Pepper spray is one of the most commonly used options, and it is supposed to be non-lethal, but a man in Ft. Myers in need of medical attention died after he was repeatedly pepper sprayed by law enforcement.
Nick Christie was a 62-year-old union boilermaker from Cleveland, Ohio who came to Florida to spend time with his brother.
His wife of 39 years reached out for help when he begun showing signs of erratic behavior. She called her local police in Girard, Ohio, who called the Sheriff's Office in Lee County, Florida.
The dispatcher in Ohio told the sheriff's office he Nick Christie was manic, suicidal and needed to be held under Florida's Baker Act. But instead of taking him to the hospital, Christie was taken to jail for disorderly intoxication and trespassing.
He was later released, and then picked up a second time. While at the jail, he was repeatedly pepper sprayed over a two-day period, even when he was in a restraint chair.
Joyce Christie still can't believe what happened to her husband.
"I was shocked; this was something out of a horror movie," she said.
Ken Cutler was an inmate housed with Christie in the Lee County Jail.
"As soon as I got in there, you could tell the man was ill," Cutler recalled.
Ken Cutler was in jail for missing a court date on a DUI charge.
"We could see him from our cell," Cutler said. "You could see his while face was blue, almost purple and he was gasping that he can't breathe."
Christie died a few days later at the hospital of a heart attack on March 31, 2009. The medical examiner ruled it a homicide because, according to the autopsy report, he had been "Restrained and sprayed with pepper spray by law enforcement officers."
But nobody has ever been charged with that crime. The Lee County State Attorney's Office cleared the sheriff's office of any wrongdoing, concluding that jailers were within policy guidelines for subduing Christie, who was acting belligerent.
"It's supposed to be used cautiously," says Tom Depolis, who spent more than 30 years in law enforcement. He retired as the assistant chief at the Tampa Police Department, and then worked as a chief deputy at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. The veteran law enforcement officer has seen first-hand the effects of pepper spray and understands its limitations.
"It was not suggested for use for people with mental problems, because it may not even work on those people. They can't help what they're doing," Depolis explained. "It's not meant to be punishment, it's not meant for retribution. It's mean to incapacitate so you can restrain them."
But Nick Christie was not a criminal loose on the streets, he was mentally ill man locked up behind bars. Joyce Christie has now filed a wrongful death lawsuit. According to the lawsuit, her husband was pepper sprayed "no less than 10 times," and twice while in a restraint chair.
"He worked hard his whole life and didn't deserve what he got," Joyce Christie said, holding back tears.
The Lee County Sheriff's Office declined to comment on the story, citing the ongoing litigation.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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