Posted on Wed, Jul. 09, 2003
Federal authorities probe shooting deaths involving Milwaukee cops
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE - (KRT) - Federal authorities have launched an investigation into the cases of four unarmed men shot to death by Milwaukee police in just over a year.

The inquiry was prompted by a letter from Alderman Marvin Pratt to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Pratt wrote the letter shortly after the death of Justin Fields, 21, at the hand of Milwaukee police officer Craig W. Nawotka in March. An inquest into that shooting is taking place this week.

Pratt, who attended part of the inquest Wednesday, called the four shootings "very troubling."

"A number of questions remain unanswered in all these shootings," he said.

Pratt's letter alleged that the killings constituted federal civil rights violations.

"A copy of the letter was referred to us, and we're aware that the FBI is taking a look at it," said U.S. Attorney Steven M. Biskupic. "Generally we look at these types of things in cooperation with the Department of Justice in Washington."

Once the FBI has reviewed the documentation in the cases, federal authorities will determine whether further action is necessary, according to Jorge Martinez, spokesman for the Department of Justice. That action could include federal criminal charges against the shooters. Martinez said he couldn't predict how long the inquiry will take.

In addition to Fields, federal authorities also will review the deaths of:

_Edward Pundsack, 28, of Milwaukee, killed Dec. 23 in his Chevy Blazer at the end of a chase. An inquest jury found that police Sgt. Mark Wagner was justified in firing eight shots, six of which struck Pundsack, who was white.

_Larry Jenkins, 31, of Milwaukee, killed Sept. 19 near N. 37th St. and W. Glendale Ave. after fleeing police. The family of Jenkins, who was black, did not request an inquest because inquest juries almost never recommend charges against police, according to their attorney, Willie Nunnery. The family has filed a civil suit against the city and officer Jon Bartlett, who fired the fatal shots.

_Samuel Rodriguez, 24, of Milwaukee, killed June 27, 2002. Rodriguez, who was Hispanic, was driving a stolen car when he was shot three times. An inquest jury found that officers Richard Sandoval and Karl Zuberbier acted in self-defense.

"I am very, very angry with some of these other cases," said Rodriguez's father, Vincent Rodriguez. "It's obvious (the police) committed a crime. The local system doesn't seem to be doing anything, and hasn't for the longest time."

Mark Thomsen, the attorney representing Fields' family, said they look forward to a federal investigation, "particularly in light of today's testimony."

Of particular concern, Thomsen said, was testimony by witness Michael Restivo. He and a friend, who are white, had been placed in the back of the squad driven by Nawotka, for an unrelated incident, before police started chasing Fields' car. Restivo testified that during the chase Nawotka's partner, Thomas J. Brummond, told them: "If you guys don't be quiet you will be spending the night in jail with all the brothers."

Under oath, Brummond denied making the remark.

"From day one I've been concerned whether race was an issue because there were no circumstances that indicated that Justin Fields had done anything wrong until he was provoked by the officer," Thomsen said. "And now we have for the first time testimony indicating race may have been a factor."

Nunnery, too, said he welcomed federal involvement.

"One big issue in a lot of these cases is whether these shootings are going on as a denial of equal protection, since many of these victims are minorities," he said.

District attorney E. Michael McCann declined to file charges in the deaths of Jenkins or Rodriguez. He has said he is waiting for the outcome of the Fields inquest before determining whether to charge Wagner in the death of Pundsack. Federal authorities will wait to hear from him, Biskupic said.

"As a matter of policy, we do not interfere with state authorities taking the first look," he said.

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