Loose Cannon

The first shooting by Officer Daniel Jopek and his partner was ruled justified. Nine months later, Jopek killed again.

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Stanley Strnad's dinner had gone cold.

On November 14, Nicole Tomazic, a pretty nursing student with tanned skin and Georgian curls, picked up a large pepperoni pizza. From her mom's house in Euclid, she called her fiancé and told him dinner was ready. "I'm right down the street," Strnad said. "I'll be there in a minute."

That was hours ago. Tomazic called his cell phone several times. No answer. She ate her slices and took the rest home to their bungalow around the corner. Still no sign of him. She tucked their four-year-old daughter, Haley, into bed and started her anatomy lab homework, but she found it hard to concentrate. This was so like Stanley.

Strnad was a bit rough around the edges. A T-shirt-and-jeans guy with a buzz cut and goatee, his rap sheet and skin accumulated ink in equal measure. It was mostly punk stuff: drugs and fights. And he often underestimated his time of arrival -- his "minute" might take 20 -- which infuriated Nicole.

But he was also a good father. When Haley was a baby, he packed her diaper bag as thoroughly as a Boy Scout prepares a first-aid kit. As she grew older, he braided her hair and treated her to so many father-daughter outings that Nicole almost felt left out. At 26, Strnad finally seemed to be maturing.

Or so Nicole thought. Now he was missing.

The phone rang. It was her sister Theresa.

"Where's Stanley?" Theresa asked.

"I don't know," Nicole answered.

"I just saw a car that looked like his on the news."

Nicole turned on the TV and recognized the North Collinwood neighborhood where Strnad grew up. She saw his silver Taurus; it looked like an accident. She didn't wait for details. She strapped Haley into her car seat and sped to the scene, where she found the car.

The airbag was deployed, and the street was clogged with reporters, police, and onlookers. Strnad's brother John arrived and waded into the crowd to ask what happened. "They shot that white boy," someone from the neighborhood said. The injured man was being treated at Huron Hospital.

Nicole went to the antiseptic waiting room and hoped for the best. A nurse approached and asked whether her fiancé had any distinctive markings. She recited his many tattoos: a skull, a panther, Haley's name and birth date with two hands clasped together in prayer . . .

The nurse cut her off. "He passed."

Months went by before Nicole learned the details of why the police shot Stanley that night, but when she did, the events hardened into a statement so cold and immutable that it could serve as his epitaph: "He was shot like an animal."

The cop who killed Strnad was Daniel Jopek Jr. As is routine when police use deadly force, the city investigated. But this was no ordinary case. After a lengthy inquiry, the prosecutor arrived at a conclusion as historic as it was controversial: The shooting was unjustified. Jopek was accused of reckless homicide.

It was the first time in at least 15 years that homicide charges were filed as a result of an on-duty action, and it came at a time when police shootings were already under a microscope.

Cleveland had seen a spike in police shootings, with 10 people dying in two years. This came after the Justice Department criticized the city for its handling of deadly force incidents, saying that some "may have been avoidable." To fend off a federal lawsuit, the police department agreed to change its policies. A settlement was reached in February, the terms of which included federal monitoring for the next year.

The last attempt to prosecute a cop for an on-duty shooting became an exercise in incompetence.

On December 6, 2001, Officer Edward Lentz was guarding Mayor-elect Jane Campbell's home when he encountered a 12-year-old boy driving a stolen station wagon. Lentz fired 14 shots at the boy, who was hospitalized with injuries to his arm and ankle.

Lentz claimed the car hit him, sending him rolling over the windshield and onto the roof, where he became trapped in the luggage rack. Prosecutors, however, said the evidence demonstrated that Lentz had never been hit by the car and had invented the story to justify the shooting.

The case quickly unraveled. Police mistakenly crushed the 1984 Chevrolet the boy was driving, destroying crucial evidence. A grand jury declined to indict Lentz on felony assault charges, so prosecutors had to settle for a misdemeanor count of lying in a police report. Even that charge was ultimately thrown out by the judge, who said prosecutors failed to prove their case. Lentz walked.

Police viewed Lentz's and Jopek's prosecutions as politically motivated. "We believe that the city has been reaching out, looking for cases to charge police officers with as a result of the current politics and the consent judgment they have with the Justice Department," says union lawyer Pat D'Angelo.

