Pierce County sued over excessive force claim

By Adam Lynn | The News Tribune

The parents of a man who died after being beaten, Tasered and hog-tied by sheriff’s deputies are suing Pierce County for $10 million.

Raymond and Margaret Hillstrom contend deputies used excessive force in subduing their 44-year-old son, Ronald Hillstrom, in the parking lot of a University Place apartment complex this spring.

“The use of excessive force by these officers, as well as their attempts to cover up what they had done, were observed and documented by other residents of the apartment complex,” the lawsuit states. “Those residents were horrified by what savagery they witnessed that evening.”

Some of them recorded the incident on their cellphones and shared the video with KOMO 4 News. One recording shows a sheriff’s deputy repeatedly hitting someone with a large metal flashlight. That person’s cries of fear or pain are audible.

Efforts to reach sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer were unsuccessful Friday.

Troyer told The News Tribune in May that Hillstrom was agitated, armed with a screwdriver, refused to obey orders and then fought with deputies as they tried to subdue him.

“He was out of control, fighting and biting our deputies,” Troyer said at the time.

The Medical Examiner’s Office determined Hillstrom died of cardiac dysrhythmia, which is an irregular heartbeat. It classified his death as an accident.

Connelly Law Offices filed the lawsuit on the Hillstroms’ behalf in U.S. District Court in Tacoma on Thursday. The suit also names Sheriff Paul Pastor and University Place Police Chief Mike Blair as defendants, saying they failed to properly train the deputies involved.

The Sheriff’s Department provides police services for University Place under contract. Blair is a county employee who Pastor made chief of the University Place detachment after consulting with city leaders.

The confrontation occurred May 11 in the 4400 block of 76th Avenue West after someone who lives in the complex called 911 to say a man in the parking lot was acting strangely.

Residents reported that Hillstrom was walking in circles and yelling for help.

At some point, as many as four deputies physically engaged Hillstrom.

“They repeatedly shocked him with the Tasers,” the lawsuit states. “When the involuntary muscle movements caused by the electric shocks were perceived as ‘resistance,’ they continued to kick and punch him in the head and torso.”

The Hillstroms contend one deputy hit their son in the face with a large metal flashlight and that others jumped on top Ronald Hillstrom and hog-tied him even though “no one had been hurt or threatened” and “no crime had been committed.”

Hillstrom suffered broken ribs, a broken nose, lacerations on his head and a “collapsed chest,” the lawsuit states.

“The manner in which he was restrained by the officers, in combination with the injuries they inflicted, made it impossible for Ron to breath,” according to the suit. “Eventually, his heart stopped beating, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation had to be initiated by paramedics.”

He later died at Tacoma General Hospital.

The lawsuit classified the deputies’ actions as unprovoked.

“The officers did not attempt to engage Ron in conversation, nor did they attempt to ascertain what was bothering him,” the suit states. “The officers had taken no steps whatsoever to assess Ron’s emotional or psychiatric state.”

Hillstrom had struggled with mental illness and drug addiction for years leading up to his death, court records show.

He had three felony convictions in Pierce County – second-degree assault in 2004, drug possession in 2001 and first-degree custodial interference in 1999.

A mental health worker who examined Hillstrom for the court in 2006 said he was addicted to methamphetamine and alcohol and had “cannabis dependence.”

She wrote that Hillstrom was likely to commit more criminal acts unless he got his addictions under control.