- In 2016, Ottawa County Kansas Deputy Russell Thornton used a taser on 91-year-old Lee Witschi who suffered from Alzheimer’s
- Police had been called to the Good Samaritan nursing facility to help transport Witschi for a medical evaluation
- Thornton deployed his taser into Witschi’s back as he tried to walk away from the three officers
- Witschi broke his wrist from the fall and died two months after Thornton used his taser on him
- Sheriff Keith Coleman said the use of the taser on a 91-year-old man with Alzheimer’s was the best alternative
- A civil suit against Thornton was dropped due to Kansas immunity laws even though it was decided his use of force was unreasonable
In 2016, a video showed the disturbing moment Ottawa County Sheriff’s Deputy Russell Thornton used a taser on 91-year-old Lee Witschi at The Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society nursing facility. Witschi suffered from Alzheimer’s and was refusing to go for a medical evaluation following an incident with another resident.
According to court documents, after a four-day hospitalization in 2013, Witschi was admitted to Good Samaritan for an evaluation. Witschi was admitted into the memory care unit at Good Samaritan for his Alzheimer’s. Before the incident with Thornton, Witschi’s physician had described him as “very healthy, grossly orientated person, place and time; hard of hearing and easily confused [and] prescribed Namenda, a prescription drug often used with Alzheimer’s patients.”
On March 29, 2016, the staff at Good Samaritan called Minneapolis, Kansas police for help transporting Witschi to the Regional Health Center in Salina, Kansas for an evaluation. According to staff, earlier in the day Witschi “had been in a confrontation with another nursing home resident earlier in the day and [they] needed assistance” getting the elderly man “into a van.” Officer Gent and Carr from the Minneapolis Police Department were the first to arrive on the scene and they were not told “about the specifics of the confrontation.” They were told, “Witschi was in his 90s and did have Alzheimer’s.” In the call to 911, the staff went into slightly more detail about the incident.
We have a resident who needs to go to the er for, basically, he was beating the crap out of another resident.
we’ve got to keep our residents safe.
we can’t deal with him here like this.911 call from Good Samaritan staff
By the time officers arrived the situation was deescalated. Gent and Carr found Witschi in the dining room “displaying a calm demeanor.” The two officers tried to get Witschi to accompany them to the van but he refused. Staff at Good Samaritan insisted transport was necessary, at which point Gent radioed for assistance. Thornton arrived on the scene within minutes of the request. While officers waited for Thornton to arrive, Witschi had walked from the dining room to the living room to watch television.
In the living room, Thornton began trying to persuade Witschi to go to the van. Staff at Good Samaritan continued to insist Witschi had to be transported for evaluation. Gent had told the staff the officers did not want to place hands on Witschi but it may be the only way to get the elderly man into the van. All three officers began asking Witschi to stand up. Witschi told the officers to “back up,” then stood up and walked past the officers. As Witschi walked past the officers he pushed an officer’s hands off of him as he attempted to restrain him. It was at that point Thornton pulled his taser and shot Witschi in the back without warning.
Video Shows Deputy Russell Thornton Taser Lee Witschi In The Back Without Warning
The Ottawa Sheriff’s Department claimed Witschi was getting violent with officers, which is why there was the use of force. However, a video of the incident was leaked online to LiveLeak and went viral. In the video it is clear that Witschi was not a threat to Thornton or other officers, and was only able to make it a few steps before being shot in the back with the deputy’s taser. Witschi is heard screaming in pain as he falls to the floor. A Good Samaritan staff member can be heard saying “Oh my God” as officers get on top of Witschi and handcuff him.
Lee Witschi Died Two Months After Russell Thornton Used His Taser On Him
According to Witschi’s family he sustained a broken wrist from the fall and the taser helped to weaken his heart. Witschi died two months later on May 19, 2016. The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department investigated to see if the use of force was necessary. Ottawa County Sheriff Keith Coleman said he and the county attorney concluded that shooting a 91-year-old man with Alzheimer’s in the back with a taser was the “best possible alternative because the situation would have otherwise have resulted in the application of physical force.” Coleman sent a full statement to KWCH in December of 2016.
