Jailed man's death probed

Holding of suspect who drank poison at focus of hearing

Officer's conduct at issue

October 31, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

A Washington police officer testified yesterday at a trial board hearing that he told Anne Arundel police that a drunken-driving suspect - who later died in police custody - might have drunk antifreeze.

Philip A. Montgomery died on the floor of a Southern District cell, more than six hours after he was arrested by Officer Charles R. Atwell II on drunken-driving charges.

Whether Atwell heard the District of Columbia officer and didn't call for medical help is central to department charges lodged against the 14-year veteran of the force.

The county Police Department convened the trial board to determine whether Atwell followed proper procedure in arresting the 20-year-old Calvert County man, who later died of antifreeze poisoning, and whether Atwell acted properly in the aftermath of the Dec. 15 incident.

Key testimony during the eight-hour hearing came from Washington police Officer Christopher S. Huxoll, a vice investigator who was off duty when he spotted Montgomery driving erratically on Route 4 in Lothian. Huxoll stopped Montgomery after the latter had swerved into a guard rail.

Huxoll told the trial board he had asked Montgomery what he had been drinking and that Montgomery said he had drunk antifreeze. Huxoll said he relayed that information to Atwell, who responded to the scene.

None of the officers called for an ambulance or treated the case as a possible poisoning. Huxoll told the board he thought Montgomery was using a slang term for alcohol when he said he drank antifreeze. "It didn't cross my mind that he actually might have literally drank antifreeze - opened a gallon of Prestone and drank it," Huxoll said.

When police called Montgomery's mother to inform her of his arrest, she told them that her son had a history of mental illness.

Employees of the hotel where Montgomery spent his last two nights found an open container of antifreeze in his room.

Under cross examination, Huxoll said he could not be sure that Atwell had heard him - though Huxoll noted that Atwell didn't ask him to repeat anything as they stood by the highway.

Atwell is charged with 11 violations of department regulations, including failing to seek medical attention for an ill, injured or unconscious subject; failing to administer a blood-alcohol test when a breath test was not an option; holding an unconscious inmate in a cell.

In addition to Atwell, a sergeant and a lieutenant face departmental charges in Montgomery's death. All have been reassigned to administrative duties pending trial board hearings. Atwell's hearing is the first.

The officers could be fired if the board decides their actions warrant such punishment. The county state's attorney's office has declined to prosecute the officers.

In his opening statement, Sgt. Jeff Collins, who is acting as prosecutor, said, "No one was more culpable than Charles R. Atwell for what happened in this case."

Collins said that Atwell arrested Montgomery for driving while intoxicated even though Montgomery exhibited an "alarming number of signs and symptoms that he was in dire need of medical attention."

Atwell's lawyer, Mark Howes, a retired Anne Arundel County police officer, said the officers involved acted on the reasonable but mistaken assumption that Montgomery was drunk.

The hearing is expected to last several days.

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