On the first occasion -- at least 20 to 25 minutes before Mr. Privett was delivered to the district station -- prisoners said it was readily apparent to them that Officer Kuhl was aware that Mr. Privett had collapsed on the floor of the wagon.

"Don't step on him," the officer allegedly told the prisoners being loaded at a Fells Point arrest scene. "You'll get AIDS."

In fact, Mr. Privett, a drug user since the age of 12, had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome. During his arrest on Linwood Avenue, he had repeatedly stated this fact to arresting officers.

Two prisoners interviewed by The Sun said the wagon driver in no way mistreated Mr. Privett or any other occupants of the wagon. But one characterized his comments and behavior regarding Mr. Privett as uncaring and indifferent.

"I'm not one of these people that has [an animus] for police officers," said one prisoner, who was arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana and asked to remain anonymous for fear he would lose his job. "But that he could just let that guy lie there like that was just cold. It just wasn't right."

During the tour of the district in which the wagon made four stops after Mr. Privett's arrest, the other prisoners said they noticed that the victim was not breathing and that his color was ashen. But none said anything directly to Officer Kuhl, for fear that they might be beaten.

"I feel bad about it now," said one prisoner. "But he could see that the guy was just lying there every time he opened the door. I was afraid if I said anything or started banging on the window, that I'd be the next one on the floor."

Toward the end of the wagon run, when a last arrestee was loaded into the vehicle on East Fairmont Street, the new arrival asked the others what was wrong with Mr. Privett.

"He's dead," the new arrestee was told.

"I just thought they were kidding," that man said in a later interview. "I laughed a little, but looking at the guy, I'm not surprised it turned out to be true."

Only when the wagon was unloading did officers at the district notice that the man lying on the wagon floor had no pulse: "Hey, this guy is really dead," two prisoners heard one officer exclaim.

Paramedics were called, and Mr. Privett was pronounced dead a few minutes later.

The Southeastern District commander, Maj. Harry Koffenberger, did not return repeated phone calls yesterday. Efforts to contact Officer Kuhl, 53, who was on patrol yesterday afternoon and last night, were unsuccessful.

Sources close to the investigation say questions about the police response to Mr. Privett's medical emergency will probably be dealt with as a separate issue from the larger questions about what exactly killed the victim.

Homicide detectives and prosecutors from the violent crimes unit of the state's attorney's office are conducting a criminal investigation of the death to determine whether excessive force was used by the arresting officers.

Homicide detectives are refusing to comment on the probe, but a source close to the investigation said that questions about Mr. Privett's care while in police custody will probably be turned over to the Police Department for a separate internal investigation that could lead to administrative sanctions.

"It's fair to say that whatever happened or didn't happen in the wagon is less relevant to the investigation into the cause of death," the source said. "In terms of the death investigation, we're looking at what happened at the scene of arrest."

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