14 Americans Killed By the War On Drugs

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14 Americans Killed By the War On Drugs

By McCarton Ackerman 01/26/16

Until the War on Drugs ends, senseless deaths of innocent Americans will continue to happen.

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The number of deaths from the wars we’re currently fighting overseas pale in comparison to the numbers of lives lost from the War on Drugs in the U.S. FBI crime statistics indicate that 5,700 Americans were killed in the War on Drugs between 2006-2010, which is nearly triple the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan from 2001-2010. Those numbers have also remained fairly consistent in the years since. But despite pleas from countries throughout Latin America and much of the free world to take a new approach towards tackling drug crime, U.S. officials have refused to budge.

Until that happens, senseless deaths of innocent Americans will continue to happen. Here are 14 examples of the lives lost from the current War on Drugs. 

John Adams

In October 2000, five officers in Lebanon, Tenn., stormed the home that Adams resided in with his wife. Thinking it was a home robbery, the 64-year-old discharged a shotgun and two officers fired their weapons. Adams died later that night at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

It was later revealed that while Adams’ address was on the search warrant, officers meant to look for somebody at the house next door. The description of his home and the warranted home didn’t match. In the understatement of the century, Lebanon Police Chief Billy Weeks described the incident as a “severe, costly mistake.”

Xavier Bennett

Police in DeKalb County, Georgia, conducted an early morning raid on the home of Bobby and Kathy Bowman in November 1991. Bobby believed he was being robbed and began firing at the officers as they entered the home, wounding one of them. Investigator Charles A. Povilaitis began shooting through a closed window and hit eight-year-old Bennett, Bobby’s stepson, while he was sleeping.

Officers later found three grams of crack cocaine and minor amounts of other drugs. Bobby Bowman was sentenced to 45 years behind bars on charges of assault on a police officer and drug possession with intent to distribute. 

Povilaitis initially denied firing his gun, then changed his story to say he fired fewer bullets than he actually did. He was suspended for five days.

Rev. Jonathan Ayers

In September 2009, a local pastor in Georgia, Jonathan Ayers, was assisting a drug-addicted woman who was being targeted by an undercover, plainclothes drug operation. After getting cash from an ATM, he rushed to his car after seeing men with guns get out of theirs. The officers shot and killed him as he drove away from the scene, but later claimed in court that he was driving in a threatening way. Ayers did not have any drugs on him or in his system at the time. 

But despite video evidence from the convenience store showing the officers shooting Rev. Ayers, a grand jury cleared them on all charges. Ayers’ family filed a lawsuit in response. The trial in that case uncovered that Officer Billy Shane Harrison, who shot Ayers, had received no training in the use of lethal force and wasn’t authorized to either make arrests or carry a gun. 

A jury awarded his family more than $2 million in February 2014. 

Rodolfo “Rudy” Cardenas

This father of five from California was shot by a state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement officer who was looking for a fugitive parolee. Cardenas was leaving the home of the parolee and attempted to elude them on foot before being shot in an alley in downtown San Jose. He was unarmed at the time.

City police attempted to blame Cardenas for his own death, claiming that he was “holding a digital scale as if to stimulate a pistol.” But eyewitnesses gave a much different account, with one woman claiming he was “running with his hands in the air. He kept saying, ‘Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot.’ He had absolutely nothing in his hands.”

The shooting officer, Mike Walker, was acquitted of manslaughter charges in December 2005.

Jose Colon

The 20-year-old graphic design student from New York was fatally shot during a botched drug raid in April 2002. 

As he emerged from the house that police were descending on in the town of Bellport, Officer Tony Gonzalez accidentally fired his gun after another officer bumped into him when he tripped. 

Colon had no prior criminal record and although four other men were arrested on drug possession charges, there was no indication that he bought, sold or used marijuana. 

Gonzalez was temporarily placed on administrative duty, but a Suffolk County grand jury declined to indict him in August 2002. 

Derek Hale

Hale, a retired Marine Sergeant who served two tours in Iraq, was killed by a heavily armed police squad in Wilmington, Del., in November 2005.  Despite not resisting arrest at any point, he was tasered three times. Police ordered him to put his hands up, but he was unable to do so from being paralyzed by the electrical currents. The SWAT team’s commanding officer, Lt. Williams Brown, then fired three rounds into Hale’s chest.

Police were investigating his involvement with the Pagans Motorcycle Club, but there was no evidence he was involved in drug activity or other illegal behavior. In December 2010, the city of Wilmington finally settled with his family in their wrongful death lawsuit for $875,000.

Willie Heard

Heard, 46, was shot to death by police in front of his wife and daughter in February 1999. The no-knock drug raid by police in Osawatomie, Kan., took place at the wrong home and was based on faulty information that Heard purchased cocaine, though no drugs were found.

The warrant in place also didn’t authorize officers to enter without knocking. A law enforcement videotape that captured the raid also showed Heard asking for help before being shot in the chest.

Despite this, no officers were disciplined in the incident. It was later ruled, following an investigation by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, that none of the officers committed any crimes.

