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Stories of police shootings in Palm Beach County


Firing into a moving car:

Ruben DeBrosse, 16, killed

Nothing in Ruben DeBrosse’s short life hinted at how it was going to end.

The 16-year-old had just made the varsity football team at Royal Palm Beach High. He won a “most outstanding cadet” award from the sheriff’s youth academy. He took a job at McDonald’s to help his single mother. He planned to join the Army.

But at 2:20 on a Saturday morning in August 2008, DeBrosse was driving a stolen rental car. There is no explanation in investigative files for why or how DeBrosse got the car.

Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy Eric Bethel was following him.

DeBrosse pulled into the parking lot of the Regal movie theater in Royal Palm Beach. According to his passenger, the sheriff’s cruiser had not yet turned on lights or sirens.

Bethel pulled up in back of DeBrosse. Another deputy pulled in front of DeBrosse.

DeBrosse put the car in reverse and stepped on the gas, hitting Bethel’s front bumper. Bethel jumped out of his car and ordered DeBrosse to stop and turn off the car.

According to three witnesses, DeBrosse began driving forward to get away from Bethel when they heard shots. Two witnesses said they saw DeBrosse’s car swerve to avoid the second deputy’s car.

But Bethel told investigators that DeBrosse had started to back up toward his patrol car again, not drive away.

At that point, Bethel said he believed he was about to be pinned between the two cars and fired once, then fired again as DeBrosse began to drive away from him.

PBSO investigators concluded DeBrosse had not only started to back up, as Bethel said, but that he had continued to drive at Bethel even after the deputy retreated.

There was another conflicting statement. According to then-State Attorney Barry Krischer, Bethel fired four times. Two witnesses said at least five shots were fired.

Shot once in the head, once in the back, DeBrosse drove into a tree.

He died 10 days before his 17th birthday.

Bethel was cleared. Krischer found it was “abundantly clear” that the deputy legitimately feared for his safety from the threat of DeBrosse’s “oncoming vehicle.”

As for DeBrosse, he wrote, as a graduate of the sheriff’s academy, the teenager “should have known better.”

Eleven months after the shooting, a special PBSO panel that reviews major incidents, the Post Critical Incident Assessment Team, discussed the shooting.

There was no disagreement on whether the shooting was justified and for the most part, no major criticism. But there was a general observation that the deputies missed an opportunity to move more slowly and deliberately, as noted in the meeting minutes: “Once the vehicle crashed into the front of the patrol vehicle, why do we have to approach?”

‘A violent struggle,’ then shots in the back:

Victor Arango, 26, killed

Victor Arango didn’t start the brawl in a Boynton Beach sports bar’s parking lot in the predawn hours of June 2012. Probably drunk and possibly high, the 26-year-old was trying to break up the fistfight. So was the bar manager when Arango slugged him.

When Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy Thomas Hannigan arrived, Arango got between him and a man Hannigan wanted to question.

Arango wouldn’t budge. The officer took his shoulders and started to move Arango aside. Arango grabbed the deputy, and within minutes, the two men were on the ground fighting: “a violent struggle,” according to a PBSO report.

Hannigan had Arango in a headlock. He told a second deputy, Michael Suszczynski, to handcuff the man. Suszczynski stepped in to separate Arango and Hannigan.

That’s when Suszczynski saw a gun in the waistband of Arango’s pants. Then, he said, Arango’s elbow drew back.

One of Arango’s arms was in Hannigan’s grip. His other, which recently had been broken, was in a soft cast.

“I saw this guy’s shirt lift up,” Suszczynski told investigators. “I see a black semi-automatic handgun. … I’m like ‘Oh my God, Tommy’s gonna get shot.”

Suszczynski shot Arango twice in the back.

Arango died at the scene. The deputy was cleared.

There were unanswered questions.

Arango’s gun wasn’t found on him. It was lying a few feet from his body. One eyewitness said Suszczynski shouted, “He’s got a gun!” reached down, got Arango’s gun, tossed it onto the ground and only then shot him.

