Police sued in Fayette County shooting death

Father seeks $100 million for son who was shot

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The father of a 37-year-old man who was shot and killed by police last spring in Fayette County filed a federal civil rights lawsuit yesterday.

Kermith Sonnier Sr. said he wants $100 million in damages because officers used excessive force in shooting Kermith Sonnier Jr. during a chase May 5 in Brownsville.

His lawsuit claims the officers shot Sonnier Jr. in the back as he drove away from them. Then, he claims, they pulled Sonnier Jr. out of his Ford pickup and beat him while he was bleeding to death.

He later died at Brownsville General Hospital.

"He was shot in the back by officers who were in no danger," said Sonnier Sr.'s lawyer, Michigan civil rights attorney Goeffrey Fieger.

Fieger said Sonnier Jr. would have survived had police gotten him prompt medical care after the shooting.

Police dispute all of those claims, and last year a Fayette County coroner's jury decided no charges should be filed.

At the time, Sonnier Sr. derided that proceeding as a "kangaroo court" and insisted his son was murdered.

He and Fieger reiterated those claims yesterday. In the lawsuit, they said officers Autumn Fike of Brownsville, Mark Costello of Centerville, and Josh Mrosko and Dennis Field of Redstone deliberately killed Sonnier Jr. after a six-mile "slow-speed chase" that ended on Century Road in a wooded area of Brownsville Township.

Although the lawsuit names all four officers, Fieger singled out Fike for particular criticism. He said "bad blood" existed between Fike and Sonnier Jr., and that she began following him the day of the shooting with the idea of "rousting him."

The lawsuit says Fike disliked Sonnier Jr. from other encounters, and that she and at least one of the other officers had previously threatened him. Fieger, though, was unable to provide any particulars.

Fike could not be reached yesterday, but her lawyer, Lee Rothman, called the allegations of police misconduct "ludicrous."

Fieger, best known for successfully defending Dr. Jack Kevorkian against three murder charges involving assisted suicides, said police accounts of the shooting amount to a cover-up.

Police said at the coroner's inquest that Sonnier Jr. rammed their cars and then tried to run down officers who were on foot.

The chase started when Fike tried to pull Sonnier over while patrolling in a wooded area known for illegal dumping. She had seen Sonnier Jr. in the area the day before and told him to leave. He did, only to return. She pulled behind him and he took off.

Police learned later that his truck's registration had expired, and yesterday Sonnier Sr. said his son's insurance also had lapsed.

Toxicology tests by the Fayette County coroner showed that Sonnier Jr. had cocaine in his system.

His father admitted yesterday that Sonnier Jr. had had drug problems. A background check revealed that Sonnier Jr. had a record for drug use in Louisiana.

"He said he'd never go back to jail," Sonnier Sr. said of his son's mind-set during the police chase.

Fike and Field did not testify at the inquest, but they told investigators they fired in self-defense.

Mrosko, who was driving the car in which Field was riding, and Costello testified that they joined the chase shortly before 5 p.m. after hearing Fike radio for help in stopping Sonnier's truck. She said it weaved in and out of traffic in Brownsville.

They said Sonnier sped up narrow Century Road, then turned around and fishtailed back toward the officers, who had gotten out of their cars and were pursuing the truck on foot.

Police said the truck then rammed two police cruisers, careened into other parked cars outside a trailer and narrowly missed hitting the trailer before stopping.

Fieger called the police version untrue. He said the physical evidence would show that Sonnier Jr.'s truck was not damaged, as it would have been if it had struck other vehicles.

He said what happened to Sonnier Jr. was "a 100 percent violation" of every accepted police procedure.

"You better damn well have a very good reason for shooting somebody in the back," Fieger said.

These officers, he said, were not in any danger, nor were other people, yet they used deadly force.

Fike told investigators she fired once at the truck. Field said he fired twice as it passed, then once more into a tire after it stopped and he saw the reverse lights come on.

Ballistics tests indicated one of Field's shots killed Sonnier Jr.

Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, the Allegheny County coroner, testified that Sonnier died of a gunshot wound that struck him in the back under the left shoulder and traveled to the right and slightly downward.

Contrary to Fieger's claims, Wecht said small scrapes on Sonnier's body did not appear to have been caused by a beating.

Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.


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