Petition drive seeks probe of death after Westerly arrest

Westerly - More than 1,400 people have signed an online petition that calls on the FBI and federal justice officials to investigate further the death of Ryan O'Loughlin of Mystic, who died last June after being arrested by Westerly police outside a downtown bar.

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

In December, 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.

The announcement stated that "the Statewide Grand Jury found that the actions of the officers were legally justified," but no further explanation was offered.

The Westerly woman who started the petition, Susan Champouillon, said Tuesday that she was at Perk & Corks the night O'Loughlin died and that she witnessed the initial interaction between him and police. She said she did not see what happened in the adjacent alley where O'Loughlin was taken into custody.

When police arrived, O'Loughlin was trying to help the owner of Perks & Corks settle a dispute with a patron who allegedly had damaged a bathroom.

Champouillon said that when the bar's owner, Bryan Keilty, told police that everything was OK, one of the officers told him, "You called us to handle a problem? Let us handle it. Next time don't call us if you want to take care of things yourself. Go back inside and let us take care of this."

The 50-year-old Champouillon said her father was a longtime New York City police officer, and she realizes there are times when officers have to use force when confronting a suspect.

But, she said, she was sick of hearing about people being mistreated by police here and found that residents are scared to speak out.

"The fear of retribution in this town is amazing," she said.

Champouillon said she is not sure whether she will be able to collect her goal of 5,000 signatures, but she said "our voices are being heard."

"This is an innocent man who did nothing wrong," she said.

The petition states in part: "It now appears in Rhode Island, police are permitted to apprehend innocent people and beat them to death with no accountability. These officers were never taken off the streets, as is the standard in most cities until an investigation is complete. The Westerly Police department has a decades old history of questionable tactics. Residents live in fear of being stopped or questioned by them. There are countless cases of abuse of power by this department that have gone unreported because the victims are afraid of reprisal. This is a small community and some members of its police force rule by intimidation, provocation and threats. The question was often asked 'What is it going to take to get this department cleaned up?' The death of an innocent man is apparently not enough."

Those signing the petition also have posted comments on the page under the heading "Why People are Signing."

"The best reason ... this was my precious son!!" wrote O'Loughlin's mother, Diane, over the weekend.

David Boisoneau, a Pawcatuck physician, wrote that he is "appalled at the extent of abdominal injuries Ryan sustained. It requires significant directed force, such as a strong kick or a blunt object, to result in a lacerated liver. I would like to understand who or what delivered that amount of force while in police custody."

According to reports by Westerly officers Terence Malaghan and Sgt. David Turano, as they were questioning O'Loughlin in the early morning hours of June 9 outside Perks & Corks, O'Loughlin swore at them. 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.

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

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

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 in Groton, where he died 16 hours after his arrest.

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

The O'Loughlin family plans to file a lawsuit against the Westerly police.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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