Report of the State's Attorney for the Judicial District of Fairfield Concerning the Death of Gonzalo Guizan in Easton on May 18, 2008
Table of Contents: Scope of Investigation | Background | The Plan | Execution of the Plan | Investigation | Discussion | Conclusion
SCOPE OF INVESTIGATION
Pursuant to Connecticut General Statute 51-277a, the undersigned, State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Fairfield, has conducted an investigation of the death by gunshot of Gonzalo Guizan, aged 33, of Norwalk. The incident occurred at the home of Ronald Terebesi at 91 Dogwood Drive in the Town of Easton on the afternoon of May 18, 2008, in the course of the execution of a narcotics-related search warrant. The law enforcement agencies involved in the warrant execution were the Easton Police Department and the Southwest Regional Emergency Response Team (S.W.R.E.R.T.), which is made up of police officers from a number of surrounding towns. In accordance with statewide protocols, the scene was immediately taped off and all police firearms were secured. A representative of the State’s Attorney’s Office was summoned, and the Connecticut State Police Major Crime Squad, Western District, was called in. That unit conducted the balance of the police investigation to include the immediate crime scene investigation and interviewing of all witnesses. The autopsy was conducted by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and all forensic testing was performed by the Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Laboratory.
The scope of this investigation is limited to the command of Section 51-277a of the General Statutes which requires that, whenever a peace officer, in the performance of his duties, causes the death of another person by the use of deadly physical force, "an investigation shall be conducted to determine whether the officer’s use of force was appropriate under section 53a-22." That statute, under which the Connecticut Penal Code delineates the permissible use of force by peace officers, sanctions the use of deadly physical force, in only two situations: "(1) where the officer reasonably believes such force to be necessary to defend himself or a third person from the use or imminent use of deadly physical force; (2) to effect the arrest or prevent the escape of a person whom the officer reasonably believes has committed or attempted to commit a felony which involved the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical injury." To reiterate, the scope of this investigation is limited to those issues.
In the early morning hours of May 18, 2008, the Easton Police Department received a telephone call from a woman who reported drug activity occurring at 91 Dogwood Drive. When asked to respond to the police station, she agreed, arriving a short while later. There, the woman, a self-described exotic dancer, reported that around 4:20 A.M. she had received a phone call from an acquaintance, Gonzalo Guizan, requesting that she transport him from his home in Norwalk to that of a friend (Ronald Terebesi) in Easton. She did so, picking Guizan up and arriving at Terebesi’s at about 7:00 A.M. After about thirty minutes in the home, the witness observed Terebesi remove some material from a tin container, place the material in two small smoking pipes, whereupon Guizan and Terebesi proceeded to smoke the contents. Concluding that the pair were smoking crack-cocaine, the witness left and, while driving home, placed her telephone call to the Easton Police.
Other incidents at 91 Dogwood Drive had recently drawn the attention of the Easton Police Department. On May 17 a neighbor reported discovering near the residence, a black bag that contained hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia. The neighbor further reported having observed a continuing process, at various times of the night and day, of persons making brief visits to 91 Dogwood Drive, suggestive ongoing narcotics trafficking.
In the early morning hours of May 7, 2008, Easton Police responded to a report of shots fired at 91 Dogwood Drive. There, they found that a number of twelve-gage shotgun rounds had been fired through the residence’s windows. Mr. Terebesi reported that he had no idea who had fired upon his home but did state further that he had been visited by two women that night, one described as a prostitute and the other as an exotic dancer (not the individual who contacted the police on May 18). He had heard one of the women engaged in a heated conversation with a male telephone caller, following which the two women left. The shotgun assault occurred approximately thirty minutes later.
On March 31, 2008, Easton Police received a 9-1-1 call from an unidentified female reporting that there was a forty-year old male having seizures at 91 Dogwood Drive. Upon arrival, responders found Ronald Terebesi laying on a sofa located in a den. In the course of attending to the subject they found him sitting on a .357 caliber revolver and two glass stems such as are commonly used for smoking crack-cocaine. These items were seized by the police. The stems tested positive for the presence of cocaine. The handgun remained in the custody of the Easton Police through May 18, however, investigation leading up to the search operation of that date revealed that Terebesi was also the registered owner of a 9mm Berretta semi-automatic handgun.
