Western Pennsylvania Town Settles Urinating Suspect’s Suit

September 17, 2010

A man who claims he was beaten and threatened by police at gunpoint after urinating in public near the granddaughter of one of the officers has settled his federal civil rights suit against the police and the western Pennsylvania town that employed them.

A one-page notice filed Monday in U.S. District Court doesn’t detail terms of the settlement, only that the lawsuit “has resolved” after attorneys for David A. Baker, 42, and the borough of Ambridge and its police officers met with a mediator Sept. 7.

Since-retired Ambridge police Sgt. Richard Heitzenrater, 61, and another officer, Lt. Robert Kuzma, were indicted by a federal grand jury in August 2009, and each pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor related to the incident in July. They’re both scheduled for sentencing Nov. 12.

Baker’s attorney, Gerald Benyo, has acknowledged Baker was drunk when he stopped in February 2009 to urinate in plain view of two children across the street, one of whom was Heitzenrater’s 8-year-old granddaughter.

Baker claims a third officer, who was sued but never charged by federal authorities, advised Heitzenrater of the arrest even though he was off-duty because the officer knew his grandchild was involved.

Heitzenrater arrived and began kneeing and beating Baker in a holding cell, and at one point put the barrel of a gun in Baker’s mouth, the lawsuit said.

The four-count criminal indictment said only that Heitzenrater “did willfully assault and cause bodily injury to David Baker by striking him and kneeing him in the head and body.”

Heitzenrater also was accused of conspiring with Kuzma to destroy surveillance video of the incident to cover up the beating, the indictment said.

In Pennsylvania, legal settlements that are paid with public money, or by insurance held by municipalities, are public record though such terms are often not revealed until after a municipality formally approves payment.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Ambridge officials have approved the settlement. Ambridge solicitor Richard Start and the attorney who defended the borough in the lawsuit didn’t immediately return calls for comment.

Attorneys for the other defendants and Baker didn’t immediately respond to calls and e-mails.

Heitzenrater pleaded guilty in July to a single count of depriving Baker of his civil rights and faces a maximum of one year in prison. Kuzma pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact and faces up to six months in federal prison.

Kuzma has been on suspended without pay since the officers were indicted, and Ambridge Police Chief Mark Romutis has said that was not expected to change until after the sentencing.

Backer claimed he was so badly injured the Beaver County Jail refused to keep him after his arrest. He has accumulated $30,000 in medical bills.

Baker pleaded no contest to open lewdness and disorderly conduct in November and was sentenced to a year’s probation. He has since undergone alcohol rehabilitation.

Heitzenrater retired in April after 33 years on the force, which serves the borough of 8,000 people about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Kuzma has about 25 years on the force.

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