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'You're Lucky We Didn't Shoot Him' 

In 2011, Cleveland Police Roughed Up an Innocent 16-Year-Old Boy with Down Syndrome. The Family is Still Looking for Justice.

It all started with an armed robbery one hot August Monday afternoon in 2010 in the westside's Jefferson neighborhood.

"Give me your wallet or I'll kill you."

The voice came from behind the 54-year-old man as he walked under the railroad trestle on Lorain Avenue. A stranger, lurking in the shadow, approached him quietly and stuck what he said was a gun to the man's back, saying he'd pull the trigger if he didn't get what he came for.

So the man reached into his pocket and forked over his wallet, with the 35 bucks and credit cards he had in it. He didn't get a good look at the robber, only catching a glimpse as he scurried away.

He walked over to the nearest business, the Conrad's tire store a few hundred feet away, and called 911 at 4:57 p.m.

"It was a white male, about 5-foot-8 at the most," he told the dispatcher.

"What was he wearing?"

"He was wearing like a long-type shirt." He didn't remember what color the shirt was. "He was wearing a hat of some sort, but not a baseball hat."

"Did he have a weapon?"

"Well, he stuck it in my back and said he was going to shoot me but I don't think it was a weapon. He threatened to kill me, but — "

"Which way did he go?"

"If you're familiar with the bridge over Lorain, I've seen a lot of people climb that little hill up to the bridge to get to the Rapid station, so he was probably going to jump onto the Rapid."

Police met him at Conrad's shortly thereafter. Another 911 call came in a half hour later.

At 5:27 p.m., West Terrace Apartments manager Nina Kennedy called police and reported two strangers had just dropped off a wallet in her office. The apartment building, on the corner of Lorain Avenue and West 143rd Street, was just next to the railroad trestle under which the man was robbed.

"When they came out from visiting somebody, the wallet was laying down," she relayed to the dispatcher. They saw some police cruisers going up and down the street and "they didn't know if there was a crime committed in the back or what."

"Hold on," the dispatcher interrupts, "you know what, how far are you from — hold on one second, because I think I know what this is, hold on one second, okay?"

Maybe the guys who turned in the wallet were the suspects, not Good Samaritans, the dispatcher thought.

"Tell me, what were those men wearing? Were they both white or black?"

"The two gentleman who brought the wallet were white."

"Did one of them have on — "

Kennedy interrupts: "a blue shirt."

"Was it a long shirt?"

"It was like a blue T-shirt."

"Did he have on a hat?"

"Yes."

"Hold on one second. It was two white males?"

"Yes, they gave me the wallet. They said they found it laying on the ground in the back. I had never seen those two gentlemen before."

"Where are they now? Which way did they go?"

They went east, walking down Lorain, Kennedy said.

"Tell me what they were wearing — one was wearing what?"

"One was wearing a blue T-shirt. He was white and had blondish — dirty blond hair with a mustache. And then the older gentleman, he looks like he may be 50, had a ballcap on, clean shaved."

The dispatcher confirms: "50s? Ballcap? Clean shaven?"

"I think he had a red shirt on, if I'm not mistaken," Kennedy said of the second man.

With two calls with possible ties and two descriptions of what might be the suspects in the robbery in hand, dispatch radioed officers Brian Kazimer, a 15-year veteran of the department, and Dan Crisan, a 14-year vet.

At 5:29 p.m. — while Kennedy was still on the line — an audio recording of the radio communication between the station and the two cops details what they were told.

"A female just called us from 14305 Lorain — says two males just handed her a wallet, stated they found it laying on the ground behind the apartments. Said she's never seen them before, both males left eastbound on Lorain from 14305."

After a pause, she continues relaying information: "One wearing a blue T-shirt, dirty blond hair, and a mustache — I'm trying to get the description on the next."

"How long ago was that, radio? I'm right here right now," one of the officers responds

"She's saying it just happened now. The other one was an older male in his 50s, clean shaven with a red shirt. We're still on the line with her, they just gave it to her."

Soon after, the officers radioed back, wanting the description again.

"There's supposed to be one man wearing a blue T-shirt, dirty blond hair, mustache. The other one's an older male — about in his 50s, she thought — ballcap, clean shaven, possibly with a red shirt."

