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Suit filed in 2003 jail death case

In addition to damages, the deceased inmate's family wants to know exactly how and why the man died, which hasn't been explained.

Published March 11, 2005

CLEARWATER - The family of a Pasco man, Larry Germonprez, who died two years ago today in the Pinellas County Jail, filed a $10-million lawsuit this week alleging that corrections deputies killed him.

Although State Attorney Bernie McCabe cleared the deputies of any criminal wrongdoing in May 2003, the sheriff's internal affairs investigation remains unfinished - 22 months later.

The delay angers Germonprez's family.

"It tells me that they are definitely guilty and they are trying to hold this off as long as they can in hopes that it will go away," said Jennifer Pugh, 38, Germonprez's ex-wife and mother to two of his children. "That's not going to happen. We don't want his death to be for nothing."

Germonprez of Zephyrhills died shortly after a struggle with deputies as they tried to move him from one cell to another. An autopsy found Germonprez had 17 rib fractures, which would be consistent with the deputies compressing him on a bed. Germonprez was arrested and booked into the jail in March 2003, after he left the scene of an accident involving his vehicle.

Then, in what appears to be an unprecedented decision, the Sheriff's Office requested a review of Germonprez's autopsy. Sheriff Jim Coats said he knew of no other such request. He would not detail why the autopsy was re-examined.

"Investigators, during their investigation, had some concerns that they felt could be best addressed by a second forensic opinion," he said.

Then-Sheriff Everett Rice told a reporter Thursday he could not remember what specifically prompted the decision. "If I remember right, it wasn't a normal case. It wasn't a case that was easily resolved."

Rice was elected to the state House of Representatives in November. Coats, who was Rice's chief deputy, was elected to replace him.

Coats, in his 33 years in the Sheriff's Office, said he has never heard of an internal affairs probe taking so long to complete. Normally, they are limited to 45 days. "Some of the delay was due to circumstances beyond our control," Coats said.

When instructed to get a second opinion on the autopsy, detectives asked the FBI, which pointed them to forensic experts with the U.S. Army, said Marianne Pasha, a sheriff's spokeswoman. The case was sent to the Army in April 2004, almost a year into the investigation, Pasha said.

The Army, however, never reviewed the autopsy's findings, despite repeated requests, she said.

Finally in December 2004, after no progress, the sheriff's detectives asked for the case back and sent it to the medical examiner for the 10th Judicial Circuit, Pasha said. Results of that examination were returned in February. They have not been released.

Because the case remains open, sheriff's investigators also have refused to turn over some evidence, including a video recording that shows deputies trying to restrain Germonprez, said James Taylor, one of the family's attorneys.

The lawsuit, filed late Wednesday in Circuit Court, names two dozen defendants, including Sheriff Coats, some of the jail's registered nurses, and deputies involved in retraining Germonprez.

Germonprez was arrested and booked into the jail March 7, 2003, after he ran from the scene of an accident in which his vehicle hit the rear of a car on Roosevelt Boulevard.

He was charged with leaving the scene of a crash, drunken driving, careless driving, driving with a suspended license and possession of marijuana.

For the first few days in jail, Germonprez gave deputies no problems. But late on March 10, inmates summoned deputies to their pod because Germonprez was walking around nude making bizarre remarks.

A nurse checked his blood pressure and determined it was critically high, which she believed was a result of alcohol withdrawal. She recommended moving him to the medical wing. He was placed in an isolation cell there for observation.

About three hours later, Germonprez began kicking and beating the cell door, according to the Sheriff's Office. A nurse suggested moving him to another cell that might be less claustrophobic.

When deputies opened the cell door, Germonprez rushed them, the Sheriff's Office has said. Four deputies took him to the floor and cuffed him, the office said.

Germonprez then grabbed the door handle of another cell. Three detention deputies - Walter Kelly, William Johnson and Paul Pappasergi - pried him free and pinned him to the bed of his new cell, according to the Sheriff's Office.

At least three minutes later, a nurse noticed Germonprez wasn't breathing. He was pronounced dead an hour later at Northside Hospital.

Germonprez leaves behind six children.

[Last modified March 11, 2005, 01:23:21]

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