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Family of Vietnam vet killed by police sues troopers

PTSD (US Army/Released)

The family of a Vietnam veteran in Butler County killed by state police in 2018 has sued multiple troopers involved in the incident, saying they escalated the situation with a military-style assault to execute an involuntary psychological commitment, then intentionally started a fire and shot him.

Walter Wiemann was 73 when he barricaded himself in his house on Nursery Road in Forward Township on Sept. 18, 2018. Troopers said he was threatening himself and others. They surrounded the house and said they tried to talk him out but got no response.

The Special Emergency Response Team then approached. Police shot Mr. Wiemann after, they said, he raised a rifle and aimed it at a trooper.

In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Monday, Mr. Wiemann’s family said he is a Vietnam veteran who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and dementia. His family said he often believed he was in combat and became agitated easily.

On Sept. 18 he was upset because beehives that he kept no longer had bees in them, the suit said. He didn’t remember that he and his family had cleaned them out earlier and he thought maybe his neighbors had interfered with the bees. When he became more and more agitated, his daughter, Tammi Kaufman, called 911.

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State troopers responded and saw Mr. Wiemann in his garage. They said that because there was a vehicle in the garage they couldn’t see what he was doing or if he had weapons. His daughters told the troopers that he was unreachable by phone because the ringer was disabled; they had disabled it because the ringing made his PTSD worse.

The daughters said they told police that their father had access to an antique hunting rifle kept in a gun cabinet and unloaded.

Cpl. Timothy Morando and representatives from the local crisis center told the family that they would have to sign a 302 form to involuntarily commit Mr. Wiemann. Cpl. Morando said police would have to use force to remove Mr. Wiemann if they did not sign the form.

Mr. Wiemann’s wife, Karen, signed it and reminded the police of her husband’s dementia and PTSD. The family said troopers tried to call Mr. Wiemann despite being told the ringer was disabled, according to the suit.

“Apparently frustrated by their inability to reach Mr. Wiemann telephonically, PSP elected to escalate their response, ” the suit says. The SERT team moved in with an armored vehicle called a BearCat and a helicopter, according to the complaint.

“The sounds of the helicopters (one of which was possibly a news helicopter deployed by KDKA), the BearCat, and armed members of the SERT resembled a military exercise reminiscent of Mr. Wiemann’s combat experiences in Vietnam,” the suit says.

The siege went on for four hours. Tammi Kaufman and her family said they pleaded with police to de-escalate. But the troopers refused to let the family try to approach Mr. Wiemann. At one point they agreed to let the family record one of them speaking to Mr. Wiemann to calm him down, but the troopers couldn’t find any batteries to operate the recorder, according to the suit.

The family also said police tried to use a cell phone to make the recordings but Tammi Kaufman and Karen Wiemann said they never heard the recording and “to the best of their knowledge and information, that no recordings of the family members’ voices were ever effectively captured.”

At some point, the barn on the property caught fire. Mr. Wiemann apparently saw the smoke and began to investigate, the suit says.

“When Mr. Wiemann was walking toward the barn, he turned, presumably because the BearCat was in his front yard, and saw the armored vehicle and squad cars,” the complaint says.

“The siege finally ended when Walter Wiemann was shot in the back of the head by a PSP officer or officers who took 12-14 shots at him while he was standing in an open part of the yard between the residence and the barn.”

The family makes no mention of Mr. Wiemann pointing a rifle at a trooper, as police said he did, and contends that the SERT team deliberately started the barn fire as a strategy to lure Mr. Wiemann out of the house.

The suit names Cpl. Morando, another trooper identified only as “Trooper Costini” and 30 unnamed members of the SERT team as defendants. Among the claims are assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, loss of consortium and wrongful death.

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© 2020 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.