Towns settle lawsuit in fatal police raid

The towns of Darien, Easton, Monroe, Trumbull and Wilton will pay Ronald Terebesi $1.25 million to settle a lawsuit stemming from a fatal 2008 police raid in Easton.

The settlement comes after years of legal maneuvers and negotiations following a botched SWAT-style raid that resulted in the shooting death of 33-year-old Gonzalo Guizan, who had been watching television with Terebesi when 21 members of the Southwest Regional Response Team raided the house looking for drugs and weapons.

Instead of knocking at the door and announcing they had a warrant, police threw stun grenades into the house, according to Gary Mastronardi, Terebesi’s lawyer, who is a former member of the FBI.

The U.S. Supreme Court previously denied an appeal by the five Connecticut police departments. The high court’s action meant a federal lawsuit by Terebesi, formerly of Dogwood Drive in Easton, could go forward against the five police departments, the named police defendants in the case, and the municipalities of Easton and Monroe.

“Mr. Terebesi is satisfied,” Mastronardi said. “Money is always important; what he feels is equally significant and quite impressive is that in order to get us to accept it they had to agree to allow judgments to enter against each and every one of the defendants, both the municipalities and the individual defendants, for multiple violation of his constitutional rights.”

The Fourth Amendment grants two critical constitutional rights, Mastronardi said. Police officers are not allowed to conduct a search by using excessive force.

“By entry of judgment there is a clear tacit admission they used excessive force in executing a search warrant,” he said.

Second, Mastronardi said, the defendants violated the Fourth Amendment by forcibly entering a residence without first knocking and announcing they were there.

“The municipalities failed to set up guidelines that could be used to properly supervise these guys,” he said. “These judgments that they had to agree to enter against them are substantial and significant.”

He said the defendants made an offer Sept. 9 to allow judgment against them and under rule of law the plaintiff had until Sept. 23 to accept it.

“We accepted it yesterday,” Mastronardi said.

Defendants issue joint statement

Easton First Selectman Adam Dunsby supplied the following statement on the settlement from the towns and the defendants:

“This matter was resolved through the intervention of the court mediation system at a figure recommended by the United States Magistrate Judge assigned to negotiate an agreement. Given the many years of litigation, the lengthy trial expected, and the risks to all parties, the settlement figure recommended by the Judge was ultimately agreed to by all parties. In earlier proceedings, the presiding judge ruled that the officers’ conduct in applying for a search warrant was proper and the Second Circuit deemed objectively reasonable the decision to employ a tactical team for the service of the warrant.

“The specific offer of judgment filed by the defendants states that ‘this offer of judgment is not an admission of liability on the part of any or all of the defendants, or that the plaintiff, Ronald Terebesi, has suffered damage, but rather is made solely for the purpose of compromising a disputed claim’.

“The defendants disputed the allegations made in the plaintiff’s complaint and have continued to do so. The resolution of this matter through a negotiated settlement reflects an acknowledgement of economic cost and other risks by all parties and is not any admission of any liability by the defendants.”

Incident shocked the town

The incident shocked the small, pastoral town of Easton on a gray day more than seven years ago when the Southwest Regional Emergency Response Team from Easton and four surrounding towns raided Terebesi’s Easton home in a drug probe.

The May 18, 2008, lethal police raid was triggered by a tip from an exotic dancer who reported seeing drug activity there, court documents disclosed. Police first surrounded and then burst into the Dogwood Drive home, with many officers dressed in full black uniforms wearing Kevlar vests and helmets, and deploying flashbang grenades used to disorient and distract the occupants.

Upon entry, police were met by Terebesi and Guizan, who allegedly charged, “physically encountering two police officers,” according to the report from the state police.

Monroe Officer Michael Sweeney fatally shot Guizan, and Terebesi said he was injured when police pinned him to the floor. The office of the chief state medical examiner determined that Guizan died of multiple gunshot wounds and listed the death as a homicide.

Guizan, Terebesi and two officers involved in the confrontation were taken by EMS to area hospitals. Guizan was pronounced dead upon arrival. The three others were all treated for non-life threatening injuries and released.

A state prosecutor ruled Sweeney’s use of force was appropriate. During the subsequent search of the house, no weapons were discovered, according to John Solomon, who was Easton police chief at the time and has since retired.

Former Easton Police Chief James Candee, who was captain when the raid took place and was at the scene, is a named defendant, along with former Easton officer Christopher Barton.

Candee retired July 1.

The towns of Easton, Monroe and Trumbull settled a lawsuit with Guizan’s family for $3.5 million.

The defendant police officers claimed immunity, but the 2nd Circuit and Supreme Court ruled that there were more questions that a jury, not a judge, should decide, Mastronardi said.

“What they did was outrageous, plain and simple,” Mastronardi said. “My client and his guest were sitting in the house, watching TV. There was no reason to bust through the door with grenades. The Fourth Amendment rule goes back to Revolutionary War days. Law enforcement has to announce what they are doing before executing a search warrant.”

Nietzel represented Easton defendants

Catherine S. Nietzel of Ryan Ryan Deluca LLP of Stamford, represented the town of Easton, Solomon, Candee and Barton.

“It was an expensive proceeding,” she said. “We had mediation with Magistrate Margolies, and she recommended a number that she thought was fair given that the case had gone on for many years, was expected to be a lengthy trial and expected to be disruptive.”

Nietzel said that Judge Janet Bond Arterton, who would have been overseeing the trial, had made a ruling several years ago that the Easton defendants’ conduct in applying for the search warrant in the first place was proper.

“There was another finding by a higher court that Chief Solomon’s decision to employ a tactical team for the service of that warrant was also proper,” Nietzel said.

All the defendants took issue with Mastronardi’s statement that the defendants, in filing the settlement document they did, admitted liability.

“That’s just not true and a gross misstatement of what’s contained in the document,” Nietzel said. “The document Mastronardi is referring to specifically states that the offer is not an admission of liability.”