Another deputy — a rookie — initially said he witnessed Arango being disarmed. But he changed his story following a third round of questioning by investigators with the State Attorney’s Office, saying, “I’m wondering if I really did see it or if my mind’s playing tricks on me.”

Testing found DNA of two people on Arango’s gun. PBSO’s crime lab reported it could not prove Arango’s DNA was on his own gun, but it could prove Suszczynski’s DNA was not there, weakening any argument that the deputy removed Arango’s gun before shooting him.

Also, witnesses said Suszczynski hit Arango with his baton. State attorney’s investigators suggested that the baton hit the gun, which could explain why it was dislodged and on the ground when Arango was shot.

But Suszczynski told investigators he never used his baton.

Suszczynski said he did not know how the handgun got on the ground, and speculated Arango might have drawn it and was preparing to shoot.

“There is no clear answer” as to how the gun came out of Arango’s waistband, concluded an investigator for State Attorney Dave Aronberg. The shooting was a justifiable use of force, Aronberg found.

“We don’t ask people to draw guns on us to try to kill us,” Sheriff Ric Bradshaw told reporters shortly after the shooting. “If they do, then we’re going to take the action that we have to.”

Clash outside home ‘tragedy for everybody’:

Seth Adams, 24, killed

In 2012, after a night of playing beer pong at Boonies, a local bar, 24-year-old Seth Adams drove home at 11:30 to find PBSO Sgt. Michael Custer parked in the driveway of his family’s Loxahatchee Groves garden shop.

In an unmarked car and out of uniform, Custer was trying to crack an ATM burglary ring, PBSO said, that included a group of young white men known to be violent.

Adams demanded to know who Custer was. “Out of nowhere … he grabbed me by the throat,” Custer told investigators.

The two men struggled. Custer said Adams reached into the cab of his truck. Believing Adams was reaching for a gun and that he was about to be shot, Custer said, “Last thing I saw was my wife’s face when he was spinning around.”

Custer opened fire.

Shot four times, Adams crawled 300 feet across the parking lot toward the home he shared with his brother and sister-in-law, managing to call them on his cellphone. Adams’ brother found him in the bushes after spotting the light of the phone in the dark.

He died two hours later.

Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, who called the shooting “a tragedy for everybody,” later defended his deputy’s reasoning. “There’s got to be a reason (Adams) is reaching in the car,” Bradshaw said. “If I was there, I would think the same thing. If you hesitate for one second, you’re dead.”

Still, Bradshaw asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review the case.

The FDLE cleared Custer, as did the state attorney. “Custer indicated that he did not know who the person yelling at him was or whether he was one of the suspects or not,” the chief assistant state attorney wrote.

But the case has not been put to rest. Adams’ family is suing PBSO in federal court, and the litigation continues to raise questions: Physical evidence indicates the shooting took place 6 to 8 feet away from the truck, not near the cab.

Another deputy who was driving by said he saw Adams near the front of his pickup facing away from Custer, who was getting out of his SUV, prompting Adams to turn toward him.

Custer’s SUV, evidence in a PBSO investigation into what happened, wasn’t examined. Custer drove it home.

And in a personnel review written one year before the Adams shooting — one not provided to FDLE investigators — Custer was criticized for “difficulty assessing critical incidents and making sound decisions under pressure.” In another review, it was noted that “several members of his team … complained of him making uninformed decisions.”

Seth Adams shooting: Palm Beach Post coverage

30 shots fired, ‘suicide by cop’:

John Garczynski, 37, killed

On the night of March 10, 2005, John Garczynski and his estranged wife had wrapped up an evening of bowling. In the parking lot, he hugged her, said he was tired of suffering and handed her a packet of papers.

In it were personal notes, insurance information — and instructions on who to call after he was dead.

Panicked, his wife called police. Garczynski was being treated for mood swings. She believed she had been handed his suicide note.