As the result of the complaint received in the morning of May 18, Easton prepared and secured from a judge a search warrant directed at the premises of 91 Dogwood Drive for the seizure of a tin container of crack cocaine and crack smoking pipes. The possession of crack cocaine is a felony under Connecticut Law. Because of the history of the firing of and presence of firearms and drugs at 91 Dogwood Drive as well as the concern for the continued presence of firearms, Easton Police Chief John Solomon requested the assistance of the Southwest Regional Emergency Response Team (S.W.R.E.R.T.) to secure the premises prior to the conducting of the search.
S.W.R.E.R.T. is an organization that was initially constituted in 2002 and consists of officers from a number of towns situated in south-central Fairfield County. Since inception, its membership has remained essentially intact and it has conducted monthly full-day training sessions for those officers. The organization began taking response requests in 2003. As of May 18, 2008, S.W.R.E.R.T. had responded to thirty calls. One half of those operations involved the execution of search warrants. On none of those occasions were any injuries reported.
Upon the request of Chief Solomon, the S.W.R.E.R.T. team, consisting of twenty-one officers from six different departments, assembled at Easton Emergency Medical Services headquarters. The operation commander was Lt Ronald Kirby of the Trumbull Police Department who had held that position since S.W.R.E.R.T. was first organized in 2002. All parties were apprised of the history of incidents at 91 Dogwood Drive, including the calls to the Easton Police over the previous seven weeks involving drugs and weapons at the residence as well as the unaccounted-for Berretta semi-automatic hand gun registered to Mr. Terebisi. Two officers were immediately dispatched to Dogwood Drive to conduct a covert surveillance until the entire team could position itself at the site. All other officers were dressed in black tactical gear and wearing protective vests clearly and brightly marked "police" on both the front and back.
Based upon information from that morning’s informant as well as from previous Easton police responses that any persons in the home would be situated in a den or television room which provided entry from a door at the front of the house, an operational plan was devised. Once all parties were in position, officers to the rear side of the home would break down a picture window and throw into a dining room two explosive distraction devices commonly called "flash-bangs" The purpose of this was to distract any persons in the adjoining den from the entry of officers through the front door that opened into that room. The effect of a "flash-bang" is to create a bright burst of light and loud concussive noise so as to stun and disorient any persons in the immediate vicinity of its detonation. The device has no fragmentation capability of causing serious physical injury, however its blast does discharge gunpowder at a sufficiently high velocity to embed in skin and clothing.
On the front side of the house, nine officers were assembled in a "stack" which is a common tactic allowing officers to move single-file through a doorway and then spread out and secure any persons encountered in a room. The lead officer in the stack was Ptl. Michael Sweeney of the Monroe Police Department who had joined the S.W.R.E.R.T. team in 2004. His assignment was to enter the den holding in his left hand, a large protective shield which bore the word "police" in large white letters, and in his right hand, his department-issued .40 caliber Glock semi-automatic pistol on which was attached a flashlight. Upon entry, he was to attempt to secure any occupants by pinning them with the shield
The second man in the stack was Officer Brian Weir of the Trumbull Police Department, a member of the team from its very beginnings. His assignment was to follow directly behind Sweeney holding an M-4 rifle ( also with flashlight attached) over Sweeney’s left shoulder. The purpose of this was to protect Sweeney should he encounter any gunfire from within the house. Trumbull Police Officer Gregg Lee , also a S.W.R.E.R.T. member since 2003, was assigned to stand by the front doorway and, as soon as it was opened, to throw a third "flash-bang" into the den and then, with the rest of the stack, follow the leading officers in and secure the premises.
The implementation of the plan required the on-scene operational commander, Ptl. William Ruscoe of Trumbull (also an original team member) to give a radio countdown. On the count of one the rear side team was to break the window and insert two "flash-bangs." The front entry team was to "knock and announce" by loudly, distinctly and repeatedly yelling "Police with a warrant." If not quickly given entrance, officers at the door were to try to open it and , if locked, break it in with a hand-held ram. Upon the door opening, Officer Lee was to throw a "flash-bang" and the stack was to proceed in and secure the premises.
EXECUTION OF THE PLAN
The entry operation was videotaped from the street. While the location of the camera prevented getting an actual video of the entry, the audio was preserved. It depicts the entire operation from Officer Ruscoe’s initial count of one thru the breaking of the dining room window, the blast of two flash- bangs, officers repeatedly yelling "police with a warrant," a third flash-bang and a series of gunshots. The entire segment lasts sixteen seconds.
Officer Michael Sweeney related that, following the report of the dining room "flash-bangs" the members of the stack shouted "police with a warrant." When the door did not open and was discovered to be locked, it was forced by other officers by use of a hand-held ram. With Ptl. Weir, giving close cover on his left, Sweeney entered , simultaneously yelling "police with a warrant." The lighting in the room was limited as a result of smoke from a "flash-bang" and the facts that the window shades were drawn and windows were covered with plywood as a result of the earlier shotgun attack on the home.
