An update into the death-in-custody of Charles Eimers reveals an investigation in total gridlock and it could remain that way indefinitely. The main problem stems from the fact that apparently to date none of the officers present during the infamous Thanksgiving Day arrest has been interrogated by FDLE investigators. How Charles Eimers ended up dead within five minutes of his altercation with Key West police is still not clear.
Sources close to the case have informed The Blue Paper that the officers’ union lawyer has instructed the fourteen KWPD officers involved not to talk with FDLE investigators until he is present. A meeting has been scheduled for the 14th of this month but will likely result in the officers “pleading the Fifth”. In other words, to avoid incriminating themselves they could decide not to cooperate with the investigation at all.
According to Dr. Scheurman, the Monroe County Medical Examiner, this is a considerable problem. “I need to determine to what extent natural disease played a part in the cause of death; whether it a contributing factor or just incidental,” says Scheurman, “The FDLE investigation will answer a lot of those questions.”
As we found out when speaking with Scheurman, the circumstances surrounding a death provide essential information in a medical examiner’s analysis. The autopsy itself is just a part of the process and not necessarily all that it’s cracked up to be in movies.
A death from natural causes would be the likely outcome if the initial version presented by the police department prevails. Officially Charles Eimers, 61, had collapsed while fighting the police and couldn’t be revived in spite of police efforts to save him. A heart attack was assumed to be the probable cause of death since heart medications were found in his car.
However witnesses and a homemade video point to homicide. Was Eimers prone on his stomach with officers piled up on his back? Was he tased, as several witnesses stated? Was he elbowed in the head by Offficer Lovette, as Lovette allegedly admitted before an independent witness. Was officer “KA” really accusing one of her fellow officers of murder that morning on South Beach? Was Eimers resisting arrest or desperately trying to breathe? Knowing the answers, according to the medical examiner, will be crucial in determining other possible causes of death, like asphyxia or trauma.
Last year in Milwaukee the county medical examiner decided to change his ruling on the cause of the in-custody-death of Derek Williams, 22, from ‘natural causes’ to ‘homicide’ after a local newspaper, the Journal Sentinel, published its own investigation.
Like in Key West, however, the official police description of Derek Williams’ arrest minimized the use of force. The Journal Sentinel reports showed that Derek Williams might have died of asphyxia while in police custody. A video showed Williams struggling to breathe for nearly eight minutes in the back of a police car before falling unconscious. Forty-five minutes later he was pronounced dead. The report was what caused the Milwaukee coroner to change his conclusion into a finding of homicide.
Obviously Monroe County’s medical examiner wants to avoid this kind of reversal of findings. “At this point I am awaiting FDLE,” says Scheurman. “I call them every week. I will call them today. When Kathy Smith [the lead FDLE investigator] is done going through all of the officers’ statements we will have a meeting. I will review any video – dash/cam, etc. and I will review FDLE’s information including any other investigative leads and combine that information with my findings.”
The cooperation of the officers is an essential part of the process. Unfortunately, it seems that police departments across the county have devised a secret chart that helps them navigate their way out of trouble when their actions result in death (even when its all caught on camera). The course laid out by officers is to “lawyer-up” immediately and refuse to cooperate. In the case of Derek Williams a February 2013 inquest resulted in a recommendation that the three police officers that arrested Williams face criminal charges. However, following the officers’ decision to plead the Fifth the prosecutor dropped the case for lack of evidence.
Similarly, in Miami, prosecutors decided in late December 2013 not to pursue criminal charges in the controversial death in custody of a 35 year old black man. Corey McNeil was found pierced with 27 bullets – officers initially claimed McNeil was armed with a box cutter but later refused to cooperate with the investigation. Unable to obtain statements from the officers, the State Attorney decided he couldn’t disprove the preposterous self-defense story and dropped the case.
Last month a jury rendered a non-guilty verdict for two Fullerton, California police officers in the death-in-custody case of Kelly Thomas, 37. The case resembles the death in Key West of Charles Eimers. Both Thomas and Eimers were presumed homeless. They both appeared on video to be struggling beneath a magma of police officers. Both may have died of asphyxia. According to the Orange County medical examiner, Kelly Thomas “died of brain damage from lack of oxygen caused by chest compression and injuries to his face.”
Doctor Michael Lekawa who treated Thomas testified “during the confrontation with police various persons were on [Thomas] and holding him down preventing him from breathing. He was doing everything he could to breathe.”
He might as well have been describing the Charles Eimers arrest on South Beach on Thanksgiving Day. Thomas is heard in the police surveillance video yelling “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!.” His voice gets lower and lower until he can no longer be heard. At that point he was dead. None of the officers who were charged would testify. The jury failed to convict in spite of it being one of the most violent and disturbing arrests ever caught on camera.
Is Eimers case heading in the same direction? Not necessarily. According to criminal attorneys who spoke with The Blue Paper, Florida law has some special investigative tools not necessarily available elsewhere. Under Florida Statute 406.12 it is a crime to refuse to provide the medical examiner with details about the circumstances surrounding a death that falls within his jurisdiction.
How the Florida Statute making a criminal offense out of failure to assist the medical examiner and the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination are supposed to play out might be a tricky legal issue. In Florida the duty to cooperate with the medical examiner and the associated criminal penalty for failure to do so applies to everyone equally.
Does this mean that the officers should be required to answer questions as long as the answers may not be used against them in a criminal prosecution? Apparently, there is legal support for that argument.
Still, the investigators have to be willing to adopt a forceful approach, but this doesn’t appear to be the case when it comes to the Eimers investigation. Now, more than two months after Eimers’ death, the medical examiner is still prevented from finishing his report, the body of the deceased was nearly cremated before autopsy and a key civilian witness who contacted The Blue Paper has yet to be interviewed despite the fact that they called the FDLE over six weeks ago. It doesn’t appear that this investigation is on a fast track.
It’s particularly disturbing that the failure to report the death of Charles Eimers to the medical examiner [which nearly resulted in the cremation of Eimers’ body prior to autopsy] does not appear to be under investigation as the egregious obstruction of justice that it may have been. Detective Todd Stevens, who was in charge of the KWPD investigation, claimed he wasn’t aware that Eimers had died, but phone records from the family and a statement by Eimers’ son Treavor to the contrary show that Stevens spoke to Treavor for eight minutes the day after Charles Eimer’s was removed from life support.
When we contacted the office of the State Attorney about this issue Assistant State Attorney Mark Kohl told us he believed FDLE was investigating that particular criminal matter [nearly cremating the body]. When we asked FDLE for confirmation they suggested we ask the KWPD if THEY were investigating. KWPD told us they issued a reprimand against Stevens but didn’t conduct any sort of investigation.
Is the concept of the police investigating itself completely hopeless? Let’s hope not.
To access all of our past coverage on the death of Charles Eimers click here.