Jace Zook

Jace Zook died in the back of an Anderson Police Department car in 2012, allegedly strangling himself with a seat belt. His family is suing the city, seeking $1.5 million in damages.

ANDERSON – Several years ago, Jace Zook brought home an abandoned stereo.

The teenager managed to get the stereo back into working order before showing off his handiwork to his grandfather, Charles Finster, who had let him borrow tools for the repairs.

“He actually got the thing working again. He was proud of himself that he could get the thing working again, and I was proud of him as well,” Finster said. “I, frankly, was amazed that he could.”

Zook had talked about attending a trade school where he could put his talents to work.

“He had a very clear interest in electronics and things mechanical,” said Finster, a Kokomo resident who described his grandson as a typical teenager.

But the 17-year-old’s dream came to an end on Aug. 8, 2012 when he allegedly strangled himself with a seat belt. He was in the back seat of a police cruiser while being arrested on suspicion of burglary.

He had been apprehended while allegedly breaking into the Shrine Club on Anderson's east side.

He was left alone in the cruiser where he reportedly strangled himself.

But, Finster reflected recently, “Jace wasn’t done with his life."

In 2014, Finster sued Anderson and its police department in federal court for the Southern District of Indiana. He is seeking $1.5 million in damages and better training for local officers.

In a recent filing on Nov. 20, the city of Anderson asked the court for summary judgment, seeking to dismiss the case for lack of evidence.

Attorney Anthony W. Overholt, of the Indianapolis-based law firm of Frost, Brown Todd, LLC, represents the city of Anderson and was not available for comment this week.

On Nov. 23, a lawyer representing Finster filed an exhibit list that included photos of Zook and the scene taken by the Anderson Police Department and the Indiana State Police; audio and video recordings; incident reports by APD officers; and personnel files and training records for those officers.

That same day, Finster’s lawyer also submitted a witness list that included Finster and his family, 10 APD officers, two Indiana State Police investigators, former coroner Ned Dunnichay and members of the Anderson Fire Department who treated Zook at the scene.

Left unattended

Though most of his family, including his mother and grandparents, lived in Kokomo, Zook had been staying with a guardian, Pamela Kidwell, in Anderson since December 2011. Kidwell reported to police that she last saw Zook around noon on Aug. 7 and that she’d had trouble with him staying out all night.

According to reports submitted by officers involved in the arrest, Zook and 18-year-old Justin Johnson, also of Anderson, along with a 14-year-old boy, were apprehended on suspicion that they were about to burglarize the Madison County Shrine Club, 2419 White St.

Zook and Johnson had been in some legal trouble together before.

The officers handcuffed the suspects, separated them into separate squad cars, leaving Zook, who was not being treated for any mental conditions, unsupervised for up to 35 minutes while they investigated the scene.

Zook was placed into a cruiser assigned to APD Officer Matthew Smith.

In a deposition, Smith said it was not department policy at the time for police to keep constant observation on suspects in custody prior to being transported to jail.

Now, however, constant observation must be maintained unless a victim requires immediate assistance, he said in the deposition.

“Further, I was not aware that a prisoner had been placed into my vehicle, as the Scene Tech vehicle does not normally transport prisoners,” Smith said in his field report.

In his report, APD Lt. John Branson said that as he arrested Zook on the roof of the building, the youth said he was not going back to juvenile detention. Zook had spent some time at a juvenile detention facility in Wabash.

While in the cruiser, Zook managed to get his cell phone and make a call to his girlfriend, Abby Reed, according to a report by Indiana State Police Master Trooper Michael Minnicus.

During that call, Reed became concerned that Zook was going to take his life, according to what she told Finster. Her concerns were well-founded.

“He had slipped his cuffs to the front and had wrapped the seat belt, safety restraint, around his neck and asphyxiated himself,” according to another report by Minnicus.

Found unconscious, Zook was transported to then-Saint John’s Hospital, where after unsuccessful attempts at resuscitation, he was pronounced dead.

A diagnosis submitted by Dr. Alfredo Vazquez at Saint John’s also noted methamphetamine, benzodiazepine, cocaine and marijuana abuse by Zook.

Looking for answers

Since his death, Zook’s grieving family has sought answers from the police department. They were put in touch with an APD assistant chief, Finster said.

“All that he could tell us is that, yes, it happened. His response was, ‘Who would ever think that a scrawny 17-year-old teenager could wriggle out of handcuffs, get a seat belt around his neck and strangle himself?’ ” he said.

“That’s not a good enough response for us. We want to know what happened to our loved one. This was the only way we could get answers," said Finster.

Finster, as representative of his grandson’s estate, filed the civil suit on Aug. 8, 2014.

“Our main reason for this is simply my daughter Lisa (Manasco), who is Jace’s mother, came to us and didn’t know what to do. She didn’t understand just as we don’t understand how this happened, how this could have happened,” Finster said.

In addition to answers and at least $1.5 million for emotional damages and trauma, the lawsuit seeks what is known as a "Monell claim" under which APD would be required to provide better training to its officers in its interactions with youth.

Finster said he is offended by the city’s attempts to fight the claim.

“I think the fact that they challenge that a 17-year-old’s life has no meaning is perverse,” he said. “I want people to understand that, simply put, Jace was a very good young man. He was loved by his entire family. His life mattered. It mattered to more than just him or his mother and just his family. Our family still grieves. He didn’t deserve to die on that night.”

Antonio M. Romanucci, whose Chicago-based law firm Romanucci & Blandin, LLC, is handling Finster’s lawsuit, said incidents like this take place all over the United States.

“I think what they have in common is police officers will have a certain method of justifying abuse of force,” he said. “When they engage in bad conduct, they have to work out an agreement with other officers on the scene.”

What happened to Zook, Romanucci said, is a result of poor training.

“Poor training leads to misconduct, which leads to lies,” he said. “We are looking for clear and better training methods to deal with children who are placed in custody.”

Follow Rebecca R. Bibbs on Twitter at @RebeccaB_THB, or call 640-4883.

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