When Sweeney had taken three to four steps into the room he observed, to his right, two males and heard screaming. The leftmost of the two, Terebesi, had an arm extended and pointing in his direction. The second male, Guizan, who was more to the officer’s right, was crouching and also had an arm outstretched and was moving toward Sweeney. As both males appeared to continue towards the officer, he felt high velocity impacts on both his left boot and the shield. and thought he was being fired upon and had, in fact, been shot. Sweeney proceeded forward in an effort to pin both males with his shield. While Terebesi pulled on the shield, Guizan, proceeded to grab the officer’s right hand in an apparent effort to wrest his pistol away. Sweeney cannot specify either whether Guizan was grasping with one or both hands or on what specific part of the weapon he was pulling, but rather describes the action as :"a sort of tug-of-war." At this point, Guizan was actually below the officer pulling on the weapon. Sweeney, beginning to lose his grip and fearing that he was about to lose control of his weapon, fired it until he was free of the man’s grasp.
Upon the cessation of shooting, Ptl. Ruscoe queried as to who had fired. Both Sweeney and Ptl. Weir responded, "I shot." This was the first point at which Sweeney was aware that Weir had fired his weapon. Sweeney, thinking that he had been struck in the foot and chest, was taken outside where he was examined for injuries and his weapon was taken into custody. Examination revealed that he had not, in fact received any injuries.
Officer Brian Weir, assigned to cover Sweeney over the latter’s left shoulder with an M-4 rifle, twice loudly called out "police" after the first two "flash-bangs" had gone off. Once the door was breached, he followed Sweeney. Weir described the room as relatively dark. Upon gaining entry, he heard what he thought to be gunshots and observed a person charging on them. Thinking he and Sweeney, who was yelling "I’m hit, I’m hit", to be in danger, he fired one shot from his rifle. He then observed Sweeney lying over a person who appeared to have been injured. Weir proceeded on with other officers to clear the house. When done, he went outside and turned over his weapon.
Officer Gregg Lee was assigned to throw the "flash bang" into the den. Once the first two devices were detonated in the dining room, the stack reached the front door which was locked. Lee then twice yelled "police with a warrant," and, once the door had been forced with a ram, threw his "flash-bang" into the room and onto the floor. Ptl. Sweeney then entered the room with his shield. As that officer proceeded, Lee heard approximately six rounds of gunfire. Lee then entered to find Sweeney pinning Terebesi to the floor with his shield and saw another male, who appeared to have been injured, lying on the floor. Someone was saying that he was hit. Lee then took Terebesi into custody and escorted him outside. Subsequently he observed Sweeney and the second male (Mr. Guizan) being treated by the team medics.
To the extent that their positions in the stack permitted, the other members of the entry team reiterated what officers Sweeney and Weir have related. Once Ptl. Lee had thrown a "flash-bang" into the den, Sweeney entered. This was quickly followed by the sound of gunshots. Sweeney was observed laying on top of Terebesi and complaining that he’d been hit and had pain in his chest. Mr. Guizan was laying on the floor, bleeding from a number of apparent gunshot injuries. Both Sweeney and Guizan were quickly taken outside for assessment and treatment. Sweeney was found to have no discernible gunshot injuries. Guizan was in extremis. Both were taken to the hospital. The rest of the search team continued to clear the house. Once it was secured, the search for narcotics proceeded. Found within the home were two crack pipes, a tin box containing residues and a plastic baggie with white powder contents that tested positive for cocaine Also seized was precision scale of a type that is commonly used for preparing illegal drugs for consumption and sale. No firearms were found on the premises
1. WEAPONS INVENTORY. The weapons and ammunition loads of all twenty-one members of the team were isolated and inventoried by the State Police. It was determined that, with the exception of two individuals, every officer, at the end of the operation, still retained the same load as he’d had when initially reporting for duty. It was further determined that Officer Weir was short one .223 caliber cartridge from his M4 rifle and Officer Sweeney’s Glock 40 caliber pistol’s original load of sixteen rounds had been depleted by six.
2. FIREARMS IDENTIFICATION. In the course of processing the shooting scene, the State Police recovered one .223 caliber cartridge case and five 40 caliber Cartridge cases. While the .223 caliber casing lacked sufficient markings for a positive identification to Officer Weir’s M4 rifle it was found to be consistent with having been fired in that weapon. The five 40. caliber casings were determined to have been fired in Officer Sweeney’s weapon.