Three Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputies and a Boca Raton police officer found Garczynski parked in a Boca condo complex.

He was on his cellphone with his wife. He had a gun to his temple.

The deputies discussed calling for a helicopter, but weather was bad. They discussed bringing in the SWAT team and a negotiator.

Then Garczynski turned his car on.

“If we would have allowed him to leave, we would have had an armed suicidal gunman,” a sergeant said later. “It would have been a nightmare in the making if this individual was able to flee.”

Police already had laid stop sticks to puncture his tires at the entrance of the condo.

Even so, the deputies and police officer also surrounded the car.

The windows of Garczynski’s parked SUV were heavily fogged, making it hard for deputies to see inside. One punched out a front passenger window with his flashlight to get a better look.

Still on the phone with his wife, a hysterical Garczynski began yelling, “Don’t come in here! Don’t come in here!” at the same time the officers began yelling at him to put down the gun and put his hands where they could see them.

Garczynski instead took the gun from his head in a sweeping motion, pointing it at the various officers as he did.

“We all began to shoot,” said one deputy, who opened fire, saying he saw seeing muzzle flashes inside the SUV. He assumed Garczynski was firing.

In fact, Garczynski never got off a shot. The muzzle flashes came from others firing three semi-automatics and a Bushmaster rifle. Within a matter of seconds, 30 shots were fired. One officer ran out of ammunition.

Garczynski died at the scene.

Both the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and then-State Attorney Barry Krischer cleared the officers.

“They reasonably believed their lives were in immediate peril,” concluded the sheriff’s investigation. While Krischer criticized the deputies for not working to calm the mentally ill man, he also said it was clear Garczynski wanted the police to kill him, “yet another suicide by cop.” He recommended additional training on how to deal with a suicidal individual.

An often-quoted appeals court decision came down squarely on the side of the deputies and the officer as well, ruling that the escalation from confrontation to deadly force was justified.

But Carol Spears, who lived with Garczynski’s father, told The Post that “one or two shots in the right spot would have disabled him.”

“That many bullets were not required to stop him to the point where we couldn’t have an open casket.”

Dark road, dark car, furtive movement:

Adam Phillips, 30, killed

By any measure, 30-year-old Adam Phillips was deeply troubled. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was a narcotics addict. He had been busted for both drugs and car theft.

In December 2008, he was also three weeks away from a promised spot in a drug treatment center. His mother was letting him stay with her until then.

But Phillips had stolen from his mother before. So when her purse and keys were missing one night, she ran outside and was not surprised to find her son driving away in her Ford Taurus.

She called the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and said she would press charges.

After spotting the car, deputies in both marked and unmarked cars followed the Taurus for miles until it stalled on Federal Highway in Boynton Beach.

Police piled out of their cars. Using a bullhorn, they ordered Phillips to come out. He didn’t. Instead, he tried to start the car again. It glided 50 feet or so and stalled.

Deputies used a device to break the heavily tinted back windows so that they could see inside. It only partially worked.

The sheriff’s helicopter was pressed into service. Deputies approached the car using a three-man formation. One used his gun’s mounted lighting system to help him to see into the car.

The deputy saw enough of Phillips to know that he appeared to be reaching for something in his pants pocket. Fearing a weapon, the deputy fired. Four bullets hit Phillips. He died at the scene.

He had no weapons. Phillips’ pants pockets were empty.

The deputy was cleared by both PBSO and then-State Attorney Michael McAuliffe.

However, McAuliffe wrote that the incident raised “potential tactical problems,” including how supervisors handled decisions about confronting a mentally ill drug addict in a poorly lit section of roadway.

A year later, a PBSO panel that reviews major incidents, the Post Critical Incident Assessment Team, evaluated the shooting. The general consensus was that the entire process had been rushed.

According to written minutes,”Every officer articulated their concerns over approaching the vehicle (including) dark tint, unknown number of occupants, inability to see the driver.

