A Cleveland cop killed a man at his own home in Parma. Was it police business or a personal vendetta?

Out of Bounds 

A Cleveland cop killed a man at his own home in Parma. Was it police business or a personal vendetta?

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***

The party at the Mindeks' home didn't end without incident. As the afternoon fell off into evening, the merrymaking was well-lubricated, according to guests and neighbors. Tiffany's dad, Gary Urbach, arrived about an hour after his daughter and Dan. Although he lived only a few houses down the block on Mayview, Gary Urbach left after only an hour. "I got a bad vibe at the party. Everyone was drinking," he says today.

As the evening wound down, Kim went upstairs to the master bedroom to grab some cash for the DJ. There, she found her purse was gone, along with more than $5,000 in jewelry. She called her husband, who told her to call Cleveland Police. Records indicate the theft was reported at 11:17 p.m. The initial report identifies Dan Ficker as a person of interest; Kim told police she'd noticed him coming from the second floor at the party, even though he'd been told the upstairs bathroom was broken. According to her statement, he was "acting funny and twitching and fumbling in his pockets"; she also noted that he had an "alleged drug problem." (Reached by phone at the restaurant where she works, Kim Mindek declined to answer questions for this story.)

At some point, Dave Mindek, now off-duty, phoned Matthew Craska, an officer working at Cleveland's Second District. Craska responded to the call at Mindek's house, and together they took Craska's cruiser across jurisdictional boundaries to confront the suspect themselves in Parma.

"Craska was simply trying to get information from Mr. Ficker to make a report. [Mindek] was just going to appeal, 'Hey if you have this, give it back, we'll forget about it,'" says Pat D'Angelo, an attorney with the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association. (Due to the open investigation and the threat of civil lawsuits, D'Angelo denied Scene's request to interview the two officers directly.)

Neither officer notified Parma Police that they were crossing into the city — a courtesy among police departments, but not specifically required by the Cleveland PD's regulations; the fine print says officers can cross when "engaged in an exigent law enforcement action or otherwise on other City employment related activity" if a supervisor gives the green light. On the night of July 3, despite a high volume of calls coming from Cleveland, Craska did receive permission to cross, according to D'Angelo. The attorney, however, could not say whether the supervisor knew that Mindek — who was off-duty, and the alleged burglary victim — was in the patrol car at the time.

Cleveland Police declined to comment, citing the open investigation.

***

Chalky afternoon light pressing in from the windows does its best to light the room where Tiffany Urbach is curled on the couch. In comfortable sweats, with her dark hair back in a ponytail, she looks low on energy — ragged from the balancing act between her job at a daycare and caring for her own kids alone. For the first time since the shooting more than half a year ago, she's talking about what happened only a few feet away in the grass that's now winter-stiff and sprinkled through with forgotten action figures and Nerf darts. She narrates her play-by-play tear-free, her tone level and blunt, as if the ensuing months have aged shock into steely frustration. "I was upset at first," she says. "Now I'm just angry."

When Tiffany and Dan stepped from their car onto the driveway that night, she asked Dave Mindek what was going on. The cop immediately began screaming about stolen jewelry — no polite approach, no chances to explain, she insists. Tiffany and Dan batted away the accusation, said they didn't know what Mindek was talking about. Then they told him to get off their property. The situation — her irate cousin, the police car — led her to think the visit wasn't official, so she linked arms with Dan and marched toward the side door. At the steps, her purse spilled onto the concrete; as she piled the items back in, Craska grabbed Dan and slammed him into the patrol car, dribbling his head off the hood, she claims. Dan spotted a neighbor in a lighted upstairs window across the street and began calling her name, trying to catch her attention. Tiffany threw her car keys at Mindek, telling him he could search the car for jewelry but he wouldn't find anything.

"I wanted to do everything they were telling us to," she says. "I was freaking out."

Tiffany called the nearby Parma Heights Police, hoping to reach an officer she knew who could defuse the situation. He wasn't around, so she transferred to 911. "I was trying to watch Dan, I was trying to be on the phone. I was trying to watch what Dave was doing," she recalls. As Tiffany paced between the driveway and the steps while connected with a dispatcher, she heard a lone shot fired, though she didn't see it. Over the next blurred minute she cradled Dan, then felt herself lifted up and placed into the back of the cruiser. She saw cops everywhere, but no sign of Mindek or Craska.

The accounts of the two officers flip the script: Ficker was the aggressor, they maintain, and toxicology tests confirmed that his blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. D'Angelo says Craska and Mindek arrived in Parma, knocked on the door of the empty house, and were getting ready to leave when the car pulled in. "The approach was not antagonistic or anything like that," the attorney says.

As D'Angelo has maintained since the days after the shooting, when Craska tried to approach, Ficker became verbally abusive. He jerked away as the officer tried to steer him toward the patrol car. Craska frisked Ficker, finding a pocket knife, but Ficker struck back with an elbow, setting off the struggle. The two ended up grappling on the ground, with Ficker throwing head butts and attempting choke holds — moves D'Angelo alleged in the press in the days after the shooting could have come from some type of mixed martial arts training. Ficker reached for Craska's gun, and the officer tried to subdue him with a Taser. The jolt seemed to have no effect. He reached for the gun again, and Mindek came in to assist. On the ground, Craska's glasses came off. Ficker was coming in for more.

"He left him with no choice," D'Angelo says. "So he shot him."

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