A sixth 40 caliber cartridge case was found jammed or "stovepiped" in Sweeney’s weapon when it was initially taken into custody at the scene. "Stovepiping" can be caused by a variety of factors including a loosening of the holder’s grip and any grip on either the barrel of the weapon or its back that prevents the slide from moving freely. When later test-fired, Sweeney’s weapon was found to operate without malfunction. This casing was also determined to have been fired in the officer’s weapon.
Five .40 caliber bullets were recovered. At autopsy, one was recovered from a chest wound (with an associated piece of fragment removed at the hospital). Another was found located at the end of a wound tract on the right side of Mr. Guizan’s abdomen, and a third in an injury to the left thigh. The other two were found on the floor in the den of Mr. Terebesi’s home. All five are consistent with having been fired in Officer Sweeney’s weapon. Not recovered were either a .223 caliber bullet or a sixth .40 caliber, although numerous fragments were located at the scene that could account for one or both.
3. GUNSHOT RESIDUE Gunshot residue swabbings were taken of Mr. Guizan’s hands. and subsequently analyzed for the presence of lead, barium and antimony. The purpose of this test is to determine whether a person has had his hands on or in close proximity to a firearm while it was being fired. A finding of the presence of all three substances is strongly indicative that a hand was in such a position. All three substances were found on the back of Guizan’s left hand and the palm of his right hand. This is consistent with the observation at the autopsy of gunshot stippling patterns found on both hands. It is further consistent with Officer Sweeney’s report that Guizan was attempting to wrest the gun away when he fired.
4. FORENSICS SPECIFIC TO GONZALO GUIZAN Officer Sweeney’s weapon was processed for the presence of fingerprints. A handgun is considered a typically poor source of identifiable fingerprints. No identifiable latent prints were found. . The handle of the weapon was further analyzed for the presence of Mr. Guizan’s DNA. This effort met with negative results.
5. AUTOPSY. The autopsy was conducted by Dr. H. Wayne Carver, the State’s Chief Medical Examiner, on the morning after the incident. Other than gunshot injuries, Dr. Carver found a number of superficial wounds on Guizan’s face consistent with having been caused by soot or household debris propelled by the detonation of the "flash-bang" that had been thrown into the den.
While, as indicated herein-above, the device has no fragmentation capability, its detonation does expel gunpowder and can propel loose debris located in the immediate vicinity of its detonation. (Terebesi’s den was notoriously untidy). Toxicology analysis of body fluids determined that the Guizan had a substantial level of cocaine (0.41 mg/l) in his system at the time of death.
Dr. Carver found that Guizan was struck by six distinct gunshots. One passed through the left hand, causing the bullet to deform. Tissue and fragments of bone and bullet then caused superficial secondary injuries to the chest and face; the major portion of the bullet then entered the center of the chest. The wound course was followed to a point where a 40 caliber bullet core was recovered. Two bullets entered the abdomen, one on either side of navel. The one on the left was through and through, examination of the second led to a 40 caliber bullet found beneath the skin of the back. There was a gunshot wound to each leg; one to the left groin from which a 40 caliber bullet was recovered near the femur; the other entered on the outside of the right knee and tunneled under the skin before exiting seven inches further up the thigh. There also appear to be minor grazing gunshot injuries to the right thumb and upper arm possibly caused by the sixth bullet that did not enter the body.
It was the opinion of Dr. Carver that all six gunshots are consistent with Ptl. Sweeney’s account of being in a superior position to Guizan as the latter attempted to wrest control of the officer’s weapon from below. Also consistent with Sweeney’s description is the fact that the injuries to each hand were surrounded by gunpowder stippling, indicating an extremely close proximity of both hands to the muzzle of the weapon as it was fired. Dr. Carver did not find any injuries that suggested having been caused by a .223 caliber Round. (Ptl. Weir’s M4 rifle).
6. INTERVIEW OF RONALD TEREBESI
On August 20, 2008, Ronald Terebesi, in the company of his attorney, voluntarily submitted to a taped interview by members of the State Police. By agreement, he declined to provide any information relating to pending or possible criminal charges against himself. Preliminarily, Terebesi described the incident of May 7 where his house had been shot up with a shotgun. As a result, as of May 18, a number of windows remained covered with plywood panels. Mr. Guizan, a close friend, was aware of this occurrence. Terebesi further spoke of the incident of March 31 when police and EMTs responded to a distress call and a .357 caliber revolver was removed from the premises (which, as of May 18, remained in the custody of the Easton Police). He also acknowledged that he was, in fact, the owner of a 9mm. Beretta semi automatic handgun. This, however, was stored at his parent’s house. There were no other firearms at 91 Dogwood Drive.