The officers again received the address, with dispatch explaining the second 911 call was from the apartment manager. Though Kennedy never said the two guys who found the wallet were the robbers, dispatchers relayed the information to the officers as if they were.

Within a minute, the officers ask for the description for the third time. "A male wearing a blue T-shirt, dirty blond hair, mustache. The other, an older male, possibly in his 50s, baseball cap, clean shaven, possibly a red shirt."

Within minutes, Kazimer was on foot in the West Terrace Apartments parking lot chasing someone in a red shirt who had turned away and ran. His partner radioed in: "In the back of the apartment, black male, red shirt, blue shorts."

Except the person Kazimer was chasing was neither a white man in his 50s nor a black male in a red shirt. It was a 4-foot-11 Hispanic teenager with Down syndrome named Juan Ortiz, scared and in search of his parents.

***

The Cleveland police have been the subject of unending headlines in recent months. From the Department of Justice's scathing investigation into the department's use of force to the deaths of Tamir Rice and Tanisha Anderson — all occurring within one three-week period in November and December — the force has faced scrutiny for its actions that have largely flown under the radar for the decade since the DOJ last dropped by town to excoriate the men and women in blue.

"There is reasonable cause to believe that Cleveland police officers engage in a pattern or practice of unreasonable and in some cases unnecessary force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution," the Department of Justice announced in their Dec. 4 press conference.

Four and a half years ago, there was the case of Juan Ortiz, which is mentioned in the DOJ report. And the case has ties and parallels to what happened to both Rice and Anderson: poor dispatch-to-patrol communication, a child treated as a hardened criminal, and officers unable or unwilling to adjust tactics when dealing with a mentally challenged civilian.

It goes further: Officers in this case have gone unpunished by their superiors, a trend noted by the DOJ and others, despite an investigation and recommendation of punishment by the Civilian Police Review Board.

Public records provided to Scene and the Plain Dealer by the city of Cleveland (delivered on the eve of the DOJ's December press conference after months of stalling) show the city has paid out $10 million as a result of civil lawsuits against the police department since 2004.

Juan Ortiz's family's federal civil rights lawsuit against the cops is not included in that group, because the city is still fighting, taking its cue from Mayor Frank Jackson, who insists there is no problem. A multitude of witnesses, doctors and Ortiz's family beg to differ.

***

Little Juan Ortiz had been outside the apartment where he lived, with headphones in, listening to music from the church he and parents attended. When he spotted the police cruiser coming down Lorain Avenue, he ran toward his parents, who were sitting outside on a hot summer afternoon.

No one knows exactly why Juan took off when the police car caught his attention — he can't communicate beyond a couple of Spanish words he uses and simple hand gestures, like putting his fingers near his mouth when he's hungry. But he was rushing toward them with Kazimer in pursuit.

And multiple witnesses reported that when Officer Kazimer caught up to Ortiz, just as Ortiz was reaching his parents, he slammed the 16-year-old into a car.

"Juan's parents were standing in the parking lot by his mother's vehicle," declared apartment resident Eliezer Manzano in a court filing. Manzano is Juan's nephew but is older than him, an adult. "Juan ran to his parents and stopped. He began hugging his mother when the officer grabbed Juan from behind, forcefully pulled him from his mother's arms, and slammed him very hard into her vehicle like a football player making a tackle."

That's what others reported seeing too, adding that Kazimer forced the kid's head down and handcuffed him.

The commotion grew at this point, as more and more people who knew Juan and his family and his condition began begging and pleading with Kazimer and Crisan, who soon arrived, to ease up on him, that he couldn't have done anything to deserve the treatment.

Officers should have known, witnesses say, from the beginning of the chase that Juan had Down syndrome. If they couldn't see his facial features, they could have listened to Manzano, who saw Kazimer chasing him and told him about his condition, only to be told, "Shut up, get out of my way."

"As [Kazimer, chasing Juan] approached, I asked him, in English, if there was a problem. I told him that Juan was my uncle, had Down syndrome, and could not understand what the officer was saying," Manzano said. "I told the officer that I could help him. The officer responded, 'Shut up, get out of my way.'"