Yet an investigation into Jopek's history raises questions about whether he's fit for duty -- and whether the city is adequately policing its cops.

At the time of the Strnad shooting, Jopek was a three-year veteran. With his blue eyes and buzz cut, he could model for recruiting posters. The 33-year-old had already earned a reputation among fellow officers as "an aggressive guy" and a "ball buster." Through his lawyer, Jopek turned down an interview request, but his employment records reveal a man in search of action.

Fresh out of high school, he joined the Marines. He left after six months for family reasons, but his service made a big impression, as evidenced by his three Marine Corps tattoos; he later joined the reserves. Jopek came home to Fairview Park to work for his dad's tree-care business, but kept an eye on more exciting work, studying law enforcement for four years at Tri-C and graduating from the Cleveland Heights Police Academy.

In 1994, Jopek joined Olmsted Township Police. If he was hoping to make the highlight reel on Cops, he couldn't have picked a worse place. Just 20 miles away from downtown Cleveland, Olmsted Township at times seems closer to Amish country. Violent crime is so rare that when something does happen, it's talked about all year. Police duties include checking in on the homes of vacationing residents.

Yet Jopek policed this sleepy burg as if it were the Bronx. A mother complained when a routine traffic stop somehow escalated into the arrest of her son and two other teenage boys when they questioned him about the traffic ticket. "I am very disappointed in this young officer's unprofessional, hot-headed handling of such an unprovoked situation," she wrote. Another kid accused Jopek of lying in wait near his house and repeatedly pulling him over to search his car for contraband that was never there. And an underage girl alleged that Jopek touched her vagina through her clothes during a pat-down for marijuana. None of the accusations was ever substantiated.

Superiors saw in Jopek that same tendency to go overboard. After Jopek brandished his gun to pacify an unarmed suspect, his commanding officer reminded him that his service weapon was to be used only as a last resort. On another occasion, Jopek was booking a woman for drunk driving and threatened to cite her for disorderly conduct if she didn't shut up. A sergeant told him not to, but he did anyway, which earned Jopek a write-up for disobeying an order.

Even Jopek's commendations suggest a militant officer. He earned kudos after requesting to come in on a Saturday to clean the department's shotguns "while in full uniform and on his own time," Lieutenant John Minek wrote in a glowing report. Minek later told the media that Jopek had been "too aggressive" for a suburban police department.

Being a hardass ultimately cost Jopek his badge. In June 1999, part-time officer Gary Dieckman filed a complaint over an argument with Jopek the previous month. Jopek had been brusque with him over police radio, then pulled him aside when their shift ended to ask if Dieckman had a problem with him. Dieckman said he didn't appreciate Jopek pushing him around over the radio, to which Jopek allegedly replied, "Fuck you, you're part-time."

The day after Dieckman's complaint, the department put Jopek on paid leave. He didn't stick around to see how it would shake out, resigning a month later and living off savings and his wife's income for about a year.

On September 18, 2000, he was hired by the Cleveland Police Department. The city provided the action Jopek craved. In a 10-day stretch in October 2001 alone, Jopek used non-deadly force on three separate occasions, all of which were ruled justified.

But less than two years into his new job, Jopek and his partner, eight-year veteran Martin Rudin, initiated a traffic stop that quickly spiraled out of control. When it was over, Stephon Keith Moore was dead.

Stephon was known among family members for his gift for quashing beefs.

"He was able to put people together who may not have wanted to be together," says brother Johnny.

"He was a peacekeeper," adds sister Jennifer Tilley.

Stephon was always inviting neighborhood kids into his mom's kitchen near Wade Park. As a child, he was a star in football and basketball, often jousting with a young Charles Oakley, who went on to the NBA.

By the time Stephon graduated from East High, he had settled on football as the sport that would propel him to greatness, so he took a scholarship to play running back at the University of Tennessee.

But in his sophomore year, disaster struck: He was permanently sidelined with injuries to his shoulder and knee. He dropped out of college and came back to a life in Cleveland, far from the fame he envisioned in the NFL.

If it bothered him, Stephon didn't burden anyone with his disappointment. He worked odd jobs, fixed bikes. He dropped by youth football practices, where his legend remained undiminished, to counsel kids on the fragility of athletic glory and the importance of getting an education. He had four children, the oldest of whom was particularly attached to him. "He used to sleep on his dad's chest as a child," Johnny says.

