Cocaine and Conspiracy

Were the Deaths in Custody of Two Suspected Drug Users ‘Accidental’ or Police Brutality?

That cops are supposed to protect people like Maliki Raymond resonates with more tragic irony in the case of Dionicio Medrano, a pudgy 24-year-old alleged cocaine junkie who died believing police were trying to kill him.

In the early morning hours of September 6, 1996, Medrano, who had a history of "drug-induced psychosis," began "acting bizarre and was agitated" while visiting the racially tense neighborhood of Howard Beach, according to information provided to Dr. Mark Taff, the pathologist who was hired by Medrano's family to conduct an independent autopsy.

"He was reportedly involved in an encounter with police after they were summoned to the scene," Taff says in a seven-page report. "It is unclear . . . how the deceased sustained multiple blunt-force impacts (bruises) to his body," he adds, "[but] according to eyewitnesses, some of the injuries were self-inflicted, while others were inflicted by the police or members of the Howard Beach community." (In 1986, three black men were chased through the neighborhood and beaten by a mob of white thugs. One man, Michael Griffith, was hit by a car and killed.)

William Acosta, a former Internal Affairs cop turned private investigator, interviewed Howard Beach residents after Medrano's parents, Jody and Minerva, claimed police had beaten their son to death. In his report, which has been obtained by the Voice, one neighbor says he was awakened by a man screaming, "They're chasing me! They're chasing me!"

The witness says he did not observe anyone chasing the man he later came to know as Medrano. He adds that he saw Medrano "leapfrog over [a] metal gate" into the yard of a next-door neighbor who happened to be a paramedic at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center. According to Acosta's notes, the paramedic, who tried to help the distraught man, says he discovered "a big pool of blood on the back of his head [and] he grabbed Dionicio by the arms and sat him down on a sofa that was outside in the garbage.

"Dionicio was sweating and his eyes were dilated [but] he was non-violent," Acosta writes. Suddenly, according to the notes, Medrano sprang from the sofa, shouting, "I have to go, I have to go, they're shooting at me!" He then bounded aimlessly into the street and began "hitting himself against [a] fence surrounding [a] garden." According to another resident, Medrano stopped at her house, "put his head through [a side] window . . . then [she] noticed that he was laying down on his back screaming." As she opened her door, Medrano jumped up and ran, "hitting her storm door real hard." He ran across the street, where he tried to push his way into an elderly neighbor's home.

"You know me, my name is Danny!" Medrano pleaded. "Someone is shooting at me!" When the terrified man rebuffed his pleas, Medrano ran off again. He wound up tossing on the ground in another neighbor's yard, banging his head against a basement window.

Another witness says that at some point five uniformed cops began chasing Medrano, who was shouting, "Policia! Policia!" The witness, according to Acosta, "noticed that the police officers had flashlights in their hands." Medrano later collapsed. He was gagged, strapped to a gurney, and taken to Jamaica Hospital, where he later died.

The medical examiner ruled that Medrano's death was an "accident," adding that "acute cocaine intoxication with agitated violent behavior" were contributing factors.

Although the family had hired Dr. Taff to investigate their accusations that cops had a hand in Medrano's death, his findings were consistent with the medical examiner's. In a letter to family attorney William Salgado, dated November 3, 1996, Taff writes: "You will recall that I predicted the . . . cause and manner of death in light of the fact that all of the soft tissue injuries (i.e., bruises and scrapes) were not associated with any life-threatening internal injuries."

A case of police brutality? Taff had doubts. "I think you will have a very difficult time convincing the Queens D.A.'s Office to prosecute the police, as well as litigating a wrongful death action," he concludes. But Acosta rejects Taff's findings, saying he never got the opportunity to brief the pathologist. "This is not a case of 41 shots being fired at a poor African [Amadou Diallo]; it is a case of 40-something blunt instrument markings on the body of a poor Spanish guy who was beaten in the back of his head, his back, and on the bottom of his feet," argues Acosta, who observed Medrano's remains at the funeral home. "Diallo took 19 shots, but death was instant for him as he went down. Medrano felt every blow until he died later at the hospital."

Acosta says he's troubled by "a conspiracy of silence" surrounding the case. He says he filed a Freedom of Information Law request in an attempt to ascertain the names of the cops who were involved in restraining Medrano. "It's been three years and I haven't received an answer," he points out. "An officer was seen taking Medrano's clothes from the hospital in a plastic bag, but it has disappeared."

In addition to Acosta's claim, Jida Medrano, the dead man's sister, alleges her parents were given the runaround even though they were summoned to the hospital by cops. "The cops said they couldn't find the key to the room where my brother was," she says.

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