Carrying a shield, an unholstered Taser, a shotgun loaded with beanbag rounds and a drawn handgun, five Park Forest police officers entered the assisted-living apartment where a 95-year-old World War II veteran had holed up alone with a knife after striking a paramedic with his cane.
Minutes after the ranking officer – a commander – had arrived at the Victory Centre complex last July, the officers had decided to attempt a “violent extrication” of John Wrana instead of waiting him out or trying a less confrontational approach, Cook County prosecutors said Wednesday.
When Wrana threatened the officers who entered his room and refused to drop the knife, the commander tried to incapacitate Wrana with a jolt from his Taser but failed. Instead of another officer trying to use his Taser, patrol officer Craig Taylor shot Wrana five times in rapid succession with bean bag rounds from a much-closer range than called for during training, prosecutors said.
On Wednesday, Taylor, a veteran of the south suburban police department since 2004, was charged with felony reckless conduct in connection with Wrana’s death, but none of the other officers were criminally charged – a fact quickly pounced on by Taylor’s lawyer.
It marked the third time that State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez had to make the difficult decision whether to charge a cop for wrongdoing since November and the second time she had done so.
“Given the other viable options to resolve the matter and the number of shots fired at this senior citizen at close range in rapid succession, we believe this officer’s conduct to be reckless,” Alvarez said in a statement.
Taylor, 43, was released on his personal recognizance from Leighton Criminal Court Building after prosecutors gave a lengthy recitation of the facts of the case in bond court.
“It’s a tragedy all around,” said Judge Donald Panarese Jr., who ordered the officer’s release.
Taylor’s lawyer, Terry Ekl, quickly seized on the fact that no charges were filed against the commanding officers.
“He wasn’t making decisions on his own that night,” Ekl said of Taylor. “...This is a tragic incident, there’s no question about that, but every tragic incident does not translate into a criminal act. And from what I know about this case, I don’t believe Officer Taylor engaged in any criminal behavior whatsoever.”
He predicted that Taylor would be acquitted at trial.
“He’s devastated,” Ekl said of Taylor, a married father of five. “…Today he was fingerprinted, he was handcuffed, he was hauled into court. He, his family and the entire police department of Park Forest is just devastated by this.”
Nicholas Graspas, an attorney for Wrana’s family, contended that Taylor wouldn’t be able to offer a defense under the law that he was only following orders from supervisors.
“I think it’s absolutely, utterly ridiculous to suggest a Nuremberg defense in a case like this,” he said in reference to the Nazi war trials. “It doesn’t work.”
While the Wrana family was gratified that charges had been brought, Grapsas told reporters that Taylor should have been indicted for involuntary manslaughter, a more serious charge that would carry greater punishment.
“This isn’t just an issue of whether there was reckless conduct,” said Grapsas, who represents Sharon Mangerson, the administrator of her stepfather’s estate. “A death resulted, and there’s a specific statute for that.”
Experts said the prosecution will hinge on what information Taylor had at the time he and the other officers entered Wrana’s room and whether he was justified in using the level of force he did to subdue an elderly man.
“What the lawyers and judge in this case are going to grapple with is determining whether it was lethal force that was intended to be used and whether it was reasonable under circumstances at the time,” said Lance Northcutt, a former Cook County prosecutor who is now an adjunct professor at Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law.
With the way prosecutors charged the case, they will not have to prove that Taylor’s actions directly led to Wrana’s death, only that the officer caused “great bodily harm,” Northcutt said.
In fact, prosecutors said Wrana died at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn after refusing an operation to staunch the internal bleeding, a point his family’s attorney later disputed, saying Wrana had a do-not-resuscitate order in place and a doctor had told them he would likely die even with surgery.
Northcutt said it was clear that the officers felt they were confronting a dangerous situation but that in hindsight they could have waited Wrana out or even used tear gas to try to subdue him. But he predicted it would be a difficult case for a judge or jury to resolve.
“It’s really one of those tragic cases where you can see there would be a great deal of sympathy for both sides,” Northcutt said.
During the bond hearing, Assistant State’s Attorney William Delaney said that the incident started about 8:42 p.m. on July 26, 2013, when a nurse called 911 after Wrana threatened residents and then fought with paramedics who had arrived to take him to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.
At Wrana’s apartment, he confronted two officers with a two-foot-long shoe horn that they mistook for a machete. The officers called a police corporal for assistance, Delaney said.
At about 8:50 p.m. after a corporal arrived, Wrana held a large knife over his head in his room and threatened the corporal. He called for the commander to assist and to bring a police shield.
After the commander arrived at about 8:57 p.m., he told Wrana through his closed door to drop the knife and back away, but Wrana threatened to throw the knife at him.
A decision was then made to forcibly enter Wrana’s room and attempt “a violent extrication,” Delaney said.
“Other viable options to de-escalate and resolve the matter safely were ignored, including allowing Wrana to remain alone in his room while the officers attempted to calm him down through the closed door,” the prosecutor said.
On entering the room with the other officers, the commander, holding the police shield in his left hand and a Taser in his right, tried to shock Wrana when he threatened to “cut” the officers, but the prongs didn’t hit Wrana. When the elderly man again came at officers, Taylor shot him once with a bean bag round, paused and then fired four more times.
Wrana died five hours later.