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Westerly, officers face federal suit over man's death

By Sasha Goldstein

Publication: The Day

Published November 17. 2012 4:00AM
Family of Ryan O'Loughlin says police used excessive force after arrest during disturbance in 2011

The family of a Mystic man who died last year hours after being released from Westerly police custody has filed a federal lawsuit against the town and the arresting officers, alleging excessive force and several violations of the man's civil liberties.

Following a High Street disturbance in the early morning hours of June 9, 2011, Ryan O'Loughlin "was pepper sprayed, beaten with a baton, and also forcibly taken down and arrested," alleges the suit, which was filed last week and includes a police report of the incident.

O'Loughlin's death 16 hours after his arrest was classified by the Connecticut medical examiner as a homicide after he died that afternoon at the Pequot Health Center in Groton. He had suffered a dozen injuries, including a lacerated liver.

The suit alleges the arresting officers violated O'Loughlin's rights under the First, Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

"All of the above behavior by these defendant police officers is shocking to the conscience because such behavior was an unwarranted exertion of brute force," the suit reads in part.

In February, the Rhode Island Attorney General's Office announced that a grand jury had decided not to indict the three officers who had arrested the 34-year-old Navy veteran. No explanation of the decision was given.

"These assertions and allegations have already been made and thoroughly reviewed by the State Police, the Attorney General, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office and each and every time the officers' actions were deemed to be justified," Westerly Town Manager Steve Hartford said in an emailed statement Friday. "I understand that this determination is hard for the O'Loughlin family to accept, but a civil lawsuit is not going to change the facts."

According to reports filed by Westerly police Officer Terence Malaghan and Sgt. David Turano, O'Loughlin swore at them as they questioned him outside Perks & Corks. Another officer, Greg Barna, told O'Loughlin to put his hands behind his back because he was under arrest, but O'Loughlin refused and resisted being handcuffed, according to the reports.

Barna pepper-sprayed O'Loughlin, who, although "visibly affected" by the spray, continued to refuse to comply with officers' orders, the reports state.

The reports also stated that Barna began to deliver strikes to O'Loughlin's legs. The officers took O'Loughlin to the ground and struggled with him for a few minutes before placing him in handcuffs, the reports state.

Later that day, O'Loughlin appeared in Fourth Division District Court in Wakefield, R.I., on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. He posted bond and returned home. Late that afternoon he began to vomit, and his wife, Lucia Ochalova, took him to the Pequot Health Center, where he died.

Details of the autopsy report released last fall by the Providence attorney representing the O'Loughlin family indicate that O'Loughlin had suffered injuries to his head, chest, abdomen and legs during the arrest, including the lacerated liver that caused him to bleed to death.

All three arresting officers, then-Chief of Police Edward Mello and the Town of Westerly are named as defendants in the suit, as are unnamed officers who presumably oversaw O'Loughlin during his time in the Westerly jail.

Bringing the lawsuit is O'Loughlin's wife and his parents, Kevin and Diane O'Loughlin.

In May, the FBI's Boston office said it received a request to look into the allegation and would review it to see if it had merit. An online petition drive that collected 3,300 signatures had called on the FBI and federal justice officials to investigate O'Loughlin's death.

That review, done to determine whether the incident rose to the level of a violation of federal law, was completed in July. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Rhode Island said then that "there will be no further federal involvement in the matter at this time."

s.goldstein@theday.com

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