State

Lawsuit names sheriff, opponent

The two men running for sheriff are defendants in a lawsuit brought by the parents of an epilepsy patient who died after a confrontation with deputies.

Also, Stanislaus County's precarious finances are figuring in out-of-court negotiations, a document indicates.

James Edward Wells, 43, was disoriented after an August 2007 epileptic seizure in Waterford and was unable to respond to commands, court papers read. Sheriff's deputies thought he was in "a drug-induced stupor," shocked him with a Taser and beat him, then left him handcuffed and face-down on a lawn where he stopped breathing and died, documents say.

A federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Wells' parents names Sheriff Adam Christianson, whose deputies staffed Waterford Police Services before the satellite office closed. Also named is Rob Jackson, who served as the sheriff's police chief in Waterford before taking a job as a Turlock police captain. Jackson is challenging Christianson on the June 8 ballot.

The lawsuit is scheduled for mediation Tuesday, with attorneys on both sides indicating willingness to resolve the case without trial. Negotiations to be overseen by a Sacramento mediator "present a window of opportunity ... (that is) particularly important to the county of Stanislaus, which is presently suffering from significant budget problems," reads a court document signed by both sides.

If not successful, trial is scheduled for May 2011 in federal court in Fresno.

The lawsuit paints a different picture from information released by the Sheriff's Department at the time.

Shortly after the incident, Jackson said Wells damaged a door trying to ram his way into a home. Authorities said Wells then went three houses down the street and used his 6-foot, 300-pound frame to force his way into a home shared by two women, ages 54 and 61, who had deadbolted their front door and were leaning on it from the inside, they told The Bee.

The younger woman told The Bee she hit Wells with a baseball bat, but he punched her and grabbed her in a chokehold while the other woman screamed and their dog barked. Wells released the woman and said to her, "Help me, help me," she told The Bee.

The women "believed something was wrong with him and were not in fear for their lives," said Los Angeles County attorney Peter Williamson, who represents Wells' parents, in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Outside the house, Wells struggled with deputies who "were fighting for their lives," a department spokesman told The Bee. They were able to handcuff Wells after shocking him with a Taser and with the help of bystanders, authorities said.

'Did not resist or attack'

The lawsuit contends that Wells "did not resist or attack" but pleaded for help after being struck by the baseball bat. Outside, a deputy tried to clothesline him "with a forearm smash to the throat," then grabbed him from behind in a bearhug but could not bring him down, the lawsuit says.

Several Taser shocks and pepper spray in Wells' face didn't work, so the deputies struck him with batons, the lawsuit says. Finally on the ground, Wells pleaded for them to get off him and eventually turned blue from lack of oxygen, the document reads.

In a subsequent Bee story, authorities said the deputies performed CPR before medics arrived. The lawsuit contends Wells remained handcuffed "while all law enforcement personnel, paramedics and fire department personnel took no action to save his life."

Wells was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 7 and suffered seizures throughout his life, usually followed by nonviolent confusion, muscle jerks and mumbling for up to several hours, the lawsuit reads. Patients can appear awake and wander around but essentially are sleepwalking, though they sometimes scream, flail or run, according to the document.

The county failed to train deputies on how to interact with epileptics or how to avoid "positional asphyxiation," the lawsuit says.

Shortly after the incident, a sheriff's spokesman said the deputies had no way of knowing that Wells had a medical condition.

Wells' parents, Judy and James Albert Wells, also sued Taser International, called its weapons dangerous and "defective by virtue of excessive emission," and claimed the company failed to provide adequate instruction for use on epileptics.

A judge agreed to seal from public view personnel records of three deputies, with specific warnings against sharing the information with media. Attorneys on both sides said that's normal procedure in such cases.

Some Waterford city employees also are named in the lawsuit.

Referring to the county's budget problems in a court document is "not so unusual," County Counsel John Doering said. "The status of the county is pretty well known."

In an attempt to correct a $20 million deficit, leaders have laid off 104 county employees in recent weeks, though 16 are expected to move to different jobs in the county.

The county is setting aside $7 million in its general liability fund, which pays for legal expenses. That's triple the fund amount of two years ago, largely prompted by an increase in claims against the Sheriff's Department, administrators say.

The department is defending itself against a $10 million federal lawsuit filed by the family of Craig Prescott, a mentally ill jail inmate who died in custody after being subdued by Tasers and pepper spray.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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