The incident that took place on March 29, 2016, at the Minneapolis Good Samaritan Center involved two Law Enforcement Agencies, and a total of three officers. Two of the officers were from the Minneapolis Police Department, and one officer was from the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department. The Minneapolis Police Department was the primary responding agency and, after assessing the situation, requested back up from the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department.
During the incident an Ottawa County Sheriff’s officer did deploy an Electronic Control Device (Taser).
Ottawa County Sheriff Keith Coleman Via KWCH
The available evidence from this incident was reviewed by me and the Ottawa County Attorney. During our investigation, it was determined that the officers’ use of the Electronic Control Device was the best possible alternative because the situation would otherwise have resulted in the application of physical force. In this situation, the deployment of a Taser had a significantly lower risk of injury than the use of physical force.
What Happened To Deputy Russell Thornton
So what happened to Thornton after displaying this sort of irrational response against an extremely fragile elderly man? Thornton is currently the undersheriff for the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department. After receiving the blessing of Coleman, it does not appear Thornton faced any consequences from his actions. In a civil lawsuit filed against the officers involved, Gent and Carr were dismissed because Thornton’s actions gave them no time or warning for the officers to stop him.
The court found that Thornton’s use of a taser was “unreasonable” as it was never established that Witschi was to be detained by whatever force chose. Application of the Graham factors, which includes “split-second judgement” required under “rapidly-evolving circumstances,” was not appropriate as there was no immediate risk in the situation. “There was no need for rapid resolution of the dispute. The 91-year-old Witschi presented no threat to the officers,” court documents say. The documents go on to say, “Witschi was no threat to anyone when the officers arrived and found him in the dining room.”
It was noted that officers on the scene were not told the details of Witschi’s confrontation with the other nursing home resident. The documents also read, “it cannot seriously be maintained that the officers reasonably believed that the elderly nursing home patient might escape from them.” In other words, there were absolutely no grounds for Thornton to shoot a 91-year-old man suffering from Alzheimer’s in the back with a taser inside a nursing home. Not much of a surprise there. What is a surprise is that Kansas has legislation put in place to protect officers in Thornton’s situation.
Qualified immunity is supposed to protect officers from civil suits when it has not been clearly established that their actions were a violation of a citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights. The county argued that Thornton’s actions were protected by Arden v. McIntosh and K.S.A. 59-2592, which provides that “any law enforcement officer who has a reasonable belief formed upon investigation that a person is a mentally ill person and because of such person’s mental illness is likely to cause harm to self or others if allowed to remain at liberty may take the person into custody without a warrant.” The court rejected the argument.
It was argued the law governing use of a taser was clearly established in Cavanaugh v. Woods City Cross in 2010. In that case, Officer Daniel Davis deployed his taser without warning on Shannon Cavanaugh which caused her to fall and strike her head. Davis had responded to a non-emergency call and shot Cavanaugh in the back with a taser without warning as she was trying to walk away from him. Cavanaugh was at the front steps of her home when Davis shot her and ended up “going rigid,” at which point she struck her head on the concrete steps of her porch. Cavanaugh suffered a traumatic brain injury. In a civil lawsuit, Davis’s qualified immunity defense was rejected based off two cases that clearly established the law related to the use of a taser at the time of the incident.
The court found Thornton was not shielded by qualified immunity and stated his actions “do reflect a potential constitutional violation.” However, the Tenth Circuit has determined that Kansas Sheriff’s are protected by the Eleventh Amendment, which means “claims arising from their law enforcement function, sheriffs are entitled to immunity.” Despite finding Thornton’s actions were unreasonable and possibly violated Constitutional rights, he was granted immunity due to Kansas’ immunity laws.