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Expert: Altoona man was suffocated by police

Mount Oliver arrest subject of inquest

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

By Jim McKinnon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A forensic pathologist testified yesterday that an Altoona man suffocated from the force of police officers pressing on his back and restraining his arms during a violent arrest Dec. 21 at the Mount Oliver fire hall.

Dr. Shaun Ladham of the Allegheny County coroner's office, testifying at the conclusion of an open inquest into the death of Charles Dixon, said Dixon died of positional and mechanical asphyxia. He said he will review transcripts and other evidence before formally declaring the cause of death.

Positional asphyxia had been suspected as the cause, given that several witnesses previously testified that a number of officers -- some said as many as a dozen -- piled onto Dixon, a 330-pound man, while arresting him for disorderly conduct.

Dixon, 43, formerly of the Hill District, was one of more than 100 guests at a birthday party for a Braddock woman.

Two Mount Oliver police officers working as security at the party have testified that Dixon was arrested after he tried to intervene in the arrest of his brother, Gregory, whom other guests said had caused a disturbance in the buffet line.

When Charles Dixon resisted, those officers called for backup and police from Pittsburgh and Mount Oliver responded.

Only one, Pittsburgh officer Kevin Walters, has testified that he applied pressure to Dixon's back while other officers struggled to restrain Dixon.

Walters, who said he weighs about 250 pounds, said he arrived as other officers were trying to pin Dixon to the floor while prying his arms and hands from under his body so they could apply handcuffs. Walters said that as Dixon tried to push up from the floor, he pressed down on Dixon's neck, head and shoulders.

Some witnesses have testified in two previous sessions of the inquest that a large officer jumped onto the pile of police officers already struggling with Dixon.

Though several witnesses testified that Dixon complained of difficulty breathing during the scuffle, all of the officers who testified said they heard no such complaint.

After the handcuffs were in place, an officer saw that Dixon was unresponsive, barely breathing, and had only a faint pulse. Paramedics were summoned.

Ladham testified that Dixon might have been saved with immediate resuscitation efforts. But according to testimony by other officers, Dixon was left lying on his side after he was restrained and cardiopulmonary resuscitation was not begun until the paramedics arrived.

He said a toxicology test showed the presence of alcohol in Dixon's system but no other drugs. He said that Dixon suffered from apparently undiagnosed heart disease, which likely did not contribute to his death.

The coroner's office has not determined the manner of death -- whether it was accidental or homicide.

County police homicide Detective Gary Tallent testified that Mount Oliver firefighters already had cleaned up the banquet hall when he arrived about an hour later to gather evidence.

Hearing officer William Manifesto, a defense attorney, will review the testimony and wait for a final determination of the cause of death before recommending to Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht whether charges should be filed.

Wecht then will decide what to recommend to District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., who has the final decision on whether to prosecute.

Jim McKinnon can be reached at jmckinnon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1939.

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