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What went wrong in man's detainment?

The State Attorney's Office is investigating the death of a Zephyrhills man deputies took into custody under the Baker Act.

By MOLLY MOORHEAD
Published October 8, 2006


ZEPHYRHILLS - Thomas Wayne McGavern was "wigging out."

That's the information two sheriff's deputies had about the man they were going to check on Pretty Pond Road in the early morning of July 29.

They also learned the 37-year-old was a body builder and former Army Ranger who may have been taking steroids and muscle relaxers.

That morning, he believed he was being chased by snakes and bugs.

His parents, William and Lynda, had called 911 for help.

By 6:28 a.m. deputies were at their house.

By 7:35 a.m., Thomas McGavern was dead.

And last month, the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office called it a homicide that deputies may have played some role in.

The Pasco Sheriff's Office says the deputies did nothing wrong and followed procedure.

Now, the State Attorney's Office and McGavern's family are trying to answer the same question: What went wrong?

* * *

Nancy Laviano had Sunday dinner with her nephew just a week before he died.

"He was laughing and talking and cutting up with me," she said. "He was good ol' Tom."

McGavern, who grew up in Zephyrhills and was single, liked lifting weights and staying in shape. He was living with his parents while attending Saint Leo University studying computers, his aunt said.

He had served in the Army in Panama and Desert Storm, and his family knew he struggled with the demons of combat, though McGavern never went into specifics.

"All he would ever say to the family was, you really can't understand what I went through over there, it was just unbelievable," Laviano said.

McGavern's family knew he had problems, and so did he. Everyone was trying to get him help.

That's what they were doing the morning of July 29.

* * *

Reports by Pasco trainee Deputy Mary Guyer and Corporal Michael Jones give this account of how the scene unfolded:

When the deputies arrived at McGavern's parents' house, they learned more about the situation. That his parents were trying to take him to the veterans' hospital in Tampa, but he got upset and took off. That he had been released from the Army with post-traumatic stress disorder.

That they were considering having him hospitalized under the Baker Act.

The deputies found McGavern staggering down the street, pretending to shoot an invisible gun at passing cars. He had thick spittle around his mouth and was muttering things like, "They're coming to get me."

With some verbal prodding from the deputies, McGavern cooperated at first, walking to their patrol car without being pushed. Then one deputy positioned McGavern against the rear of the car.

"I advised the subject that no one was coming to get him and everything was going to be fine," Guyer wrote.

But when McGavern felt a handcuff ring close around his left wrist, he snapped. Waving his arms in the air, he yelled, "You're not taking me."

He was sweaty and strong, and the deputies couldn't control him. Jones pinned him against the car, grabbed the free end of the handcuff and wrapped his other arm around McGavern's body. But McGavern pushed off the car, and Jones then made a wide swinging motion so that McGavern fell down with Jones on his back.

With McGavern still fighting and flailing, Guyer drew her Taser and called for backup. But she reholstered it without firing and tried to tame McGavern's kicking legs.

Two more deputies arrived, and finally with two pairs of handcuffs and a set of leg irons, McGavern was restrained.

He kept fighting. Guyer kept trying to calm him.

Jones called for an ambulance, and when Pasco County paramedics arrived they asked for McGavern's restraints to be removed so they could treat him.

Jones went back to talk to McGavern's parents, who apologized for their son's behavior.

Soon after, McGavern coded.

The ambulance took him to Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, where he was pronounced dead.

* * *

An autopsy on McGavern determined that he died of "excited delirium due to cocaine toxicity with a contributing cause of chest compression."

Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said "chest compression" may refer to the way McGavern was restrained with his chest to the ground, which is a normal procedure.

His death was ruled a homicide, but that doesn't necessarily mean sheriff's deputies committed a crime. The initial criminal investigation conducted by the sheriff found no evidence of that.

Now the case has been referred to the State Attorney's Office, which will decide whether or not to file charges. Chief assistant state attorney Bruce Bartlett said that work is ongoing.

The Sheriff's Office will also do a separate inquiry into whether department policy was followed. But Doll says initial findings show it was.

"I have not seen anything in this case to say policy was not followed," he said.

The sheriff's procedure for handling people with mental disabilities and those being detained under the Baker Act lists behaviors to look for and says to speak in clear, simple language while recognizing that the person may not be capable of following commands.

In McGavern's case, Jones addressed him as "soldier" to try to make him more comfortable.

The procedure further says to gather information from family members and obtain on-scene medical care.

The Pasco policy doesn't mention the use of handcuffs on Baker Act patients, but Doll said it's common for deputies to use them - for their own safety and the subject's.

"If someone is a danger to themselves or others, whether it's due to a criminal incident or a noncriminal incident, the officer has the discretion to handcuff them and even hobble them with leg restraints," Doll said.

* * *

Laviano said her family wonders why a call for help ended so tragically.

"We just felt like why did he have to stay face down, why didn't somebody turn him over, why didn't somebody watch to see if he needed CPR?" Laviano said.

They are still grieving, still facing reality.

The medical examiner said "cocaine toxicity" played a role in his death, but Laviano said the family didn't know he used the drug. McGavern had had minor skirmishes with the law more than six years ago - for misdemeanors including a traffic violation - but in his latter years he was trying to better himself by going to college.

Lynda McGavern, Laviano's sister, is having a particularly difficult time. She and McGavern's father have never spoken to the media about the incident. But Laviano said her sister wants people to know what kind of man her son was.

"He was such a fantastic person," Laviano said. "He was not out to hurt anybody. He just needed help."