Officers Cleared of Negligence in Death of LSD User in 1986

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A jury Thursday exonerated five Ventura police officers sued for negligence in the death of a 15-year-old LSD user who died after they hogtied him face down on a hospital gurney.

The Superior Court jury deliberated for one day before ruling that the officers and their department were not at fault in the death of Gary Gurrola.

The youth died of a heart attack on Aug. 16, 1986, at the Ventura County Juvenile Hall while under the influence of LSD, witnesses testified.

"I was disappointed," said Porfirio Gurrola Jr., the boy's father, choking back tears after the verdict ended the four-week trial. "I'm trying to maintain some sense of levelheadedness."

The ruling came more than six years after Gurrola's parents came home to find him high on LSD and standing in the front yard, his pupils dilated.

When they asked him to come inside, the youth cut his leg jumping through an already broken window, then began singing and reciting poetry as his father tried to calm him and his mother summoned help, according to testimony.

Police arrived, handcuffed him and tied his feet together with bungee cord before he was taken to the county hospital for treatment, according to testimony. There, he was put face down on a gurney with a board strapped on top of him. He was then ordered to Juvenile Hall for suspicion of being under the influence of drugs, witnesses testified.

At Juvenile Hall, Gary continued to struggle violently as the officers tried to carry the gurney to a padded isolation cell, witnesses testified.

At one point, his family alleged, officers held him down, and when he stopped moving, they did nothing.

While attorney George Eskin argued that the officers caused Gary's fatal heart attack by holding him down, defense attorney Joseph R. Henderson maintained that the drug killed him.

The hospital and the county already had reached settlements in the suit, agreeing to pay undisclosed amounts to Gary's family.

The jurors split 9 to 3 Thursday in favor of the city and Officers Beth Hamilton-Gregory, Michael Van Atta, James Gable, David Matz and John Donaldson. It was the minimum number of votes required for a civil lawsuit verdict.

The majority believed that the officers did nothing wrong and that Gary would have died of an LSD-induced heart attack even if he had not been restrained, said jury foreman Edward C. Martin of Oxnard.

"I don't think we were convinced there was not a direct correlation between the ingestion of LSD and Gary Gurrola's death," Martin said. "He would have died had the police not been involved. We felt the police were performing their duties in a prudent manner."

Martin said medical information--including county Coroner F. Warren Lovell's testimony that the youth died of an LSD-induced heart attack--was the most persuasive evidence in the officers' favor.

However, three jurors dissented, arguing that at least one officer had contributed to Gary's death by leaning on his back as he was face down on the gurney, said juror John Webb of Thousand Oaks.

"The evidence showed me that one officer, Gable, came down on this guy heavy during this problem in Juvenile Hall, and when he got off him, (Gary) wasn't moving," Webb said. "They didn't notice it, and they should have. I felt they were tired and they were (annoyed). They blew it, they made a mistake.

"I didn't feel that he was going to die anyway," Webb added.

However, while nine jurors believed that the officers were blameless, the jury sent a note to the judge asking whether the city of Ventura might be held liable for improperly training some of the officers. The answer was no, and a few hours later, the verdict was reached.

"This was a very difficult case, and I can understand the verdict," Eskin said afterward.

"One satisfying thing that came out of the case is that (Ventura police) won't hogtie kids any more," Eskin said, referring to a change in police policy that he said took place after Gary's death.

Henderson, the defense attorney, said, "I never felt the police officers did anything to justify their involvement in this case."

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