Widow sues Arundel, police in husband's death

Man didn't get treatment after drinking antifreeze

December 13, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The widow of a young man who died in police custody after consuming antifreeze and not receiving medical treatment has filed a $231 million lawsuit that names Anne Arundel County, the police chief and seven other police officers as defendants.

Phillip A. Montgomery, 20, died of antifreeze poisoning in lockup at a police station in Edgewater on Dec. 15, 2000. The Calvert County resident, who suffered from schizophrenia, had been arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.

Anne Arundel County prosecutors never brought criminal charges in the case, but one officer was fired because officials said he violated the Police Department's operating procedures by not seeking medical attention for Montgomery.

Montgomery and his wife, Minina D. Craig, had been married less than nine months and were living separately at the time of his death. Craig, a Russian linguist with the Navy who now lives in Seaside, Calif., could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Craig's attorney, Angelo I. Castelli of Greenbelt, said police violated Montgomery's constitutional rights the night he died.

"Everyone's entitled to medical treatment if they become ill while in police custody," he said. "They just threw him in a cell."

Lt. Joseph Jordan, a spokesman with the Anne Arundel County Police Department, said he could not comment on pending litigation.

Andrew J. Murray, senior assistant county attorney, declined to comment yesterday, saying the county Office of Law had not seen the lawsuit.

The night he died, Montgomery's interaction with police began when his 1996 Geo Prism swerved off Route 4 in Lothian and hit a guardrail. He continued driving for about two miles, but a blown tire stopped the car.

An off-duty Washington police officer who had witnessed the accident stopped to see whether Montgomery needed help.

The officer, Christopher S. Huxoll, said he told Anne Arundel County detectives, who later arrived at the accident, that Montgomery said he had consumed antifreeze, according to court papers.

Montgomery, a former Navy linguist, had moved in with his mother in Lusby and apparently become suicidal, Castelli said.

County police officers, however, suspected he had been drinking vodka and orange juice, and arrested him. The officers had found an empty orange juice container in his car but no sign of alcohol.

It took two officers to prop up Montgomery as they walked him into the holding cell at the police station, according to the suit.

There, Montgomery fell asleep. He was found dead about five hours later, according to court papers.

Department regulations require that officers seek medical attention for any "ill, injured or unconscious person."

In spring 2001, the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office declined to pursue criminal charges against the officers connected to the case.

But O'Brien Atkinson, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, said, "The county laid the groundwork" for civil lawsuits against the police.

"They fought very hard to prove that the officers were responsible for [Montgomery's] death," he said.

A Police Department internal investigation culminated in December 2001 with the dismissal of Officer Charles R. Atwell, who had arrested Montgomery and placed him in the cell. Several of Atwell's supervisors were disciplined, and the booking officer on duty that night, James R. Wellman, resigned, according to the police union.

Atwell and Wellman are among seven police employees named in the civil lawsuit. Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan is also named.

Neither Atwell nor Wellman returned calls last night.

The suit was filed Thursday in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court. Another civil lawsuit filed by Montgomery's widow is working its way through federal district court. It was not clear yesterday whether that lawsuit, filed Aug. 8 of last year in Baltimore, would be dropped.

Craig's attorney, Castelli, said Montgomery's death had "a tremendous impact" on Craig's life.

The two met and married in Monterey, Calif., Castelli said. But Montgomery had grown frustrated with his job and moved in with his mother in Lusby, the lawyer said.

The summer before his death, his family said, Montgomery - a Calvert High School graduate - was found to have schizophrenia, a disorder characterized by delusions and withdrawal.

The night he died, Montgomery apparently gave his family no indication that he was going to harm himself, his mother, Betty Montgomery has said.

Phillip Montgomery had been working as an electrician in Upper Marlboro in December 2000.

"The question is, how much do you value a young man's life?" Castelli said when asked about the damages. "He and his wife had their whole future ahead of them."

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