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Behavior of East Pittsburgh man who died in police custody atypical, sister says

| Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A man who died in police custody had mental problems but wasn't known to be violent, his sister said on Thursday.

Gary Beto, 52, of East Pittsburgh died in Forbes Regional Hospital at 11:12 p.m. Tuesday, about 90 minutes after East Pittsburgh police arrested him for trying to force his way into a home on Ridge Avenue.

Susan Kernick, Beto's sister, said she took him to Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Oakland on Friday. He left after they waited more than two hours, Kernick said.

“He was talking about how people were after him and were trying to hurt him,” said Kernick, 57, of Penn Hills. “We couldn't make sense of it. We tried to get him help.”

UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps declined to comment.

David DiNinno, 32, said he had never seen Beto before the man was at his door trying to get in and screaming that his brother was inside. He described him as “out of it,” and said Beto ran away when he said he was calling 911.

“Gary was not a violent kid,” Kernick said. “He didn't go in there to hurt someone. He was confused. We really don't know what was going on in his head.”

Four police departments, including East Pittsburgh, responded. Police used pepper spray and a Taser to subdue Beto, Allegheny County police said.

“It doesn't make sense to me you would need all these policemen to subdue one person,” Kernick said.

East Pittsburgh police said Beto refused to stop and tried to elbow an officer who attempted to handcuff him. Once the cuffs were on, police noticed Beto was unresponsive and had a faint pulse. Officers removed the handcuffs and performed CPR until paramedics arrived, police said.

Allegheny County police have said investigators are trying to determine whether drugs contributed to Beto's behavior.

Kernick said Beto has used drugs. The Medical Examiner's Office said investigators would await results of toxicology and other tests to determine what caused Beto's death.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said Thursday that he's waiting for toxicology reports.

“I'll talk to Dr. (Karl) Williams about it,” Zappala said of the medical examiner. “We have a working group exploring (Taser use). It's after the fact, but it's another opportunity to review how we do business.”

Zappala formed a task force to study the use of Tasers by law enforcement in response to the death of Andre Thomas, 37, on Aug. 5, 2008. Thomas died about an hour after Swissvale police officers used Tasers on him. Williams ruled that Thomas died of “agitated delirium” and the Taser did not contribute to his death. A small amount of cocaine caused a delirious state and triggered a fatal heart attack, Williams said.

The task force found Tasers useful and largely safe, but only with adequate training and clear guidelines.

Kernick said Beto recently moved to East Pittsburgh from Squirrel Hill and was struggling with delusions.

“We were trying to make sense of it,” she said. “He really is someone who fell through the cracks.”

Staff writer Bobby Kerlik contributed to this report. Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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