Clearwater Police Charged in “Knee-spike” Death

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Wieslaw Skowronek (on ground) was killed in January 1997 by a knee-spike administered by then Clearwater Police Officer John Ellis Smith (center).

Responsible officer jailed for drug abuse

anuary 19, 1997, was a tragic day for the Skowronek family of St. Petersburg. Early that evening, Wieslaw Skowronek, 44, was killed by a “knee-spike” to his abdomen delivered by then Clearwater Police Officer John Ellis Smith.

     His widow, Ewa Skowronek, is determined to make the truth about the tragedy known. In a suit filed against the city, the police department and Smith in September 1997, she maintains department officials failed to supervise Smith despite his “propensity to use improper and excessive force on citizens.” Her lawsuit states that her husband’s death could have been prevented.

     Smith was fired from the police force a month after the death, following his arrest for buying anabolic steroids from an informant.

     The events unfolded when Skowronek was on the site of the image of the Virgin Mary by the Seminole Finance Building on U.S. Highway 19. At about 6 p.m., a visitor at the shrine pointed Skowronek out to Officer Philip Biazzo, saying he had been “acting suspiciously.” The “suspicious” conduct apparently consisted of moving aside from the group slightly to stand by a clump of bushes.

     Mrs. Skowronek’s lawsuit confirms that her husband had broken no law, was unarmed and did not resist. Nor did he make any hostile movements.

     When Biazzo called out to him, Skowronek walked away. Biazzo pursued him and told him to leave the area. An argument ensued, during which Biazzo told Skowronek he was under arrest for trespassing. The police report stated, “Biazzo radioed for a back-up officer, and while attempting to handcuff Mr. Skowronek, both men fell to the ground, struggling.”

     Two hours later, Wieslaw Skowronek was dead.

Troubling questions

     Much as the beating of Rodney King triggered a chain of events that led to the ousting of Los Angeles Police Department Chief Daryl Gates, the Skowronek death poses troubling questions which may erupt into public view when his widow’s suit in U.S. District Court goes to trial. Why was Skowronek arrested in the first place? And how much force was actually needed to “subdue” him, particularly when he was already on his back?

     Clearwater Police spokesman George Shelor declined to discuss the use of force on Skowronek.

     After the “knee-spike”, the 6-foot 10-inch, 270-pound Smith handcuffed the 150-pound Skowronek and thrust him into the back of a police cruiser. According to the department’s own account, some time after Skowronek was arrested, officers noticed he was laying down on the cruiser’s back seat. They straightened him up and fastened his seat belt. Later, officers noticed that Skowronek’s complexion was ashen and called Clearwater Fire Department paramedics.

     When the paramedics responded, they found Skowronek in cardiac arrest. Then – too late – he was driven to Clearwater Community Hospital, and pronounced dead shortly after arrival.

     For five days, Smith and Biazzo denied any force had been used. Eventually, Biazzo had to admit that Smith had “knee-spiked” Skowronek. The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office, however, stated that “severe force” had been required to rupture Skowronek’s pancreas with a knee.

     Retired St. Petersburg Police Officer Ovid “Paul” Boyette, Skowronek’s neighbor, saw no probable cause for arresting Skowronek. Whatever happened between the arresting officer and Skowronek was likely the result of a misunderstanding – Skowronek, a Polish immigrant, had a heavy accent and was unable to speak or understand much English.

     Boyette saw and spoke with Skowronek the day of the tragedy. He described him as a quiet, gentle person, a good family man and an excellent neighbor.

Clearwater Police Charged in “Knee-spike” Death continued...

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