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Published: 5/13/2010

White testifies he thought motorcyclist had weapon

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Ottawa Hills Police Officer Thomas White said that he believed a stopped motorcyclist was reaching for a weapon, an action that he testified prompted him to fire his gun.

The officer testified in Lucas County Common Pleas Court Thursday on the fourth day of his criminal trial. A part-time police officer for the village, Officer White is charged with felonious assault with a gun specification for the May 23, 2009, shooting of Michael McCloskey, Jr.

If convicted, he faces up to 11 years in prison.

Officer White testified that he had been following two motorcyclists westbound on Indian Road at about 2:15 a.m. when he said he noticed several traffic violations. He said he initiated a stop after the two men rode off from a stop at a high rate of speed.

Labeling the situation as a "high risk vehicle stop," Officer White testified that it would be "unusual" for someone to turn around when he shouted a command to them and so he believed Mr. McCloskey was reaching for a weapon.

"It appeared as if he was reaching for a weapon," he said. "I feared for my life so I fired one shot."

Officer White is the last of the defense witnesses to testify. He acknowledged during questioning from Assistant County Prosecutor Jeff Lingo that he would not know whether Mr. McCloskey knew an officer was behind him or whether he heard Officer White's command.

Officer White is accused of shooting Mr. McCloskey once in the back, severing his spine. The incident was recorded on the dashboard camera in the officer's patrol car.

The 14-minute video was played for the jury of nine women and three men.

In response to the case presented by the defense, assistant prosecutors called a rebuttal witness to testify as an expert. W. Ken Katsaris, a law enforcement consultant from Florida, testified about what he saw in the video recording of the incident.

In law enforcement for 48 years, Mr. Katsaris said that he only saw one traffic violation on the video ˆ when the motorcyclists sped up just prior to Officer White activating his lights and sirens. He also testified that he saw no indicators throughout the preceding moments that would "cause concern to an officer."

Mr. Katsaris testified that after Mr. McCloskey stopped his motorcycle, Officer White violated protocol by not turning off his siren so that the motorist could hear. He also testified that the movement Mr. McCloskey made to turn around was not "targeting" the officer ˆ as was testified by defense witnesses ˆ but an obvious "inquiry glance" made to determine what was going on.

The story as it appeared in earlier editions of The Blade and toledoblade.com:

The video showing an Ottawa Hills police officer following and then shooting a motorcyclist in the back was viewed in Lucas County Common Pleas Court again yesterday - this time to show what two defense witnesses described as "indicators" of a dangerous situation for the officer.

During the third day of the criminal trial of Ottawa Hills Officer Thomas White, defense witnesses offered their opinions of the May 23 shooting of Michael McCloskey, Jr. Specifically, both witnesses testified after seeing the 14-minute video that the officer had reasonable belief he was in danger and was "justified" in firing his weapon.

Officer White, 27, who has been on leave from his part-time job as a police officer since the shooting, is charged with one count of felonious assault with a gun specification. If convicted, he faces up to 11 years in prison.

"The facts known to the officer at the time the shots were fired are all that matter," said Columbus police Officer James Scanlon, who testified that he teaches and consults in law enforcement issues including use of force. "I come to the conclusion that it was reasonable and, by all the standards we live by, it was justified."

Officer Scanlon and Urey Patrick, a retired FBI agent turned consultant living in Maine, testified on behalf of Officer White yesterday after assistant prosecutors concluded their case. Both men testified that the actions of the two motorcyclists viewed by Officer White while in his patrol car could be perceived as an "imminent risk."

The men noted that the two motorcyclists stopped for about 10 seconds to talk at a stop sign and then rode off at a high rate of speed. Believing that they knew he was behind them, Officer White would think that they were trying to get away, Mr. Patrick said.

"One appeared to be out of control, the other suddenly stopped," he said. "They already indicated a willingness to flee. That's an indicator that this is not a routine stop."

When questioned about whether it was clear that the motorcyclists knew there was a police officer behind them, the men stated that when investigating an officer-involved shooting, only what the officer knows at the time can be considered.

Both men also acknowledged that for a motorist to comply with a police officer's orders, they would have to be aware of what he wanted them to do. In reviewing the video of the incident with the two men, Assistant County Prosecutor Jeff Lingo noted that Officer White did not activate his lights and sirens until after the motorcyclists began accelerating, and the verbal order the officer gave Mr. McCloskey was not distinguishable because of the sound of the sirens.

The testimony came after six witnesses on behalf of the state, including the two motorcyclists. Aaron Snyder, who was with Mr. McCloskey the night he was shot, testified early yesterday that he didn't know a police officer was behind him.

Mr. Snyder, 36, a father of two who owns a motorcycle maintenance shop, said he had been out with his friend that evening and the two were traveling north on Indian Road just after 2 a.m. on the way to Mr. McCloskey's home in Ottawa Hills.

He said just as they were nearing Central Avenue, he noticed a police car - not behind him, but approaching from the west in the eastbound lanes.

He testified that he feared he would be hit by the vehicle and so swerved as an "avoidance maneuver," coming to a stop across Central Avenue, where he was arrested.

Mr. Snyder's testimony mirrored that of Mr. McCloskey, who said he believed a friend was driving in a car behind them.

Mr. McCloskey, who is paralyzed from the waist down, testified Tuesday that it was not until he came to a stop on Indian Road at Central Avenue and his loud motorcycle began to idle that he was aware of the lights and sirens of the police officer.

It was shortly after - about three seconds after Officer White exited his patrol car - that Mr. McCloskey, now 25, was shot.

The video of the incident was captured on the dashboard camera in Officer White's patrol vehicle. In the moments before the shooting, it shows Mr. McCloskey stopped at Central Avenue and looking behind him. It then shows him looking across the street where Mr. Snyder was stopped.

He then turns around a second time as Officer White gets out of his car - his left hand on his handlebar, his right hand resting on his leg. When he is shot, Mr. McCloskey seizes up briefly and then falls to his right, with his motorcycle landing on top of his leg.

Also called to the witness stand by defense attorney Jerry Phillips was James Sedlar, the Ottawa Hills fire chief and a part-time police officer for the village.

He testified that he arrived on scene in his capacity as a police officer and noticed a knife clipped to Mr. McCloskey's boot.

Officer Sedlar acknowledged that the knife - later determined to have a 2-inch blade - was "in plain sight," and the clip and handle were not concealed from view.

Testimony is to continue today before Judge Gary Cook.

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-213-2134.



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