Manzano's story is backed up by another witness, who was on her balcony at the time: "As the officer was chasing Juan, I observed Eliezer Manzano standing outside his apartment building," she stated, again under oath. "As the officer passed Manzano, I heard him yell, 'Yo, he has Down syndrome,' but the officer did not stop chasing Juan. I then saw Manzano follow the officer. Manzano continued to yell as he followed."

If Kazimer didn't hear it from Manzano, he definitely heard it from Juan's parents, Ramon and Alma, who were right there when the officer captured their son. Alma was frantic about what she saw, yelling over and over again "my baby," one of the few English terms she knew.

Though it's his second language, Ramon can speak English very well, and he continually tried to communicate Juan's condition to Kazimer — who continued to pin his son down on the car with his entire body weight — and that he was hurting his son. Witnesses say Juan was crying and in obvious pain.

"Ramon Ortiz continued to explain to the officers that his son had Down syndrome," the complaint says. Kazimer then said, "I don't care," and to "shut the fuck up."

Manzano again told Kazimer he had the wrong guy: "After the officer slammed Juan into the car, I again said to the officer, "He's got Down syndrome. He doesn't know what you're saying. He doesn't understand."

When Crisan arrived, he did nothing to stop his partner.

And that's when Nina Kennedy — the apartment manager who dialed 911 to report a returned wallet, providing description of the older men — noticed what was going on and interjected.

"The window was open, and the officers were only a short distance from me," she stated under oath. "I yelled to the officers that I had the wallet and they had the wrong person. I said, 'You got the wrong person! That's not right!' The officers had to have heard me given how close we were. One of the officers [Crisan] — not the one pinning Juan to the vehicle — looked directly up at me while I was yelling, but he said nothing and did nothing to stop the others from hurting Juan."

She continued: "I observed Juan's parents pleading with the two officers to let go of their son. Juan's father was speaking in English and his mother was speaking in Spanish. I observed one of the officers push Juan's mother and she fell to the ground. I heard Juan's father tell the officers that Juan was his son, that Juan had Down syndrome, and that Juan did not understand what they were saying."

Everybody there reports the two officers were swearing a lot at Juan's family, hurling insults and slurs toward his mother because her English was poor, and toward Juan, because he didn't speak English. The family is from Puerto Rico.

"I heard one of the officers tell Juan's parents to go back to their own country if they can't speak the language here," Kennedy stated. "The officers were telling Juan's parents and other relatives to 'shut the fuck up' and 'get the fuck away from here.'"

Another witness — a woman who was babysitting at an apartment in the complex — came out on the balcony when she heard the commotion and saw "Juan's mother attempt to intervene to protect him, but the police held her back and pushed her down on the ground.

"In response, the police were screaming and using vulgar and obscene language toward Juan's parents," she said. "The language those officers used would make a sailor blush. One of those officers told Juan's mother to 'get the hell back to where she belongs.' He called her a 'Mexican wetback.'"

The lawsuit also contends that in the middle of the racial slurs and threatening language, after a chase against an unarmed citizen with no connection to the crime, Kazimer said this: "You're lucky we didn't shoot him."

Soon, backup officers arrived to the parking lot. Two retrieved the wallet from Kennedy — who again said that police had the wrong person — while Kazimer put Juan in the back of a cruiser. (One of those responding officers, Sgt. Shoulders, is a defendant in multiple civil rights lawsuits, accused of beating up people he arrests and using racial slurs. He's not accused of any wrongdoing in this instance.)

Finally, Kazimer conceded. Witnesses on the scene reported Juan had been in handcuffs for 15 minutes. The officers contend it was only five.

