Pierce County has agreed to settle a civil-rights lawsuit filed by the family of a mentally ill man who died after being beaten by police, for $750,000 and an assurance that sheriff’s deputies receive additional training in dealing with the disturbed.

Share story

Pierce County will pay the family of a mentally ill man who died after being beaten by sheriff’s deputies $750,000 in a settlement that also assures deputies will receive additional training in dealing with the mentally disturbed.

Ronald Hillstrom, a 44-year-old University Place man with a history of severe mental illness, including psychosis, died on May 11, 2014, after four sheriff’s deputies — assigned as University Place police officers — used a Taser, their fists and flashlights to subdue him after receiving a call of a “disturbed person.”

The family’s federal lawsuit alleged the sheriff’s department tried to cover up what they’d done by washing away blood before detectives arrived.

The deputies had responded to a report of a “disturbed man” in a parking lot of an apartment complex. They found Hillstrom, carrying a screwdriver and walking in circles, asking for help, according to court documents.

“He was obviously emotionally or psychiatrically disturbed,” the family alleged in an amended complaint filed in federal court last week.

The lawsuit stated that Hillstrom had not threatened anyone and no crime had been committed.

The claim alleged the deputies — identified as James Oleole, Adami Pawlak, Nai Saechao and Jason Smith — immediately resorted to force rather than attempt to talk to Hillstrom. It says the officers used a Taser and tackled Hillstrom and began beating him “without warning or provocation.”

The family claimed he was shocked repeatedly and that deputies interpreted the Taser-induced convulsions as further resistance. He was beaten with fists and a flashlight, breaking his nose and leaving a deep laceration on his face. Then deputies piled on top of him and eventually hogtied him.

Most of Hillstrom’s ribs were broken and his chest had collapsed, according to the lawsuit and medical records referenced in court pleadings. Hillstrom suffered a cardiac arrest and died en route to the hospital.

The lawsuit alleged 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.

Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Ed Troyer said that was part of a “routine cleanup.” The incident was investigated, he said, and none of the deputies was disciplined.

“The Hillstrom family brought this lawsuit to bring attention to the case and to force changes within the department so that this type of tragedy could be avoided going forward,” said Nathan Roberts, the family’s lawyer. “This settlement was reached only after the county indicated that its officers would be retrained.”

As far as the deputy’s conduct, Roberts said the incident “highlights the need for better accountability in the wake of any officer-involved death.”

“Allowing a law enforcement agency to investigate itself is a classic example of the fox watching the henhouse,” Roberts said.

In a prepared statement, Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said, “The death of Mr. Hillstrom is extremely unfortunate and undesirable.

“Too often our deputies must intervene to deal with mentally ill citizens who cannot get the treatment they need. Without treatment, the implications can be terrible for all involved.”

When the lawsuit was initially filed in October, the sheriff’s office insisted that Hillstrom resisted the officers and denied excessive force was used.

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 Hillstrom had a long history of arrests for assault and drug violations.