At 9:14 p.m. on June 6, 2002, Stephon was sitting in a borrowed Buick Century, blocking a lane of traffic on busy Lake Shore Boulevard in Collinwood. He was honking the horn to summon someone from the building across the street when a car pulled up behind him. Stephon waved it around. The car pulled next to him. It was the police.

According to Jopek and Rudin's account of that day, Rudin asked Stephon what he was doing. As Stephon explained, the officers noticed his slurred speech and glassy eyes. Rudin asked Stephon for his driver's license, and Stephon put the Buick in reverse.

Rudin got out of the cruiser and drew his gun. He ordered Stephon to stop and show his hands. Jopek got out and took a position a few feet from the cruiser's front bumper.

Suddenly, Stephon punched the gas. Rudin dove out of the way and his gun went off. "The car was only about a foot away from me when I fired my weapon," he told investigators.

Jopek heard the gunshot and saw his partner flying backward. "I saw the car swerve towards Rudin," Jopek told investigators. "I believed [the driver] was deliberately trying to hit Officer Rudin."

Now the car was aimed at Jopek. He jumped behind the cruiser and used it as a shield from the oncoming Buick. He fired two shots from his 9mm as the car raced past and almost clipped the front of the cruiser.

Jopek hurried to check on his partner, who was OK; then they took off after Stephon, who was last seen turning the wrong way down a one-way street. When their cruiser rounded the bend, Jopek and Rudin saw the Buick crashed into a parked car. Stephon was still behind the wheel.

"His eyes were rolled back into his head," Jopek told investigators. "His mouth was open. He was not responding to our commands. At that time we advised radio of our location . . . We held the male at gunpoint until other cars arrived on the scene."

Stephon was taken to Huron Hospital. At 9:49 p.m., he was pronounced dead from a gunshot wound to the left side of his back.

At Stephon's funeral, dozens of people whose lives he had touched stood up to praise him. "It made me proud to be his brother," says Johnny. But Johnny was even more impressed by someone else in attendance: a representative from Mayor Campbell's office, who promised a thorough investigation.

Measured in time alone, the mayor lived up to her promise. But the result of the eight-month inquiry brought no consolation to the family. On February 6, 2003, then-City Prosecutor Sanford Watson issued a press release with his verdict: "Based on available evidence, use of force was justified."

During the investigation, Jopek and Rudin were taken off the streets and assigned to the police gym. They were paid their full salary -- $61,068 combined over eight months -- for policing the city's safest barbells.

The sloth-like speed of such investigations drew criticism from several quarters, as chronicled in a Scene story last year ("Dead Weight," June 4, 2003). At the time of the story, administration officials defended themselves by arguing that they had a responsibility to be meticulous.

"If you're going to give [witnesses] a fair opportunity to have input, that takes time," said Law Director Subodh Chandra. "There's an underlying fallacy behind the notion that quicker is better. Thorough is better. Thorough takes time."

Sanford Watson was the city prosecutor responsible for ruling. He has since been promoted to public safety director. He turned down a request to discuss his reasoning in the Moore case. Instead, the mayor's press secretary, David Fitz, sent a typed statement:

"The decision that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute [the officers] for the fatal shooting of Stephon Keith Moore was based primarily on the statements of independent witnesses," Fitz wrote. "One of those witnesses told investigators that Moore ignored the order to pull his car over and instead put the car in reverse. Then, according to the witness, Moore 'slapped the car in drive,' and that is when the police officers started firing. Had the officers not jumped out of the way, Moore's vehicle could have hit them."

A review of the investigatory file finds three witnesses who said they saw the shooting and what led up to it. But the statements from those witnesses -- Nicole Carlock, Tiffany Summers, and Juwan Tate -- are hardly as clear-cut as the mayor's office makes them out to be.

"While the police were talking to the guy, his car started drifting back, and then the guy started going forward, and I saw the cop just shot right into the driver's window," Carlock told investigators. "When the car came around the corner, the police officer continued to shoot, and he was shooting in the direction where we were at, so we just hit the ground."

Summers' statement is summarized by the detective who wrote it down: ". . . She observed the white auto drift backwards, then start to go forward. At this time she observed the police officer shoot inside the driver's side window of the white auto. The white auto drove away at a high rate of speed, and the police officer continued to shoot at the car."