In his deposition in the lawsuit by the Ortiz family, Kazimer claims he didn't know Juan had Down syndrome — he didn't remember if anybody told him he did — until minutes after he cuffed him. In paperwork he filed two weeks after the incident, he described the following scene:

... As we turned into the apartment complex we observed a male wearing a red t-shirt and jeans. This male upon seeing us immediately fled w/b in between the buildings. I left the zc and pursued this male as my partner gave out our location and facts of pursuit. I pursued this male w/b through the complex then n/b toward Lorain. The pursuit continued until the male ran to the front of the complex and up to a parked m/v where he stopped. At that location I caught up to him, and used my weight to pin him against the car as I attempted to cuff him. The male matched the description and was in the area of the robbery. He also fled as soon as he observed us approaching. When I was attempting to cuff him his parents and several others were screaming at me and his parents were attempting to pull him away from me, directly interfering with his lawful detainment. I advised them several times to let go and that they could be arrested. The males family continued screaming at me and pulling on him to get him away from me. After calling for more cars, I was able to cuff this male, and with assistance from other zcs restore order to the scene. As this occurred, the caller approached P.O.s Tobin and Robles and gave them the wallet and further information... Juan Ortiz was detained briefly c/w this investigation and was released due to having had no involvement...

Kazimer never said he made a mistake, and blames Juan, a Hispanic child with Down syndrome who can't understand language, for not speaking English: "I learned of Juan's condition only after the initial pursuit/detainment. However, his condition did not detract from his ability to ID and flee from an officer. Furthermore, his inability to speak English only made the situation worse, leading him to ignore my commands to stop."

Not only did Kazimer detain the wrong person — a 4-foot-11-inch Hispanic special needs child — the people they had been looking for turned out to be Good Samaritans who had simply dropped off the wallet they found.

The guy who actually robbed the 54-year-old man was arrested shortly thereafter at his apartment after his friend's dad called police to let them know his son and his son's friend may have had something to do with "what was happening in the area." The man, who was 19 at the time, was also connected with another robbery and is currently halfway through an 8-year sentence at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut.

***

Ramon took his son to Fairview Hospital right after the police left. The right side of Juan's face was swollen. He had chest pains and bruising. His wrists had abrasions from the handcuffs.

The next day, Ramon filed a complaint with the department's Civilian Police Review Board at the Office of Professional Standards. The investigator took statements from Kazimer and Crisan, talked to witnesses and, in just more than a month, made a ruling siding with Ortiz against the officers.

"The Police Review Board determined your complaint to be ruled SUSTAINED," wrote board chairman Thomas F. Jones, a former special agent in charge of the Cleveland office of the FBI and chief of police/security at the Cleveland Clinic. "A letter recommending discipline will be forwarded to the Chief of Police."

Then police-chief Michael McGrath never heeded the recommendations of the Civilian Police Review Board. More than four years later, the officers have not received so much as a slap on the wrist for their actions against Juan Ortiz and his family that afternoon in 2010.

In January 2013, Ortiz's lawyer, Subodh Chandra, wrote a nine-page letter to McGrath, detailing the abuse and the board's recommendation of discipline, and the fact nothing had happened.

McGrath sent back what essentially reads as a form letter: "It is the goal of the Division of Police to make Cleveland a desirable, safe city in which to live, work, raise a family, shop, study, play and grow old. Thank you for your continued support." Chandra received no further communication from the police department.

McGrath would be promoted to Cleveland safety director by Mayor Frank Jackson in February 2014.

When asked about about why Kazimer and Crisan have gone unpunished, a city of Cleveland spokesman responded with the following statement to Scene:

Administrative discipline in the Ortiz matter has not yet been conducted due to pending civil litigation. The assertion that Officers Kazimer and Crisan were never disciplined is incorrect, the administrative disciplinary process in this matter will begin once the pending civil litigation has been settled.

At the time of the incident (2010), it was the policy of the City of Cleveland to hold off on the administrative disciplinary process until all pending civil and criminal matters were settled. Since 2012, the city has changed its policy to allow for administrative discipline to run concurrently with any civil litigation. Administrative discipline in any criminal matter will still occur at the conclusion of the criminal matter.

***

"There's been no justice at all. No justice," Manzano told Scene recently. "Let's say it happened to one of their kids? I guarantee something would have happened. For them to look at the paperwork, look at the evidence, and look at the testimony, and say they're fine with what he did, or he just did his job ... Is that really his job? That's the question."

On July 25, 2011, Chandra filed a federal civil rights lawsuit for the family against Kazimer and Crisan, on counts of Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations — for unreasonable seizure and excessive use of force on Juan — and eight other counts, including battery, false arrest, negligence, and civil liability for criminal conduct.

