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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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***

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.

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