Neither indicates that the cops were defending themselves from an onrushing car. Both say the officers continued to shoot as the car was speeding away and didn't pose a threat -- a practice that has since been banned at the Justice Department's behest.

The witness whose account seems to be the basis of Watson's ruling is Tate. He was quoted as saying Stephon "slapped the car in drive." In response to a question about whether the officers could have been run over, Tate was quoted as saying "Yes."

Yet when Scene called Tate, his account differed markedly from the one in investigative files. According to Tate, the police asked the driver to pull over. "He attempted to do that by putting the car in reverse. It rolled back, and they claim he was trying to roll them over, but never did he accelerate in reverse. When he rolled back, they opened fire on him."

Asked if the officers had reason to fear for their lives, Tate says, "At no time were they ever in danger." When told of the account attributed to him by the police, Tate renders his own verdict: "They full of shit. The way they wrote my statement down is not true at all."

So the interview at the heart of Watson's ruling is at the very least suspect, and quite possibly fictional. Of course, Watson couldn't have known this at the time of the ruling, for at no time during the eight months of meticulous investigation did he bother to contact the witness on whom his ruling hinges.

"I never met him," Tate says of Watson. "Never called me. The only one that I was interviewed by was the detective."

On the basis of this evidence, Jopek and Rudin were put back on the street. John Martin, a lawyer for the Moore family, is calling for the city to reopen the investigation. "They owe it to the family, and not only the family, but the community, to take another look at this."

The city is stubbornly refusing to do so. But even if the city did take another look, it would be too late for Stanley Strnad.

Nine months after Watson's ruling, Strnad answered his cell phone. It was his fiancé, Nicole, calling to tell him the pizza was ready.

Soon after he hung up, he crossed paths with Jopek and Rudin. According to the account the officers gave to investigators, they were at a stoplight next to the Taurus that Strnad was driving. When the light turned green, Strnad stomped the gas and swerved into their lane, cutting them off.

The officers turned on their siren and pulled Strnad over. Jopek approached the car with his gun drawn and told the driver to keep his hands up. Strnad threw the car into drive, Jopek told investigators. "As he pulled out, the back end of his car almost clipped me."

Running from the police wasn't unusual for Strnad. Nicole Tomazic explains that when he was 19 or 20, he called from jail claiming that the cops had squirted him in the mouth with pepper spray, then refused to give him water to flush it out. Whatever the truth, Strnad was spooked, Tomazic says, and "from there, he was a little leery" of police.

After Strnad took off, Jopek and Rudin radioed dispatch to report that they were now pursuing a suspect wanted "in connection with an attempted assault on a police officer." They chased him into Euclid, then had to back off because they were out of their jurisdiction. But when a report came in that Strnad had exited I-90 at East 156th Street, the chase was back on.

The officers caught up with the Taurus and saw it crash into a parked car at East 156th and Parkgrove. The driver took off on foot; Jopek and Rudin jumped out to give chase. Strnad dashed down a driveway between a hair salon and an apartment building. Jopek followed. Rudin went down the driveway next door.

Jopek arrived in the backyard to find two parked cars and a children's play set. Strnad was trying to scramble over a wooden fence that separated the backyard from the one next door, where Rudin had gone. As Jopek tried to run between the two cars, he bashed his knee on a bumper. He rounded the back of the car and struck his knee again.

Strnad had one of his hands out, the other at his waist, according to Jopek's account. "At that time I told him to stop and let me see his hands," Jopek told investigators. "I told him, 'Drop it! Drop it!' I was under the impression that he had something in his waistband."

Strnad turned to run, then stopped and looked back toward Jopek. The officer's wounded knee gave out, and he tumbled forward. "I saw his right hand moving in his waistband, like he was trying to grab something," Jopek later told investigators. Jopek opened fire, riddling Strnad's butt, arm, and back with four bullets.

Rudin was on the other side of the fence. He was looking for a way around it when he heard Jopek yell, "Drop it!" then gunshots. Rudin scrambled over the barrier and found his partner down, possibly shot. He saw the suspect trying to get up and tussled with him until he was subdued.

Strnad was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Rudin and Jopek were once again assigned to the gym. Jopek's stay was cut short when he was laid off. In January, Sanford Watson was appointed public safety director and handed off the case to new City Prosecutor Anthony Jordan.

