The single 9mm bullet that struck Daniel Ficker sank into his left side near the armpit, punching through rib and lung before resting near his spine.
As the echo rattled through the sleeping Parma neighborhood, the 27-year-old crumbled onto the narrow patch of grass between the sidewalk and the white bungalow he shared with his girlfriend. By the time Tiffany Urbach gave up on her call to 911 and ran to his side, Ficker was struggling for breath, eventually finding enough air to tell her he loved her.
Parma Police arrived quickly, only minutes into the a.m. hours of July 4, 2011. They found Cleveland Police officer Matthew Craska standing on the sidewalk, his warm Glock 17 still unholstered and angled at the ground. Urbach held her gasping boyfriend in her arms. "You shot him!" she wailed as blood flooded up from Ficker's nose and mouth. The Parma officers pulled her off, cuffed Ficker, and started probing for the gunshot wound as his consciousness slipped away.
More police and EMS were en route, the sirens cutting up the mild night air still hung with the aftertaste of spent fireworks. They came from Parma, along with units from Cleveland who swarmed the street corner upon learning that shots had been fired involving one of their own. For hours, onlookers and neighbors, family and news crews descended, held back from the lawn by a police barricade. When asked what had happened, cops just shook their heads or shrugged.
Ficker was taken to Metro hospital. Within an hour, he was dead on the operating table.
On the last day of his life, Daniel Ficker shuffled through the same holiday motions as everyone else: He spent July 3 making the family rounds between backyard parties and drinking along the way.
On paper and according to friends, Dan was an ordinary guy with an unremarkable backstory. Cleveland-born and raised in Old Brooklyn, he watched his parents split when he was two and was raised mostly by his mother, Bernadette Rolen. Once he'd waded into adulthood, Dan and his father, Dennis, a muscular bald guy with his son's likeness unmistakably stamped into his own features, became close again — more like good friends than father and son.
For the last six years, Dan had shared the house in Parma with his high school sweetheart. The bills were paid with the good money Dan pulled down at Legend Automotive in Berea, but he would cut anyone off mid-sentence who called him a mechanic. "I'm a tech," he'd always insist.
Almost a decade into the relationship, their home life had come to center around an eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. Many say Dan was an attentive father, and especially close with his grandparents on his mother's side; every week without fail, he would visit the ailing couple at their house in Cleveland, cooking and cleaning for them.
But Dan Ficker wasn't an altar boy. The image he cut was rough-edged — belying the nice guy on the inside, friends say, but rough nonetheless: His slightly jutting ears were pierced, his wiry frame inked over with skulls, dice, and a grim reaper, among other tattoos. He partied with friends who went at it hard; Dan too could hold his liquor and didn't pass up the occasional hit of weed. In addition to some minor scrapes with the law, a night at the bar in 2005 ended with a drunken Dan in cuffs and facing a weapons charge. According to reports, he became angry and threatened patrons in the bar; police later found an unlicensed gun in the glove compartment of his car out front. Friends and family say it was a one-time wig-out, not par for the course.
On the afternoon of July 3, Dan and Tiffany piled the kids into the car and steered north from Parma toward Cleveland. Fifteen minutes later, they pulled up to the Old Brooklyn home of Tiffany's cousin, Kim Mindek. It was a modest neighborhood popular among cop families, and Mindek's husband Dave was one of them. Out back, Fourth of July festivities were warming up.
Although the cousins had never been close, Tiffany and Kim had been trying to mint a tighter bond after their grandfather's death the year before. But it hadn't completely taken, in part because of Dan. During a 10-month separation from Tiffany, he tagged along for her birthday party at a Parma bar. While the booze flowed, Kim spotted her cousin's ex dancing with another girl and confronted him.
"I didn't care. It was pretty entertaining," Tiffany recalls today. "She got angry and was yelling at him, and then he left." The dust-up left bad blood between the two.