In March 2001, Heard’s estate received a $3.5 million settlement in their wrongful death lawsuit.

Kathryn Johnston

The tragic death of this 92-year-old woman from Atlanta in November 2006 made national headlines. Three officers carried out a no-knock drug raid on her home based on false information they received. When Johnston fired a shot due to thinking she was about to be robbed, the three officers fired 39 shots in total and handcuffed her as she lay dying.

Even worse, the three officers planted bags of pot in her home as a cover-up and reportedly bullied informant Alex White into saying that Johnston was selling crack cocaine. All three men later pled guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to violate her civil rights. Officers Jason Smith and Greg Tunnier also pled guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter, while Smith also pled guilty to perjury and planting the marijuana in Johnston’s home.

Her family was later awarded $4.9 million in a civil suit settlement in August 2010.

Pedro Oregon Navarro

In July 1998, officers in Houston, Texas, entered Navarro’s home after an alleged drug dealer said that drugs were being sold there. Police fired 30 rounds of ammunition and hit him 12 times. The officers at the scene later claimed that Navarro had fired at them, but ballistic tests later confirmed that all 30 rounds were fired by them.

Navarro was proven innocent posthumously. No illegal drugs were found in his home and an autopsy revealed that no illegal drugs were found in his system. The investigation also showed that the officers who entered Navarro’s home violated department policy by not obtaining a search warrant first. 

Al Robison, then-president of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, said the tragedy was “a very clear illustration of the insanity of our current drug policy.” 

Donald Scott

In October 1992, Scott, 61, had his home raided by police from state and federal agencies on the suspicion that he was growing marijuana. Scott heard his wife scream after encountering police in the kitchen and armed himself. After walking into the room, police immediately shot him dead.

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department conducted the raid despite the fact that Scott lived in Ventura County. Local police later confirmed that they were not notified of the raid. Friends and relatives also said that Scott wasn’t a drug user and was actually vehemently against illegal drugs. The raid confirmed this when no marijuana plants or marijuana growth were found in his home. A later investigation from Ventura County District Attorney Michael Bradbury found the warrant affidavits used by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department contained false, misleading and omitted information, and that the L.A. County Sheriff’s Office was eyeing Scott’s $5 million home for asset forfeiture.

No police officers were ever disciplined for Scott’s death, but his widow, Frances Plante Scott, received a $5 million settlement in 2000 from the numerous agencies involved in the wrongful death.   

Alberta Spruill 

The handling of the raid on the residence of New York City native Alberta Spruill was so flawed that even then-NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg admitted that “clearly, the police made a mistake.” 

In May 2013, police conducted a no-knock raid on her home based on bad information they received from an alleged drug dealer. After officers threw a concussion grenade into the apartment, she suffered a heart attack and died. An investigation at the scene made clear that the NYPD had just killed someone with no relation to any drug activity.

Spruill’s family later received a settlement for $1.6 million in their wrongful death lawsuit.

Rev. Accelyne Williams

In a true case of irony relating to drug war flaws, this 75-year-old minister from Boston actually worked as a substance abuse counselor in the area. In March 1994, a substance abuser he was helping gave Boston police the home address of an alleged drug dealer in the building Rev. Williams lived in. 

SWAT team members raided Williams’ apartment by mistake, violently shoving him to the ground and handcuffing him. The minister suffered a heart attack at the scene and died. 

In April 1996, the city of Boston gave the widow, Mary Williams, a $1 million settlement in her wrongful death lawsuit.

Gary Shepherd

Shepherd, 45, was shot dead by police at his Kentucky home in August 1993. A police helicopter landed on his property and demanded to cut down his marijuana plants, to which he responded, “Over my dead body.” After a multi-hour standoff, he was ordered to put his hands in the air and then shot numerous times by snipers after he raised his rifle to comply. His four-year-old son, Jake, was hit with the blood of his own father and his long-term companion, Mary Jane Jones, was hit by a bullet from a Kentucky law enforcement officer.

Jake went on to start a student organization at the University of Kentucky called Cats for Cannabis, an anti-prohibition group. He told local media that “we can’t be afraid of [marijuana] and let our fears justify me having to see my dad die." 

John Hirko Jr.

An April 1997 raid of Hirko’s home in Bethlehem, Pa., ultimately led to Officer Joseph Riedy shooting Hirko 11 times. In addition, two flash grenades thrown into the home by SWAT cops caused a fire that burned the house to ruins and left his body unrecognizable. To add insult to injury, the death was ruled a justifiable homicide and Riedy was recognized as “Officer of the Year” by the city the following year.

Police later reported finding evidence of drug distribution in the home, but his fiancée said they were only recreational users. She also claimed that Hirko believed they were being robbed at the time of the SWAT invasion. Former members of the police department who conducted the raid served as witnesses for Hirko’s family, testifying that the SWAT team had no written procedures, standards or qualifications to join. 

In 2004, a federal jury ruled that Hirko’s civil rights had been violated and his estate settled with the city of Bethlehem for $8 million, roughly one-quarter of the city’s annual budget.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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