The Strnad case had much in common with the Moore shooting. Both began with routine traffic stops. Neither suspect was armed with anything other than a car. Both men were shot in the back. And in both cases, Jopek and Rudin professed that they weren't in position to see each other when the shooting began.

Like the last investigation, this one dragged on for months. Only this time, there was a very different outcome: On July 8, Jopek surrendered to his former colleagues to face charges of reckless homicide.

Cops are loath to have outsiders question their decisions. "What you do in that split second at night when you're afraid is gonna be scrutinized by the department, the prosecutor's office, the media," says one officer. "Everybody's got a better idea of what you should do out there, but none of those fuckers are out there with you."

Jordan was sensitive to those feelings as he reviewed the evidence. "I don't believe any cop wakes up and goes to work and says he wants to kill somebody today," he says. His decision to accuse Jopek wasn't something he took lightly, but the facts left him no choice.

In order for an officer to be justified in using deadly force, he has to reasonably believe his or another life is in danger. Jopek claims that as he was falling down, Strnad was facing him and reaching into his waistband.

Yet this was clearly contradicted by Strnad's wounds. The bullets hit him from behind, suggesting he was running from Jopek. And there's nothing in Jopek's account to shore up his claim that he believed Strnad had a weapon. "He never puts any object in Strnad's hand by his own statement," Jordan says.

The trajectory of the four bullets that hit Strnad also challenges Jopek's version. The pattern of the bullets indicates Jopek was likely standing when he fired, and that Strnad was running away and tumbling forward as the bullets riddled his body, Jordan says.

A statement from the pilot of a police chopper hovering overhead discounts Jopek's claim that Strnad was trying to scramble over the fence; it says Strnad was crouching behind the car. A videotape from the helicopter might have squared the two accounts, but police claim the camera was malfunctioning that day.

But the most important clue was an unexplained bullet hole in the trunk of a parked car. Jordan visited the scene and gauged the bullet's trajectory by sticking his pen in the hole. He concluded that it was likely fired the first time Jopek bashed his knee on the car. Jopek's statement to investigators never accounts for why he fired that shot, Jordan says.

"It would be impossible for me to draw the conclusion that the first shot was a justifiable use of force when there's no explanation, but we know it occurred," Jordan says. "I think that when he took that first shot, he had crossed the line from police pursuit into probably criminal conduct."

If the evidence raised questions, the public isn't likely to get answers. Two weeks ago, a grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against the former police officer. There's no way to know how the grand jury arrived at its decision; its deliberations are secret.

As the news was trumpeted the next morning, the city prosecutor's office scrambled to make sense of it. "While we respect the grand jury's process, we were surprised by the result, because our lengthy review of the evidence suggested that Jopek was not justified in his conduct," says Fitz.

Jordan didn't even know the case was going before the grand jury that week. He had a lengthy meeting with Assistant County Prosecutor David Zimmerman --who presented the evidence to the grand jury -- to check whether all of it was used correctly. The city won't comment on the contents of that meeting, except to say that it was a "productive conversation." For his part, Zimmerman says the door is open to go back to the grand jury and present additional facts. "We're still continuing to review this case and working with city prosecutors to make a determination how we'll proceed," he says.

As it stands, the grand jury ruling clears the way for Jopek to return to the force. Although he was among the 250 police officers laid off in January, he's at the top of the list to be called back when money becomes available. Jopek could be returning to the streets any day now, meaning the city may soon enjoy the odd distinction of employing a cop whom it believes committed reckless homicide.

Nicole Tomazic's life has been frozen in time since the night of Strnad's death. She still speaks of him in the present tense, still wears the diamond ring he gave her when he proposed. Ten days after his death, Strnad gave her one last present: A Tiffany bracelet arrived in the mail. He had ordered it at 2 a.m. the day that he died.

Tomazic worries that their daughter Haley will forget what a great father she had, so she tries to keep Strnad's memory alive by reminding her of all the fun they had together. On his birthday this year, Haley released a bouquet of balloons with a note attached that said, "I love you Daddy."

Tomazic struggles to explain his absence. "I tell her, 'Daddy had a very special job to do in heaven,' and she says, 'Why couldn't somebody else do it?'" But there is one thing Tomazic hasn't had the heart to tell Haley about her father: how he died.

"She thinks it was a car accident," Nicole says. "She doesn't know that a police officer killed her father."

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