2011-09-08 / Local & State

Kin Fights Rehiring Pa. Officer In Cruiser Death

By Joe Mandak
ASSOCIATED PRESS

PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. (AP) – In this small town made famous by a groundhog that sees his shadow, Stephen Obbish’s surviving family wants more light shed on what they still believe was a crime: allowing the grossly intoxicated, mentally ill man to die after spending nearly five hours in the back seat of a police cruiser on a hot summer day.

Linda Obbish acknowledges her 48-year-old brother-in-law had only himself to blame for walking away from the care home where he lived, then inexplicably downing a fifth of whiskey in minutes on the morning of Aug. 15, 2009. A coroner found Obbish died of “combined drug and alcohol toxicity,’’ his blood alcohol level at 0.301, nearly four times the state’s legal limit, with three drugs used to treat psychotic disorders or depression in his system.

“Are we denying it? No we’re not. Should he have done it? Of course not,’’ Obbish said.

But she said that still doesn’t explain why Brian Andrekovich, the since-fired officer who left Obbish in the car, didn’t seek medical help even though Obbish couldn’t stand and was urinating uncontrollably in the Goodwill thrift store where he collapsed, after mumbling that he had been drinking and taking “mental’’ medications.

And what the family really doesn’t understand is how Andrekovich avoided prosecution – especially since the state trooper who investigated Obbish’s death and the local police chief both believe Andrekovich’s actions were criminal.

“We’re not sue-happy people,’’ said Obbish, referring to a wrongful death suit the family settled against Andrekovich and the borough this year for $250,000. “We’re not out to destroy anybody. Our main goal is that he not get his job back.’’

The state attorney general’s office determined in early 2010 that no criminal charges were warranted but wouldn’t explain why. “As policy, we don’t discuss investigations,’’ spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said.

Susan Mahood is a Pittsburgh attorney who plans to sue the borough to get Andrekovich rehired if the Commonwealth Court doesn’t order that in a pending appeal.

“I am not surprised at the decision not to prosecute because, although my investigation is not complete, I have yet to see any evidence of recklessness or criminal intent,’’ she said.

State police Sgt. Martin Knezovich recommended Andrekovich be charged with reckless endangerment and/or involuntary manslaughter, Obbish said. Knezovich didn’t dispute Obbish’s version of his findings but said he is bound by the attorney general’s decision.

Punxsutawney police Chief Thomas Fedigan confirmed Knezovich recommended charges against Andrekovich – and the chief still agrees with that assessment.

“It was a difficult situation because Brian and I were friends, we worked many, many, many years together,’’ said Fedigan, chief since 2002 and employed on the borough’s police force almost continually since 1991, two years before Andrekovich was hired.

Knezovich, Fedigan, and the borough council that voted to fire Andrekovich in November 2009 believe he: failed to take “appropriate action’’ by not seeking medical help; wasn’t careful in dropping Obbish, twice, and dragging him by the ankles across the store’s loading dock ; lied when he told investigators he used a fireman’s carry to move Obbish, and said he couldn’t remember dropping Obbish; shouldn’t have left Obbish in the police cruiser parked in a partially shaded sally port outside the station on an 85-degree day.

Andrekovich asked a dispatcher to check on Obbish periodically, and the mayor even happened by and checked on Obbish. Andrekovich said he also checked on Obbish, when he wasn’t answering other calls, filling out citations for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct against Obbish, and making two trips during his shift to search for a ladder he had loaned to a friend. The officer who relieved Andrekovich about 2:50 p.m. found Obbish without a pulse and turning blue, with foam on his lips. Andrekovich had gone home by then.

Mahood said Andrekovich asked her to respond to the AP for this story. Attorneys representing him in the lawsuit and a Commonwealth Court appeal about his employment status didn’t return calls.

But Ralph Montana, the defense attorney present when Knezovich questioned Andrekovich about three weeks after Obbish’s death, also agreed with Mahood and said he saw no criminal liability.

Montana believes Andrekovich was justified in keeping Obbish in the car so he would stay on his side in case he vomited, noting that the borough’s “drunk tank’’ was being used as an evidence room at the time and Andrekovich believed Obbish might roll off a bunk in another cell onto a hard floor.

“A defense attorney very rarely opens his client up to investigators, but I did in that particular case because it was so obvious that what he did was correct under the circumstances,’’ Montana said.

Those circumstances are spelled out in Knezovich’s 258- page file, which includes a receipt showing Obbish purchased a bottle of whiskey at 8:58 a.m. He disappeared from the view of any witnesses or surveillance cameras for about seven minutes, apparently while he drank the booze, before stumbling into Frank N’ Steins beer, pizza and sandwich shop in the same shopping center.

Then, Obbish spent about 10 or 15 minutes wobbling about 150 yards to Goodwill from the deli, owner Frank Matts said. A longtime resident who’s owned the business for 22 years, Matts believes the borough wrongly made Andrekovich a scapegoat for Obbish’s death.

“How much different would it be if he croaked in the cell?’’ Matts said.

Dawn Yount, the Goodwill manager who called police, said she felt Andrekovich did the best he could to move a helpless drunk.

“I think he did nothing wrong and I’ll feel that way until the day I die,’’ Yount told the AP.

Andrekovich asked Obbish if he had been drinking, according to a transcript of his state police interview. “Yeah, I sorry,’’ Obbish answered.

“Are you on any meds?’’ Andrekovich asked. “Yes, mental,’’ Obbish said, before naming two drugs Andrekovich said he didn’t recognize.

Andrekovich propped up Obbish on a folding metal chair and pushed him in it to the back of the store. Then, after Obbish slid or fell onto the floor, Andrekovich dragged him by his ankles about five paces across the store’s outdoor loading dock. After drooping Obbish’s legs over the side of the dock so the officer could stand him up, Andrekovich tried to half-walk, half-drag Obbish to the squad car but dropped him on the way, investigators determined.

Surveillance video clearly shows the ankle-dragging and, though blurry, appears to show Obbish falling near the back of the car. Obbish had several cuts and bruises Knezovich concluded were from being dropped by Andrekovich outside and once in the store.

The borough’s Civil Service Commission felt much of that information was ambiguous _they cited Yount’s testimony that Andrekovich merely “repositioned’’ Obbish on the loading dock, among other things _in determining Andrekovich didn’t lie about his handling of the situation and shouldn’t have been fired. He’s remained off the force because of a series of borough appeals. His wife said he paints and does other odd jobs to get by.

Jefferson County Judge John Foradora upheld the civil service finding this year, saying Andrekovich couldn’t be faulted because the borough didn’t have a specific policy for handling prisoners who were intoxicated or had medical needs. The Commonwealth Court has yet to rule on the borough’s appeal of the judge’s decision.

“They said that the reason for firing him was violating policies and procedures,’’ Mahood scoffed. “Well, no, he didn’t. He can’t violate policies that didn’t exist.’’

As part of the legal settlement with the family, the borough has agreed to enact such a policy soon – and to appeal Andrekovich’s effort to get his job back.

“The borough’s position has not changed,’’ said Brian Gabriel, the attorney handling Punxsutawney’s appeal.

“Based upon the facts and the investigation, they determined he should be terminated (because of) his method of transportation; his decision not to seek assistance, medical or otherwise; his decision to keep (Obbish) detained in the car for five hours,’’ Gabriel said. “All those things, as well as his lack of candor in responding to some of those things.’’

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