July 23, 2014

Elyria
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Probation, time served given to man who accused officer of punching him at EMH

ELYRIA — The man allegedly punched by an Elyria police officer earlier this year while handcuffed to a hospital bed was sentenced Thursday to probation and the six months of jail time he’s already served for the crimes that led up to his arrest.

Johnny Smith Jr. appears Thursday in court, where he was sentenced to probation. (CT photo by Bruce Bishop.)

Johnny Smith Jr. appears Thursday in court, where he was sentenced to probation. (CT photo by Bruce Bishop.)

Johnny Smith Jr., 43, apologized for his actions in court and asked Lorain County Common Pleas Judge Christopher Rothgery to include alcohol treatment in his sentence for the failure to comply, obstructing official business and DUI charges he pleaded guilty to in April.

“I realize I put a lot of innocent lives in jeopardy by being drunk that night,” Smith said.

According to Elyria police, a highly intoxicated Smith had to be pulled from the cab of the semi truck he was driving on Jan. 27 after he nearly ran down an officer trying to stop the truck, which was suspected of being involved in a theft from the Apples grocery store on Cleveland Street.

Another man, Jeff Marcum, had gone inside the store and wheeled out a cart full of steaks and beer that he loaded into the semi cab. Smith drove off, and police tracked the truck to a nearby parking lot where officers first tried to stop it.

Smith has said he never saw Officer James Rider, whom police said he nearly struck with the semi. Police surrounded the truck on Cleveland Street and ordered the two men to get out. Marcum fell down while getting out of the truck, but according to police, Smith refused to get out and locked his arms around the steering wheel.

Officers forced a struggling Smith out of the vehicle and continued to wrestle with him until he was under control, according to police reports and witness statements. Smith contends he cooperated with police and officers attacked him without provocation.

Those allegations, including that Rider struck him twice in the head with a flashlight and that officers held him down and beat him, were determined to be unfounded by an internal police investigation and Special Prosecutor John Reulbach Jr., who conducted his own review.

Smith was injured during the scuffle and taken to EMH Medical Center in Elyria, where he was handcuffed to a hospital bed while being treated.

Medical staff on duty told police that Smith, who had a blood alcohol level of 0.355, was cooperative with them, but the officers who brought Smith in and Smith himself were hostile to each other.

Things grew even more hostile when Smith made a comment about how he wished other officers had been gunned down on March 15, 2010, when Elyria police Officer James Kerstetter was shot and killed by Ronald Palmer while responding to a call on 18th Street.

Officers Jay Loesch and Donald Moss shot and killed Palmer when he refused orders to surrender.

Loesch was among the officers at the hospital who heard Smith’s comment, and he and Officer Richard Walker shut the door of Smith’s hospital room. According to a nurse who witnessed what happened next on a monitor connected to a video camera in the room, Loesch struck Smith once in the face.

Walker later described the blow as something that wouldn’t have hurt his 10-year-old, but Smith has said the punch nearly knocked him unconscious.

Smith later apologized for the comment, while Loesch was given a 10-day suspension after an internal investigation was complete. Five days of the suspension won’t be have to be served as long as Loesch doesn’t get into any more trouble for the next year.

Smith and his lawyer, Joseph Triscaro, asked for a criminal investigation into the incident at the hospital and Reulbach, the Avon Lake prosecutor, was brought in to handle the case.

Loesch, who remains an Elyria police officer, was ultimately charged with misdemeanor assault. He has pleaded not guilty, and a visiting judge has been brought in to handle the case in Elyria Municipal Court.

Smith and Triscaro also had discussed suing the city over the incident, but Triscaro declined to comment on any civil action following Thursday’s hearing. Elyria Law Director Terry “Pete” Shilling did not return calls seeking comment.

In a separate hearing in Elyria Municipal Court on Thursday, Marcum pleaded no contest to theft.

He was sentenced to pay a $50 fine and will have to pick up litter as part of community service, attorney Michael Stepanik said.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.