A man involved in a brawl with undercover Pittsburgh police officers last year at a South Side bar has filed a federal lawsuit against the city, the four officers involved and the police union, essentially calling the police an organized crime enterprise.
Attorney Wendy Williams filed the federal lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of Michael Zokaites, alleging the city and the officers violated the RICO Act — a federal law meant to target organized crime participants.
The brawl happened early Oct. 12 and ended with four members of the Pagans motorcycle club in jail. The District Attorney’s Office withdrew all charges against the men. The city’s Office of Municipal Investigations and the Citizens Police Review Board are investigating. The FBI is investigating whether there were any civil rights violations by the officers.
The officers involved are detectives David Honick, Brian Burgunder, Brian Martin and David Lincoln.
A Public Safety spokesperson declined to comment on the situation, citing the ongoing investigation and litigation.
The night ended with four Pagans in jail: Frank Deluca, 36, of Greenfield; Zokaites, 38, of Shaler; Erik Heitzenrater, 28, of Hampton; and Bruce Thomas, 61, of Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood. All had been charged with aggravated assault, conspiracy and riot prior to the charges being dropped.
The lawsuit alleges a pattern of abuses by city police, including “unnecessary and excessive use of force, sometimes while drinking alcohol to excess (and) the officers then filed false criminal charges to justify the use of such unnecessary force,” as well as to protect themselves from civil action and leverage plea bargains through the threat of “serious, often felony-level, false criminal charges.”
The lawsuit faults the city and the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, for allowing the alleged pattern of abuse to continue unabated for years.
“We can’t wait to see it to the end,” Williams said Tuesday night. “We are baffled by the fact that no criminal action has been taken against the officers.”
Police have said the four undercover detectives were investigating a drug complaint at the bar. Bartender and owner Stephen Kopy has said the officers identified themselves as construction workers when they arrived.
The lawsuit claims the four officers began drinking at the bar just after 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 11. Williams alleges in the lawsuit that hours of security footage showed the officers consuming copious amounts of alcohol: Honick consumed “at least 13 drinks of liquor ‘on the rocks,’” some of which were doubles and triples; Martin had “at least 14 drinks” that included shots of liquor and cans of beer; Burgunder had “at least 19 drinks” that includes a shot of liquor, mixed drinks and beer; and Lincoln consumed “at least 7 drinks,” including liquor, mixed drinks and beer.
Two of the other three men involved in the brawl have also filed lawsuits.
Most notably, the lawsuit alleges that multiple violations by police, including tampering with evidence, obstruction, and retaliation, constitute a violation of RICO, specifically the part “prohibiting ‘schemes to defraud’ where the fraud is ‘representational’ or where the fraud amounts to ‘cheating and defrauding’ without representations.”
The RICO organization in this case, Williams wrote, is the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.
The lawsuit alleges that police began assaulting Deluca, pinning him against the bar and punching him in the head. “Zokaites attempted to come to Deluca’s aid but he was twice tased and fell to the ground,” according to the lawsuit, which went on to allege that Zokaites fell to the ground, where he was doused with pepper spray by Martin and Burgunder.
“After Zokaites fell to the floor, he yelled, ‘I’m done, I’m done,’ and he immediately became compliant with (the officers’) demands,” according to the lawsuit, which further alleged that other officers continued to assault Zokaites while he lay on the ground.
Beyond the RICO Act violations, the lawsuit alleges the city and the officers engaged in malicious prosecution of Zokaites — as well as false arrest and false imprisonment — and deprived him of his 14th Amendment right to due process, causing physical injuries, emotional distress and loss of income.
Other allegations include assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress by Martin.
The lawsuit demands a jury trial and an unspecified amount of money in court costs, medical bills and other damages.