Daughter of slain man files wrongful death suit

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

City of Aurora, police chief, officer named as defendants

The daughter of the Aurora man, Thomas Sekscenski, shot dead by an Aurora police officer in McDowell in 2016 has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Aurora, Police Chief Richard Witthuhn and former Aurora police officer Weston Welch in federal court.

Jasmin Sekscinski, the 19-year-old daughter of Sekscinski, filed her suit on Feb. 12. A Jefferson City resident, Sekscinski is represented by William Nacy, from the law firm of Hanrahan and Nacy, and John Lake, from the Lake Law Firm, both of Jefferson City. David Baker of Kansas City is representing all the defendants.

Thomas Sekscinski, 38, was shot to death on Aug. 31, 2016 following a high speed chase out of the Aurora city limits to a remote location in the McDowell area in Barry County. Around 2:36 a.m., without backup and out of radio contact, Officer Weston attempted to confront Sekscinski, firing his sidearm 18 times as the subject drove at Weston. Barry County Prosecutor Amy Boxx declined pressing charges against Weston.

Aurora was named as a defendant as the employer of Weston. Witthuhn was included as Weston's supervisor, "in his individual and official capacities to the fullest extent allowable."

"At all relevant times, each defendant acted under the color of law and pursuant to the policies, regulations, or decisions officially adopted or promulgated by Defendant Aurora, whose acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, or were pursuant to governmental custom," the suit states.

According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol's investigation, cited not by name in the lawsuit under "facts common to all counts," Welch pursued Sekscinski with concerns that the GMC Suburban he drove had been stolen. The suit concedes that the plates did not match the vehicle Sekscinski was driving, but that he in fact had permission of the owner to use it. The suit states Welch witnessed no weapon or contraband, traffic offense or criminal activity. While the Patrol reported Welch suspected he might be pursuing a drug dealer with felony warrants, the suit states Welch "had no objectively reasonable basis to believe Mr. Sekscinski was about to take control of a weapon or contraband, or was about to commit any criminal or traffic offense. Welch never mentioned any drug dealer over the radio."

Sekscinski failed to pull over when Welch attempted a traffic stop, at which point, the suit states, "Welch immediately began pursuing him at a very high and dangerous speed through the streets of the city of Aurora." The suit notes that fellow Aurora Officer Kyle Houck, who attempted to follow Welch, said pursuit would be downgraded if it became too dangerous. "By the time Houck said the foregoing, the pursuit was already too dangerous by any perspective," the suit declares. Despite one near crash, Welch said he could continue.

The suit quotes Houck, apparently from a radio transmission transcript not quoted by the Highway Patrol, advising Welch to "go ahead and slow down, slow down, get off his ass a little bit" as Houck witnessed Welch driving up on the rear driver's side of Sekscinski's vehicle, advice given more than once. Welch reported another near crash 12 minutes into the pursuit, at which point the suit again notes no downgrade was ordered until approximately 24 minutes into the pursuit, after Welch had driven out of radio range in Barry County, well out of the jurisdiction of Aurora police. Welch had been informed Lawrence County had no deputy in the vicinity and the status of support from the Highway Patrol or Barry County was unknown.

The suit alleges that Sekscinski drove onto private property and attempted to turn around, not anticipating that Welch would follow him off the road into a wooded, remote area with only one entrance and exit. The suit further alleges that due to Welch's "aggressive driving," the police car became inoperable and thus had to be towed from the location where it stopped.

The suit further challenges Welch's assertion that Sekscinski threatened the officer with his vehicle.

"As Mr. Sekscinski's vehicle was spinning its tires in the mud, it was slowly inching toward the police car that was blocking the lane of travel," the suit continues. "Based on the side of the area where the GMC turned around, and the mud impeding traction, Mr. Sekscinski was rolling toward the police car at an extremely low rate of speed. Because of Welch's position off to the side and at a right angle to the front of the GMC, he was in no danger of being struck by the GMC as it slowly inched forward in the mud."

The suit asserts that from his position, far in front of his police car and close to Sekscinski, Welch was not blinded by glare from the GMC. Welch began firing his Glock aimed at Sekscinski and watched the shots hit the windshield. Even after Sekscinski raised his hands and said "OK, OK, I'm done," Welch "continued firing his Glock while [Sekscinski's] hands were up, until all 18 rounds were shot out of the Glock, each round hitting the GMC or hitting Mr. Sekscinski in his head or body."

The suit declares Sekscinski never made threatening or provocative gestures and that his hands were empty when he raised them to surrender.

"Welch's use of deadly force was objectively unreasonable and unjustified," the suit states. Moreover, "Welch had a duty to exhaust all other reasonable means of apprehending Mr. Sekscinski prior to resorting to deadly force."

The suit goes on to cite both the police chief and the city for not meeting its obligations to supervise employees to "exhaust all other reasonable means of apprehending Mr. Sekscinski prior to resorting to deadly force." Moreover, "Defendants failed to use that degree of care to ensure that citizens were not subjected to an unreasonable risk of harm." Therefore, "Defendants' conduct as stated amounted to an unlawful, unconstitutional violation of Mr. Sekscinski's right to be free from the unnecessary and unreasonable use of deadly force. Defendants' actions were reckless and outrageous, and subjected Mr. Sekscinski to an unreasonable risk of harm. An award of punitive damages is warranted by Defendants' conduct."

In a second count, the suit alleges, "A police officer in the same circumstances and possessing the same knowledge as Defendant Welch could not have reasonably believed that the use of deadly force was required to deal with Mr. Sekscinski in any way. Defendant Welch engaged in such conduct toward Mr. Sekscinski maliciously [which] amounted to an unlawful, unconstitutional violation of Mr. Sekscinski's right to be free from the use of excessive force."

Such action, the suit argues, warrants the awarding of punitive damages. The suit asks not only for damages, but interest as well at the rate of 9 percent per year from the date of Sekscinski's injuries, or from the date of the lawsuit itself.

A third count takes aim at the city and its police chief.

"Defendants Aurora and Witthuhn knew or should have known that law enforcement officers in general, and Defendant Welch in particular, would confront situations where, as here, a person poses no real or perceived threat to officers and can be safely apprehended if the circumstance would warrant apprehension. Defendants failed to train Welch to handle such situations without involving the use of deadly, excessive, or other use of force on such persons, and without violating such persons' constitutional rights [or] to avoid using deadly or excessive force without first resorting to other reasonable means."

Such action, the suit continues, violated Sekscinski's rights directly resulted in his "wrongful" loss of life. Those actions, the suit argues, further warrant actual and punitive damages. Failure to shield Sekscinski from such actions, the suit states, caused Sekscinski to endure "pain and suffering between the time he was mortally wounded and the time he died." The suit asks for damages for Sekscinski's pain and suffering, and for the daughter's loss of "consortium, services, companionship, comfort, instruction, guidance and counsel," as well as funeral and burial expenses.

The plaintiff asked for a jury trial. District Judge Roseann Ketchmark, who was appointed in 2015 after 15 years as an assistant U.S. attorney, has been assigned to the case.

Baker has filed a motion to dismiss on behalf of all of the defendants and suggestions in support of the motion. Sekscinski's attorneys have been granted an extension to respond to the motion to dismiss and the suggestions.

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