TASER QUESTIONS; Months later, family still waiting for answers in death of relative

Monterey County Herald (California) November 7, 2005

Copyright 2005 Monterey County Herald
All Rights Reserved
Monterey County Herald (California)

November 7, 2005 Monday

BYLINE: ANDRE BRISCOE, Herald Staff Writer

After more than eight months waiting for a coroner's office autopsy report, a Salinas family can still only speculate about what really caused Robert Heston's death and whether police should be held accountable.

Heston, 40, died Feb. 20, a day after Salinas police shot him multiple times with a Taser stun gun. It is still unclear whether the weapon, drugs, alcohol or a combination of the three is to blame for his death.

Heston's family has been thwarted every time they've asked for information about the death. Specifically, they have not been allowed to view two reports pathologists compiled earlier this year.

"They tell us every time we asked for the report that it'll be a week, then a couple of months," said Misty Kastner, Heston's sister. "You have the report, why a couple of more months? It doesn't take this long to write a report; it's just them waiting to get the results they want."

Cmdr. Greg Clark of the county coroner's office said his department has finished the autopsy, but that the report won't be released until the District Attorney's Office finishes its investigation, which possibly could lead to charges being filed against the officers who used the Taser on Heston.

Last week, Clark talked to Deputy District Attorney Berkeley Brannon, who is in charge of the investigation, to find out where it stands.

"He said that they would need about another four weeks to finish up," said Clark.

"I hope we will be able to do it in less time," Brannon said Friday.

Salinas Police Chief Daniel Ortega said the city attorney has advised him and others in the department not to comment on the Heston matter because of potential charges that might be filed against his officers. He confirmed that all officers involved in the case are back on duty.

"It's still under investigation, but there's nothing to indicate any wrongdoing on the part of the officers, " Ortega said. "We're going to wait until the district attorney makes their findings."

Several autopsies|

An autopsy was originally performed on Heston by pathologist Terri Haddix of Stanford University, who does autopsies for several California counties on a contract basis.

While her findings were never made public, representatives of the Monterey County Sheriff's Office, which oversees the coroner's unit, said that Haddix attributed Heston's death to Taser use, as well as to high levels of methamphetamine in his system.

The findings were turned over for review to pathologist John Hain, who performs the majority of Monterey County's autopsies. Sheriff's officials were expected to disclose Hain's report at the beginning of August, but citing a lack of experience in handling Taser-related deaths, they decided to send Hain's and Haddix's report to Steven Karch, a former San Francisco medical examiner considered to be an expert on drug-induced and Taser-related deaths.

Nationwide, the link between drugs and Taser-related deaths is well documented.

From 1999 to 2004, 71 people in the United States and Canada died in incidents involving the police and Tasers, according to a report released last month by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The report also mentions a survey conducted of 79 Northern and Central California law enforcement agencies, of which 56 added Taser stun guns to their arsenal. Of those, only four departments regulated the number of times an officer was allowed to stun a person and only four agencies created their own training material for officers. The only other training manuals are provided by the Taser company.

Attorney John Burton represents Heston's family, as well as the family of Michael Robert Rosa, who died after Seaside police stunned him multiple times with Tasers in August 2004.

"Both Michael Rosa and Robert Heston died after multiple tasings," said Burton. "I think that's the case with many of the tasing deaths. He (Heston) was killed in front of the full view of his family and they're (police) saying he was shocked six to eight times... One tasing might be harmless for most people. That doesn't mean multiple tasings are harmless, especially to those who may be vulnerable at the time (under the influence of drugs)."

Searching for information|

It's the multiple stunning of Heston that bothers the Kastners most, and without an explanation of how he died, Kurt Kastner has turned to the Internet to search for information.

"Let's say you've got five guys and each guy fires a five-second burst. At best, you're going to have two guys with an overlap," hypothesized Kastner, a Salinas native and electrician. "So, at some point, at the least, a minimum of 100,000 volts will be fired at a person. Now if you have five guys firing, that's 250,000 volts at worst, at one particular moment. He's going to get lit up with 250,000 volts. You can't tell me with any reasonable belief in your heart that 250,000 volts isn't going to screw your heart up, especially if you've got five guys cycling three or four times each."

Kurt and Misty Kastner acknowledge that Heston struggled with drugs and alcohol, but they're leery that, as in many other deaths related to Tasers, the final autopsy will point to drugs rather than to the stunning itself.

"I'm sure it (drugs) had something to do with it. We already know my brother had a history of drug problems, that's no big secret. But that's not what killed my brother. The bottom line is that he was tased multiple times." said Misty Kastner. "It (drugs) could have killed him maybe next year, if he kept doing it, but it wasn't drugs that killed him that night, it was the Taser that killed him."

She said they are trying to research how many times police use Tasers.

"You can't be excessively tasing people. I'm not bashing the cops, but they knew my brother. Some times I think to myself, yeah, (the police were thinking) he's the bad guy on drugs. Well, the only person my brother ever hurt was himself."