But by the time Dan and his family stepped into the Mindeks' backyard, any animosity had seemingly been shelved. About 20 people were there, though Tiffany recognized only about seven family members. The fenced-in backyard included a tiki bar and the sound of music spun by a hired DJ. While the kids played inside, Tiffany and Dan sat at the bar bullshitting with Kim, the party's lone host. Dave Mindek was on duty that day.
Dan and Tiffany put in about two hours at the party before saying their goodbyes and heading to the home of Tiffany's mom in Strongsville for the evening. The kids ended up spending the night there, freeing up Dan and Tiffany to head back to Parma alone.
They spent an hour at a bar near their house — just long enough for a shot and a beer, and a quick game of pool. At some point, Tiffany's phone buzzed with a Facebook message from Kim's sister saying to call Kim. Assuming she wanted them to swing back to her party, Tiffany ignored the message until they headed homeward at around 11:30. Tiffany called Kim five times from the car, getting no more than empty rings and voicemail every time.
Dan and Tiffany crawled north up a side street toward their home at the corner of Wareham and Pelham; the driveway was about 20 yards down the sidewalk, past a small backyard jammed with a picnic table, clubhouse, and trampoline. The couple was in good spirits and planned to throw on a movie.
From their approach, they didn't notice the Cleveland Police car parked at the curb or the uniformed cop leaning against it. As Dan pulled in, they both spotted another man in street clothes standing on the lawn.
"Who is that?" Dan asked.
Tiffany was puzzled at first, then grew worried that something was wrong with a family member when she recognized who was waiting for them.
"That's my cousin."
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."
Tiffany Urbach has heard the cops' version of events, and she unconditionally knocks down the idea Dan initiated the brawl.
"That's bullshit," she says, dismissing the notion that her boyfriend had any formal fight training. "Really? I've known the guy 10 years. I didn't know he did any of that," she throws in sarcastically.
In the days after the shooting, when newspaper accounts suggested Ficker was a trained fighter, the rest of the family let loose a similar reaction, openly questioning how a drunken man of average size could go rounds with two trained law enforcers. An autopsy would later count more than 30 fresh bruises on Ficker's body.
But sympathy was a hard sell after an initial tally of the facts. With a violent outburst on Ficker's record and a policeman's word that he was the attacker, his character was called into question. Now Bernadette Rolen and Dennis Ficker worry their son will be written off as just another perp not worthy of a fair shake.
"He was no angel. We've been open about that," says Dennis Ficker. "But nothing that deserved this."
With Dan Ficker's parents taking the lead, the family has gone on the offensive, trying to cut down the idea that their son was an unchained psycho only a bullet could stop. They started websites and Facebook groups, printed up signs and T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Justice for Dan Ficker" in bold lettering. The numbers "143" — text-message shorthand for "I love you" that Dan liked to send to friends and family — became a makeshift motto for the cause. The family even opened their wallets for a billboard calling for a full investigation.
"You always want to trust the police, so when Parma assured me they were going to handle this properly, I had confidence. But the longer it's been taking, the more worried I became," Rolen says. "I wanted them to know I wasn't going away. You keep bringing this up, and it hurts and it's sickening, it's so emotional. But I can't give up. I have to keep pressing through till justice is served."
The shooting landed in a kind of swampy jurisdictional middle ground. The deadly force came from the hands of a Cleveland cop, but Cleveland Police couldn't run point on the investigation because the shooting happened beyond the department's legal reach. That task fell to Parma. According to the broad language of Cleveland's general police orders, the department's role would be limited to "monitoring" the other organization's investigation. In the meantime, Craska was placed on restricted duty, with minimal access to the public; Mindek remained on regular rotation.
Parma Police insist their probe was conducted without any involvement from Cleveland. "We had to work this independent of each other for the integrity of the case," says Parma Police Captain Robert DeSimone, the lead investigator.
