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Lost suit still brings vindication

A jury pins all the blame on an officer, not the city or victim.

By MIKE DONILA
Published July 26, 2007


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CLEARWATER - Jake and Paula Crouch have always wanted the world to know just one thing: Their son never did anything wrong.

A jury agreed Wednesday, but the Seminole couple still lost a $9-million wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Clearwater.

Police Officer Robert Milliron "maliciously" shot and killed their son almost 16 years ago outside a busy Clearwater restaurant, the jury said. And the victim, John Paul Crouch, 25, did not pose a deadly threat.

But the city won, because the jury didn't believe the Police Department was negligent for Milliron's actions.

The news came hard for the couple who sued more than a decade ago, but the two also feel a little vindicated. And they're not ready to stop fighting.

They plan to sue in federal court.

"I think about him a lot. I think about him when I see someone who favors him, or something that reminds me of him," said Jake Crouch Sr., 79, a retired Army chief warrant officer. "He's by my bed, on a bookcase inside a plastic box they first put him in. I keep his ashes there so I'll never forget him."

The couple has long claimed that the city failed to properly train and supervise Milliron, despite a string of problems, including two suspensions - one based on theft allegations, the other for lying to his supervisors.

The city says Milliron was properly trained, but violated its policy for using deadly force. And, the city says, it is not responsible for those actions.

"As you look back over the 16 years of drama - and it will still go on - we've always felt confident that we handled it in the right way," said Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein after the jury's five-hour deliberation. "He knew the law - we did everything we could to prepare the officer."

Party led to tragedy

John Paul Crouch died on Aug. 16, 1991, when he was out late celebrating. Two nights before his older brother Jacob's wedding, he helped throw a party that made its way to Joe Dugan's, a restaurant off Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.

A little before 2 a.m., they were in the parking lot leaving, when Jacob got into a fight with a stranger.

Milliron saw the commotion and waded into what witnesses say was a crowd of more than 150.

From there, accounts differ.

Milliron says Crouch struck him, and as he headed for his cruiser, the young man followed, fists clenched.

Others say it was someone else who smacked the nine-year veteran across the chest. And that Crouch's hands were open and at shoulder height.

Seconds later - as Milliron warned Crouch to "back off" - the patrolman fired a shot from his 9mm. Crouch died minutes later, a bullet wound in his chest.

The family believes Crouch approached the officer, hoping to talk him into going easy on his brother, because he was about to get married.

The only words he got to say, however, were: "I can't believe you shot me."

Seeking vindication

The trial has often been postponed, and at one point an entire jury panel was dismissed.

Over the years, the Crouches refused to settle. They were offered up to $75,000, but said it wasn't about the money - it was about vindicating their son.

They want people to know he wasn't a drunken bully looking for a fight. He was the quietest of their five children, the one who resolved family disputes.

"I always believed in God, but felt you could count on the police as a second line of defense," said Paula Crouch, 76, a former air traffic controller. "I don't know about the police anymore. They should have fired (Milliron) before he ever showed up."

Crouch was an assistant manager at a Gulfport Winn-Dixie. His family hoped he would one day open his own grocery store.

Milliron, who was 44, was fired a few months later after a police board found that he used unnecessary force and didn't give Crouch enough time to react to his commands. He was later charged with manslaughter, but eventually acquitted.

Milliron, who is no longer a police officer and now lives in Port Richey, declined to comment Wednesday.

Clenched fist at issue

Throughout the past week, attorneys for both sides have debated whether Crouch was about to attack Milliron. If he was, then the officer may have had the right to shoot him.

The city's attorney, John Richardson, argued he was about to commit battery - a felony - leaving the officer with no choice.

"When a man turns his hands into a fist, he's making a statement," said Richardson, a St. Petersburg attorney. "And when a man balls up his fists, he has an intention to use it. He placed the officer's life in imminent danger."

But Clay Rood, who represents the Crouches, said the son had no reason to attack.

"Perhaps he clenched his fists in nervousness," the Tampa attorney said. "There's a lot of reasons why people clench their fist and you don't shoot them for it."

Rood said he'll ask the court to review the jury's verdict, but he plans to sue the city in federal court, saying the officer violated Crouch's civil rights.

In the meantime, Paula and Jake Crouch said they'll continue waiting. It's something they're familiar with.

"It's been hard," said Jake Crouch. "It keeps you up at night."

[Last modified July 25, 2007, 23:44:11]


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