As explained by Terebesi, Mr. Guizan came by on May 18the for the purpose of trying to repair his own automobile which had broken down and been left in Terebesi’s driveway. In the early afternoon, the two were watching television in the den when they heard what sounded like the dining room chandelier falling down followed by two shotgun blasts. While his initial reaction was to investigate, both he and Guizan quickly determined that the shotgun assailants had returned. It is unclear from Terebesi’s statement whether Guizan actually expressed this thought or Terebesi simply surmised that was his friend’s thinking. In either case, the two headed for the door that let out into the front yard.
As they approached the front door, it opened, followed by sharp flashes. Both men were immediately knocked back and pinned by an officer using a large shield. This was accompanied by Guizan’s screams and a number of gunshots. Terebisi. next recalls both he and Guizan lying on the floor and being savagely attacked by a police dog. He was then gotten to his feet, cuffed and escorted outside. Guizan was carried out. He did not realize the intruders were police officers until he was being secured.
Terebesi admits to having difficulty keeping all of the details straight and he clearly was disoriented by the detonation of a flash bang in the den and the overall confusion of the moment. No police dogs were employed until all parties were removed from the house, and those that did go in were narcotics and weapons search dogs. Neither Terebesi nor Guizan were found to have anything resembling dog bite injuries. He further claims to never have heard the police "knock and announce,’ however that step is clearly evidenced by the recording of the operation. Otherwise, Terebesi’s account closely tracks that of the police as verified by the subsequent investigation.
As noted above, the scope of this investigation is a limited one. The issue here is not whether the best operational plan was employed or whether that plan could have been executed in a better, less tragic, fashion. The question here is whether, under all the circumstances, the police conducted themselves to the extent they were permitted under C.G.S. 53a-22.
The Easton Police acquired a lawfully issued warrant for the search of 91 Dogwood Drive. In considering how to execute the warrant, they were faced with the facts of recent presence and use of firearms at that location as well as the ownership by Mr. Terebesi of an additional unaccounted-for handgun. Consequently, the safety of the officers who executed the warrant was of paramount importance and the Easton Police Chief was acting well within his authority in requesting the assistance of S.W.R.E.R.T..
The plan drawn up by S.W.R.E.R.T. was created in view of the same facts that had impelled Easton to request the team’s assistance. It was a standard plan devised with the intent of avoiding the use of firearms by the house’s occupants and the necessity of the police responding with gunfire. The purpose of the employment of "flash-bang" devices was to initially distract the occupants from the point of police entry and then to briefly disorient them so that the police, once inside, could quickly and easily secure them. It cannot be said that the plan, as devised, went beyond the strictures of C.G.S. 53a-22, such as an order to not "knock and announce’ and simply burst in shooting.
All members of the entry "stack" were working with the same information that had brought their team into the operation, e.g.; as he entered the house, Officer Sweeney was aware of the existence of a semi-automatic handgun. As he closed with Terebesi and Guizan he was under the impression that he was being fired upon. While this was not true, it may be attributed to either the dispersal of gunpowder and debris from the "flash-bang" or the impact of his sudden closing with Terebesi and Guizan. What is clear is that Sweeney certainly thought he was fired on and, indeed, hit since his immediate exclamations to that effect were heard by the rest of the entry team. He was actually, while complaining of chest pain, immediately examined at the scene.
Sweeney’s misperception ultimately is of relatively little consequence. Once he proceeded to try to immobilize the occupants of the room, he immediately became engaged in a struggle with Guizan for possession of his weapon and, in fact, felt himself losing his grip on it. At that point he was certainly reasonable in his belief that, should Guizan gain control of the gun, his own life and that of others would be in serious danger and thus he had to fire the weapon to reverse the situation.
Officer Weir fired only one shot from his M4 rifle and not until he’d already heard gunshots and Officer Sweeney yelling out that he’d been hit. There is no evidence that Weir’s shot struck anyone, in fact the accounts from the scene combined with the findings of the autopsy eliminate this possibility.
The use of force by police officers on May 18, 2008, at 91 Dogwood Drive, Easton, Ct was appropriate under C.G.S. 53a-22
March 30, 2009
Jonathan C. Benedict, State’s Attorney
Judicial District of Fairfield