After three years of litigation, the State of Connecticut has agreed to pay the Estate of a Salem Connecticut man $950,000 after he was shot and killed by a Connecticut State Police Officer. The wrongful death case, scheduled to start trial in Federal Court in January, was mediated for months by Federal Magistrate Judge Joan Margolis in Connecticut and settlement was finalized today, according to Atty. Bob Reardon of The Reardon Law Firm of New London, CT a partner in the firm representing the Estate in the lawsuit. Attorneys Joseph Barnes, Kelly Reardon and Matt Zucker assisted on the case.
Robert Bergeson was a sixty year old retired Pfizer manager who had become emotionally distraught when his wife of 27 years divorced him and she was awarded 60 percent of the house they owned on Witter Road in Salem. On the morning of June 18, 2013 he alerted the local fire department that he was going to burn his house down as he did not want his ex-wife to get it and he then set fire to the house. When the police responded they found him in a nearby field unarmed with his dog on a leash watching the fire. The police knew of the house as they had previously responded to domestic complaints while the divorce was pending. Bergeson was confronted in the open field by Connecticut State Trooper Patrick Hawes and another Trooper. The troopers crossed the field with their weapons drawn and pointed them at Bergeson. When Bergeson refused the orders of Trooper Hawes to “get on the ground,” Hawes fired four shots at Bergson, hitting him three times.
Three witnesses had videoed the fire and the shooting on their iPhones from about two hundred yards. With forensic enhancement and slowing of one of the videos, the Reardon Firm was able to support the conclusions reached by Dr. Michael Baden, a renowned forensic pathologist the firm had hired. Dr. Baden found that Trooper Hawes was approximately thirty feet away from Bergeson when he fired the four shots at him. The first shot missed Bergeson while he was facing Hawes and refusing to get down on the ground. The second shot grazed Bergeson across the front of his chest as he began to turn away from Hawes. The third hit him in the back of his arm as Bergeson had turned away from Hawes and the fourth bullet struck Bergeson in the back exiting the front of his chest as he was attempting to run away, severing a major artery and killing him.
Hawes testified that Bergeson had suddenly “lunged” at him with a stick in his hand 23 inches long and two inches in diameter that Bergeson had picked up from the ground. Hawes claimed he had to shoot Bergeson since he feared serious injury or death. The enhanced video did not support the trooper’s version, according to Attorney Reardon. The other Trooper also had a weapon aimed at Bergeson at the time but never fired a shot.
The State Police hired as its expert William Lewinski, who runs a company called The Force Science Institute. Lewinski has been criticized in a recent N.Y. Times article entitled “Training Officers to Shoot First and He will Answer Questions Later” and his credentials and opinions have been called into question in the courts. He is well known to offer his services as a lecturer and expert witness for the police in police shooting cases. Lewinski supported Hawes’ version, suggesting that once Hawes had started firing the first shot he did not have sufficient time to determine if Bergeson was running away and that the stick constituted a deadly weapon so that it was appropriate for Hawes to kill him.
The Reardon Law Firm responded to Lewinski with the expert opinions of Dr. Lisa Fournier, a psychology professor at Washington State University and Dr. William Terrill, a police procedures professor at Arizona State University, who both debunked Lewinski’s theories as having no scientific validity. They both concluded that Hawes and his partner had ample opportunity and an obligation to deescalate the situation since Bergeson was unarmed and emotionally distraught.
The Connecticut State Police investigation found the shooting justified and Hawes was immediately returned to his duties as a police officer. The Connecticut State’s Attorney later agreed with the State Police findings and Trooper Hawes continues to date as a Connecticut State Police Officer.
Bergeson had two adult children, a married daughter and a son. Attorney Reardon reported that the Bergeson children were pleased that the facts established by The Reardon Law Firm proved that their father should never have been shot and killed by the police. Attorney Reardon commented that Bergeson was not a violent man but was just emotionally overwhelmed by his divorce. Had the police engaged in recognized police procedures by talking to this unarmed man rather than escalating the situation by their pointing weapons at him and ordering him to the ground, this tragedy would never have occurred.