Lawsuit: During struggle over gun, firefighter killed handcuffed prisoner 'execution style'
"No well-trained officer in the year 2016 would believe it was proper to stand over top of a prisoner who was restrained and lying on the ground and then from a distance of four to five feet away shoot said prisoner,” attorney Doug Asher wrote in the suit.
LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WDRB) -- Inmate Mark Sawaf walked into the woods overlooking Harlan County on August 11, 2016, with his hands cuffed in front of him and attached to a belly chain, part of an agreement to help law enforcement find booby-trapped trail cameras he had placed in trees.
By the end of the day, Sawaf, 39, had been killed while deep in the mountainous region -- shot in the head by a member of the Lexington Fire Department who was working as a medic with an ATF task force.
The medic, Capt. Brad Dobrzynski, along with an ATF agent and a Lexington police officer who were with Sawaf at the time of the shooting have all provided similar accounts of what happened.
Sawaf and the three men left the rest of the task force to ride on four wheelers in search of an explosive mounted in a remote, rugged area, when Sawaf jumped off a vehicle and tried to escape. After he was caught, Sawaf attempted to take the Lexington police officer’s gun, forcing Dobrzynski to shoot the inmate to protect the men.
And a Fayette County grand jury declined to indict any of the officers last year, finding no criminal wrongdoing.
But Harlan attorney Doug Asher filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit Monday against Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government and some of the law enforcement officials involved, challenging the official version of events and claiming Sawaf was shot “execution style” while “lying on the ground in the fetal position.”
While the two other officers were trying to subdue Sawaf, Dobrzynski “did not try to assist them” or attempt any “form of non-lethal” means before killing the handcuffed inmate.
“No well-trained officer in the year 2016 would believe it was proper to stand over top of a prisoner who was restrained and lying on the ground and then from a distance of four to five feet away shoot said prisoner,” Asher wrote in the suit.
In addition, Asher claims the officers took cell phone photos depicting “what would later be alleged was the positioning” of Sawaf body, showing him grabbing Lexington police Lt. Matt Greathouse’s weapon, which remained in his holster.
The suit, filed on behalf of Sawaf’s father, alleges that instead of immediately providing medical assistance, Dobrzynski took several photos of Greathouse “striking different poses with the body.” It was about 20 minutes before another medic arrived and began CPR, according to the suit.
In an interview with Kentucky State Police investigators after the shooting, Dobrzynski said Sawaf was “tugging” on Greathouse’s weapon as the two men and the ATF agent struggled on the ground, according to an audio recording of the interview obtained by WDRB.
The other officer, ATF agent Todd Tremaine, was hitting Sawaf as Greathouse tried to maintain control of his weapon, said Dobrzynski , adding that he was standing a few feet away and drew his weapon.
Lexington fire investigators are trained to carry weapons, state police have said.
Greathouse then yelled “he’s got my gun, he’s got my gun, shoot, shoot,” Dobrzynski told investigators.
As they wrestled for control of the gun, Greathouse told investigators Sawaf screamed “shoot me, shoot me, shoot me,” according to an audio of his interview.
Sawaf was shot once in the head and went limp.
Greathouse then “apathetically quipped ‘Nice shot,’” according to the lawsuit.
In his interview, Dobrzynski said he was told to take pictures of Sawaf and Greathouse, as the inmate’s hands were “all over the gun.”
“I had to pry his hands off my gun,” Greathouse later told investigators.
When the rest of the task force arrived, Dobrzynski overheard someone say Sawaf had a faint pulse and a different medic started CPR.
The lawsuit argues that, as a medic, Dobrzynski had a duty to render aid to Sawaf but instead stood at the scene for about 20 minutes and “did nothing” as Dobrzynski “clung to life and struggled to breathe.”
The other medic that provided CPR to Sawaf noticed he was breathing, which the lawsuit alleges “would have been obvious to any casual onlooker.” Sawaf was pronounced dead a little more than an hour after the shooting.
Sawaf had been accused of injuring three people in explosions after placing several booby-trapped cameras in the woods. Hunters often mount cameras in the woods to get pictures of animals.
Sawaf was mad because some of his trail cameras had been stolen, so he put small amounts of explosive materials in them to deter thieves, according to a 2016 Lexington Herald-Leader story citing law enforcement. Sawaf told police he believed the explosives were slightly more powerful that fireworks and would just be enough to scare people away.
At the time of his death, Sawaf was cooperating with police to find all of the explosives as part of a plea agreement. A judge required he remain shackled during the search.
The lawsuit claims the officers involved were not immediately cooperative with investigators, refusing to turn over the pictures or initially answer questions.
And Sawaf’s criminal attorney, Travis Rossman, had asked task force members to accompany his client but was denied, which the suit claims was a violation of Sawak’s constitutional right to legal representation.
In an interview with investigators, Rossman told state police he saw Sawaf about 2:30 p.m. that day and “everything seemed fine,” according to the audio. “I didn’t see any indication he was about to do anything violent or improper.”
Five hours later, Rossman received a call from police that Sawaf had been killed.
Attorney Brandon Marshall, who represents Dobrzynski, said he had not seen the lawsuit yet so could not comment.
However, he said, "every agency that I’m familiar with that examined the shooting found no wrongdoing."
An attorney for the city did not respond to a request for comment.
The suit is seeking unspecified monetary damages and a jury trial.
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