The family of a University Place man who died last May after being taken into custody by Pierce County sheriff’s deputies has filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit alleging five deputies used excessive force when they beat and used a Taser on Ronald Hillstrom and then laid on top of him, breaking most of his ribs and collapsing his chest.
The lawsuit alleges that one of the deputies borrowed a bucket from a resident of the apartment complex where the arrest took place and used it to wash away a pool of blood before crime-scene photos could be taken.
The action was filed by the parents of 44-year-old Hillstrom, a man with a long history of arrests and mental illness who was confronted May 11 by deputies in the parking lot of his apartment complex, where he was pacing in circles and reportedly carrying a large screwdriver. Neighbors who called police apparently believed he was carrying a knife.
The lawsuit alleges that, even though Hillstrom had not hurt anyone nor committed any crime, deputies used Tasers and shocked him repeatedly. One officer hit him with a flashlight, according to the lawsuit, breaking his nose and causing a deep laceration on his forehead.
The lawsuit says several officers piled on top of Hillstrom to subdue him. Their combined weight fractured “most of his ribs” and caused his chest to collapse. He died at a local hospital about an hour later, according to the sheriff’s office.
The sheriff’s office has said that Hillstrom resisted the officers and deny excessive-force was used.
Sheriff’s spokesman Detective Ed Troyer at the time said Hillstrom was “hit with a flashlight a few times in an area where we believe the screwdriver was, but nothing that would cause any type of injury that would lead up to his death.”
Troyer said Wednesday that the medical examiner listed an “enlarged heart” and drugs as a contributing cause of Hillstrom’s death. He said the broken nose and lacerations were not caused by a flashlight blow, but rather when Hillstrom fell after being tased.
Troyer said Hillstrom had a long history of arrests for assault and drug violations. His family says he suffered from depression and psychosis.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.