Although the department has kept the lid tightly closed on its investigation, some details have surfaced. Police attorney D'Angelo says Craska and Mindek gave video statements and DNA samples to Parma investigators, and Tiffany Urbach was questioned about the steps leading up to the shooting that night. Also, a DNA laboratory examination report requested by Parma was completed by the Cuyahoga County forensic lab in November. The document, obtained by Scene, shows that samples from Ficker were compared with stains and possible skin traces found on the uniform and equipment Craska was wearing that night. The matches include Ficker's possible blood splatter on the clothing and his skin cells on the officer's flashlight and pistol grip — results that indicate the close-quarters struggle.
Apart from occasional written warnings, neither officer had a history of serious violations or misconduct. Both have been on the force since the late 1990s. Craska has earned a number of decorations, including the department's Medal of Honor for a 2001 incident in which the officer and his partner struggled with a violent criminal who took Craska's gun from him before the other officer shot him down.
DeSimone is also careful to drive home that the scope of Parma's scrutiny is limited to what happened on the lawn. "This is what we investigated: the incident that happened in Parma. Nothing else," he says. "Anything that occurred in the city of Cleveland is being investigated by the city of Cleveland."
Cleveland, however, doesn't have a current investigation into the use of deadly force. According to spokesman Sammy Morris, the department's "monitoring" will happen after Parma has concluded its probe, when the integrity-control division examines the results to see if any protocols were breached. "Parma can't enforce Division of Police departmental rules and regulations," Morris says.
Following Ficker's death, the only open Cleveland case file related to Dan Ficker was the investigation into the burglary at the Mindek residence.
But the independent probes are the problem, say members of Ficker's family, who worry that neither department will consider the situation as a complete chain of cause-and-effect that ended with a man's death.
"The Cleveland Police have done nothing in terms of investigating their own officers," says Terry Gilbert, the family's lawyer. "They're saying that we'll give Parma time to do their investigation, but it remains to be seen whether they'll look in terms of whether there was excessive force from the standpoint of Cleveland policies and procedures, as well as other questions that arose in terms of the confrontation." Most notably, Gilbert says, is the issue of whether an off-duty officer who was ostensibly the victim of an alleged crime — or at least married to the victim of a crime — should have been allowed to personally confront a suspect in another jurisdiction.
That probable cause issue is wrapped up in another layer of significance, considering that nothing apart from the testimony of Kim Mindek points to Ficker as a suspect in the burglary. The stolen jewelry has never been found. The same DNA report that tested Craska's clothing and equipment also hunted for traces of Ficker on a jewelry box taken from the Mindek residence. His DNA was not a match on the box. Cleveland Police confirm that the case was recently closed due to "no further investigative leads."
For the officers' attorney, the chain of events that put Craska and Mindek on the lawn in Parma doesn't change what happened once they got there.
"Whether Ficker was guilty of that or not obviously is a subject of relevance, but it's not determinative of what happened at the scene of the shooting," D'Angelo claims. "The fact that deadly force was used was a direct result of the actions of Mr. Ficker. If he didn't attack the officer, if he didn't try to take his weapon and use it against him in a protracted physical struggle, he'd still be alive."
In December, Parma Police announced they had completed their investigation. The findings, still sealed, landed with the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor. In mid-January, about 50 friends and supporters stomped their feet for warmth in the wind and rain outside the Justice Center downtown, waving signs for Dan Ficker and asking for quick work on the part of prosecutors.
The message the family shouted through a megaphone that day — broadcast on the evening news — was noted. A few days later, Ficker's parents received a letter from the office saying the findings from the investigation would be presented to a grand jury at the end of February. They have their fingers crossed for some kind of official closure. If that doesn't happen, they have a lawyer.
Back in Parma, Tiffany Urbach picks toys up off her living room floor after another morning shift at the daycare. She says the shooting still runs on a constant loop through her head, even when the lights are out. About three nights a week, her dreams pan back over the events. Sometimes, she'll snap awake, remembering another detail, then backtrack, second-guessing whether it was a memory that's worked free or something sprung whole out of thin air. Next week she has an appointment with someone who can help.
"My brain just won't stop working," she says.