Three and a half years later the case is still open, sitting stagnant, in Cleveland's federal court with very little action taken on it since 2013. Next up is a decision by the Sixth Circuit Appeals Court on a summary judgment motion. Whichever side is on the losing end of that decision is going to appeal, meaning even if the judge calls for a trial, it wouldn't get going until 2017 or so — seven years after the attack.

And that makes it hard on the Ortiz family, who are still emotionally disturbed by what happened that day, especially in the wake of zero punishment to the officers that roughed up their kid and hurled insults at their family.

And despite the physical toll Juan took that afternoon in 2010 — swollen face, bruises — the emotional issues are what linger. Social workers and psychiatrists have documented Juan's post traumatic stress disorder in the years after the incident with Cleveland police. One social worker documented the following in 2011:

Juan is a 17-year-old, Hispanic male who was born with Down's (sic) syndrome. Juan understands only Spanish and communicates through gestures and one or two syllable words. Father reports that, in the aftermath of the traumatic event in August 2010, Juan spent weeks in the apartment too anxious to be going outside. Juan is hypervigilant and is constantly on the lookout for police cars and police. Father reports that Juan would react to the sound of sirens or the sight of a police car by running and hiding in his bedroom. The father reports that Juan, at times, would soil himself. Juan chews on the tip of his right thumb when anxious to the point of bleeding. The father reports that Juan has extreme problems with sleeping at night and that, once awake, could not fall back to sleep.

Apartment manager Nina Kennedy shared similar observations under oath:

After the incident on August 16, 2010, Juan was scared to death to see police officers. Every time he would see a police car, he would run into the apartments. I observed Juan reacting in terror to seeing a police car on numerous occasions. If Juan was close to my apartment, he would run to me. One such incident occurred in the summer of 2011. There was a fire in our complex and fire and police responded. Juan ran to me and I had to call his father to come get him and calm him down. Prior to the incident, I had never observed Juan to be frightened of law enforcement.

A Beachwood psychiatrist who performed a psychiatric evaluation of Juan, concluded he suffered from PTSD after the incident:

It is my opinion, with reasonable medical certainty, that Juan Ortiz suffered from and continues to suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder caused by a violent encounter with Cleveland Police on August 16, 2010. Evidence for this opinion was that he continued to have the symptoms of PTSD listed above. He had no previous history of these symptoms and no history of trauma prior to August 16, 2010. He had no other subsequent traumatic event since August 16, 2010.

The Ortiz family left Cleveland the year after the incident and moved to Newark, New Jersey. They have relatives there, and it's somewhat easier on Juan, living somewhere far from his traumatic memories.

The event left a lasting impact on others around Juan.

"It's so hard to explain because it was so wrong," Manzano said recently, "If you see any little kid mistreated, even when they don't have syndromes or diseases, you can just imagine how you'd feel. But take Juan, who has Down syndrome, and to see it happen to him, not just by anyone, but by police with the authority of the state."

***

That a case has been open for so long is rare, but not unprecedented. In March 2004, for example, a suit was filed against Cleveland police officers who shot in the chest and killed an unarmed surrendering suspect and subsequently allegedly lied to investigators about the circumstances. It wasn't until 2009 that the case closed, with the city paying out $95,000 to the dead man's mother.

Or the lawsuit filed in 2006 by a 27-year-old construction worker against police officers, including Frank Woyma, who broke an empty Corona bottle on the man's head before other officers pepper-sprayed him in the face. The city agreed to pay $25,000 in 2011.

Or the 2008 lawsuit filed by a Hudson resident who had called police to get help for a woman downtown, only to be beat up, given a concussion, handcuffed, subjected to racial slurs, held in jail for a day, and charged with aggravated disorderly conduct and resisting arrest (a judge dismissed those charges). Four years later, in 2012, the police shelled out $40,000 to the man.

Ortiz's family has hopes that their day for justice will come. But for them, it's more than just about the money.

"Even though a lawsuit is perfect," Manzano, who is a witness in the case but not a plaintiff, told Scene, "the money will never cover the damage that it has been done. The money is not the issue here. It's the justice."

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