Nation - South Dakota Judge rules for troopers in shooting death Plaintiff failed to prove excessive force

By Wayne Ortman

Associated Press Writer

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) -- A Highway Patrol trooper's fatal shooting of a man who pointed a pellet gun at law officers was not unreasonable, a federal judge said in dismissing a civil lawsuit against two troopers.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Piersol granted summary judgment in favor of Ryan Lantz and Scott Sheldon without the lawsuit going to trial.

Lantz shot Anthony LaRocco, 26, when LaRocco aimed the pellet gun at short range at officers after a nighttime vehicle chase that ended in a farm field near Harrold in October 2007. The pellet gun resembled a semiautomatic pistol.

Gerry Ogle, who had two children with LaRocco, alleged excessive force and wrongful death in the lawsuit she filed against Lantz and Sheldon. She can appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"It's a very tough situation, a devastating situation actually, and we are obviously disappointed for our clients," said Pamela Bollweg, an attorney for Ogle, who now lives outside South Dakota.

"The standard is extremely high for a plaintiff to prove excessive force."

According to court documents, LaRocco had a history of depression and at times threatened suicide.

Law officers who were dispatched after LaRocco made threatening and suicidal phone calls saw him in a vehicle and began an 18-minute pursuit that ended when LaRocco stopped, got out and ran into a field.

Officers used vehicle headlights and spotlights to illuminate LaRocco but couldn't tell if the black gun he carried was a BB gun as had been reported by Ogle, according to a recount of the events that night.

An investigative report indicated Larocco refused repeated demands to drop his weapon and was shot after he gripped the gun with two hands, crouched down, and aimed the gun at Lantz and Hughes County Deputy Sheriff Bob Duncan.

"In examining the facts known to Lantz at the moment of the shooting ... the Court concludes that Lantz's belief that LaRocco posed a serious threat to his physical safety and to the physical safety of officers Duncan and Sheldon who were also in the line of fire from LaRocco's gun was not objectively unreasonable," Judge Piersol wrote.

The fact that Lantz had been told that LaRocco intended to commit "suicide by cop," had shown suicidal behavior in the field and waved and pointed his gun without firing a shot "does not render unreasonable Lantz's belief that LaRocco posed a serious threat to his physical safety at the time he fired his weapon," the judge said.

"The Court is simply unwilling to put officers in a situation whereby they cannot defend themselves from a threat of deadly force if it appears that a suspect is mentally ill and suicidal."

Published: Fri, May 14, 2010