Knoxville Police Sued For Fracturing Man’s Face

Left: Thomas Thurman; Right: Ernesto Rodriguez (h/t Oleta Cruz)

Left: Officer Thomas Thurman; Right: Ernesto Rodriguez (h/t Oleta Cruz)

An unarmed man’s encounter with Knoxville Police Department officers last year ended with an orbital fracture to his face, his eyes swollen shut and a breathing tube down his throat, a federal lawsuit alleges.

The KPD response doesn’t deny Ernesto Delgadilo Rodriguez had to be taken to the University of Tennessee Medical Center after the July 2014 incident.

The agency doesn’t deny he was seriously injured. But in an answer to a civil-rights lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, the department contends Rodriguez resisted arrest and the three officers involved were not at fault.

RELATED: Civil-rights lawsuit filed against the Knoxville Police Department.and the police department’s response.
“The plaintiff’s alleged damages, if any, were proximately caused by his own negligent or intentional acts, and, thus, plaintiff’s recovery (of damages) is barred or limited by the doctrine of comparative fault,” the department’s answer to the lawsuit stated.

Warrants initially filed against Rodriguez but dropped four months later do not detail any assault by Rodriguez on officers Fred Kimber, Tom Thurman and Travis Steven Baker. The documents stated Rodriguez “attempted” to elbow and hit Kimber as Kimber tried to handcuff him and that he “attempted to spit on” all three officers. The warrants make no mention of Rodriguez’s injuries or hospitalization.

KPD spokesman Darrell DeBusk said in a written response Friday the agency determined after a review the officers acted appropriately.

“A complaint was never made by Rodriguez,” he said. “An (internal) investigation was not conducted. However, a response to resistance report was reviewed by command and (the Internal Affairs Unit) and it was determined the officers acted within KPD policy and procedure regarding the response to resistance.”

He said dashcam videos requested by the News Sentinel from the incident would be made available today.

Thurman was hired in 2007, Kimber in 1997 and Baker in 2011.

Attorneys Amy Benner Johnson and Mike Whalen filed the lawsuit against the three officers, Police Chief David Rausch and the city. Included with the lawsuit was a close-up photo of Rodriguez’s face taken at the hospital. Among his injuries was an blowout fracture to the face that rendered him unable to breathe on his own. Blunt force trauma to the head is the most common cause of such an injury.

After being released from the hospital more than 24 hours later, Rodriguez, a 31-year-old undocumented immigrant, was jailed on charges of aggravated assault stemming from the initial domestic disturbance, assault on officers and resisting arrest. The charges were dropped with consent from the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office four months later.

The department stated in its answer to the lawsuit the charges were dropped “on the expectation” Rodriguez was “facing immediate deportation.” Court records show Rodriguez has faced minor traffic violations such as driving on a suspended license and driving without insurance as far back as 2005. All but one of those various charges was dismissed with the agreement of state prosecutors.

There is no record of any deportation action filed against Rodriguez. He remains a resident of Knoxville.

The incident began on July 9, 2014, at 7:30 a.m. when Kimber was sent to Rodriguez’s house on Roaming Drive. Rodriguez wasn’t there. His girlfriend alleged Rodriguez assaulted her and brandished a knife, which she told Kimber he no longer had, according to the lawsuit and warrants.

Kimber saw Rodriguez walking down the street. The lawsuit stated Kimber placed Rodriguez face-forward against his cruiser with Rodriguez’s hands behind his back to be handcuffed. The police department denied in its answer Rodriguez was facing the cruiser.

According to the lawsuit, Rodriguez, who speaks little English, tried to complain about the tightness of the handcuffs when Kimber threatened to use an electric stun gun on him. The department admitted Kimber made that threat. He called for backup. Thurman, both sides agreed, was the first officer to answer that call.

“Thurman proceeded to beat (Rodriguez) to the point of losing consciousness and being rushed to the emergency room and admitted for critical care,” the lawsuit stated.

Baker, both sides agreed, showed up at some point in the encounter. The department admitted in its answer Rodriguez was taken from the scene to the emergency room at UT Medical Center. The agency does not deny Rodriguez was injured but stated it has “insufficient information upon which to form a belief” about the extent of his injuries.

The agency also concedes a hospital security form stated Rodriguez was under arrest for failing to obey a child support order. Kimber obtained the assault warrants against Rodriguez while Rodriguez was being treated.

The lawsuit stated Rodriguez was jailed with a cervical collar around his neck and kept there “several months.” A release date is not listed. He has since undergone several surgeries to his face, according to the lawsuit.

Thurman was one of four officers involved in a fatal shooting of a suspect who pointed what turned out be a pellet gun at the officers in 2011. All four were cleared of wrongdoing.

Thurman received rare praise from a state appellate court for not using any force in the handling in 2012 of a case in which an upset teenage girl brandished a knife and stabbed him in the leg.

Written originally by Jamie Satterfield for the Knoxville News Sentinel