“Why did we make the decision to approach so quickly?”

Afterwards, PBSO used the incident as part of a training program to advise deputies on how to approach someone barricaded in a car.

‘Thousand-yard blank stare’:

David Scott Bennett, 40, killed

In the predawn dark at a Boynton Beach shopping plaza in September 2010, a woman was worried.

A man was sitting in a Volkswagen Jetta. There had been a rash of burglaries in the area. The woman thought he might be smoking pot. She asked him what he was doing.

He ignored her.

She called 911.

Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy Timothy Rieger was on the scene for several minutes before he called for backup. A few minutes after calling for aid, he radioed that the man, 40-year-old David Scott Bennett, was shot.

At first, the deputy later said, he thought Bennett was drunk. Bennett was slumped over his steering wheel. A bottle of liquid, possibly alcohol, was on top of the car.

Still in the parking lot, watching the deputy and the driver, the woman said Bennett was muttering, refusing to stop moving his hands after Rieger ordered him to do so. She suggested that he might be high or mentally deficient.

When the deputy approached his car, Bennett straightened up. But he wouldn’t get out of the car. He wouldn’t stop moving his hands. And then, said Rieger, Bennett muttered something about someone who died or was dying in the car.

Rieger pulled his stun gun. But he didn’t use it.

Instead, he set the stun gun aside and drew his firearm. The reason, he said, was Bennett’s “cold blank stare.”

And when Bennett started reaching toward the passenger side of the car, Rieger shot him — enough times that the deputy had to reload.

Bennett was still alive, clutching his stomach, which Rieger said “terrified” him. Bennett gave him “a thousand-yard blank stare” said Rieger, and moved toward the passenger seat.

Rieger fired again.

Bennett died at the scene.

Within a day of the shooting, Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw told The Post that Bennett was “definitely a violent fellow” with a string of assault charges, including assaults on police officers. Bennett was in a stolen car, PBSO said, and had been involved in a hit and run.

A PBSO investigation later cleared the deputy.

However, a year after the shooting, PBSO’s Post Critical Incident Assessment Team concluded Rieger “should have made more inquiries of the subject and tried to appease him rather than escalate the situation.”

“On numerous occasions Rieger gave the suspect ultimatums and bluffed him, which may have created more problems.”

The businesswoman watching it all, though, never doubted Rieger was in the right. The deputy, she said, “had no other choice.”

Flees off-duty cop, seeks police help:

Jean Claude Mila Jr., 28, fired upon

In January 2011, Jean Claude Mila Jr. was driving with friends to his wife’s Belle Glade house.

Off-duty sheriff’s deputy Juvencio Rivera had been shopping and was driving through town with his fiancee and 2-year-old son in the back seat when Mila’s Ford Expedition cut him off.

Rivera took off after the car, believing the driver impaired.

Mila and a passenger described an unrecognizable car following them around the block multiple times, fast enough that the car fishtailed. The men believed Rivera, who was driving his personal car with tinted windows, intended to do them harm.

Mila shot at the deputy several times. Rivera returned fire, shooting out the rear window. He said he needed to fire to defend himself and his family.

No one was hit. But a woman and her son were in their home when, they said, a bullet broke their window.

Rivera dialed 911 but kept up the chase.

Mila dialed 911, too, to report that a mysterious car was chasing him.

Mila then drove to a sheriff’s substation, saying he did so for safety. Rivera pulled in behind him.

Mila and his three passengers were arrested. All insisted they were trying to get away from the car speeding behind them.

Mila had little credibility, though: He was on bail on a murder charge. And the PBSO investigator clearly did not believe another passenger in Mila’s car, saying that he “started fake crying and acting upset” and that Rivera’s car was not threatening, merely fishtailing as he chased the men.

PBSO’s internal affairs division declined to investigate whether Rivera’s actions violated policy, because the chase and shooting took place while he was off duty.


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