Local family files wrongful death lawsuit against Henry County and others

HENRY COUNTY — The family of a Clayton County man who died after police Tased him more than a dozen times has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Henry County, the City of Hampton and the five officers involved.

Channel 2′s Mike Petchenik has now confirmed the District Attorney’s office has launched its own criminal investigation into the death.

Body camera footage provided by an attorney for Fernando Rodriguez shows officers encounter the 24-year-old outside the Atlanta Motor Speedway in September 2019 after he had just attended a concert called “Imagine Fest.”

The video shows Rodriguez was naked, his family believes because he may have been high on drugs.

In the video, Rodriguez can be seen walking away from the officers when they began firing Tasers at him.

“He was non-combative, law enforcement Tased him, he went to the ground, and then they continue to Tase him for about 15 times while he was on the ground, unarmed, not a threat to anyone,” said attorney Jess Johnson. “They then flipped him over onto his stomach. It’s called the prone position. And they got on top of him, they kneeled on him, they stood on him, they (used) their fist to place weight on him. And at some point, during this time, law enforcement realized that he wasn’t breathing. But instead of getting off of him and rendering medical aid, they continued to pin him to the ground. And that’s ultimately what killed him.”

According to a lawsuit the family filed, a medical examiner determined Rodriguez died as the result of “asphyxiation due to physical restraint in prone position with compression of chest,” and concluded the manner of death was “homicide.”

“We need justice for Fernando and ultimately, we want to get this case in front of a jury and let a jury decide what to do with it,” said Johnson.

In the video, the officers could be heard commenting on Fernandez’s reaction to being Tased.

“Dude, you’re about to piss me off,” one officer can be heard telling him.

“You sweaty little hog you,” the lawsuit claims the same officer, Gregory Bowlden, said of Fernandez after forcefully flipping his body over.

After officers realized Rodriguez was no longer breathing, another officer can be heard in the footage saying: “I just didn’t want to have to beat the boy to death.”

The lawsuit, filed this week, names the five officers involved in the incident: Officer Gregory R. Bowlden, Officer Mason C. Lewis, Officer Marcus J. Stroud, Officer Robert P. Butera and Officer Quinton C. Phillips.

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According to the suit, Hampton’s police chief determined that his officers, Bowlden, Lewis and Stroud, had violated the department’s use of force policy and that Bowlden and Lewis had violated the department’s policy about using “unprofessional statements.”

The suit also said Stroud had previously received discipline for using excessive force during another arrest in June 2019.

“Henry County and the City of Hampton also failed to adequately train its officers on the proper use of the prone restraint and when officers should render aid to individuals who had been subjected to prone restraints,” the lawsuit alleges. “Upon information and belief, Henry County and the City of Hampton were aware that its policies of allowing prone restraints in non-deadly circumstances had led to the deaths of multiple individuals prior to Fernando’s death. Henry County’s and the City of Hampton’s policies sanctioning excessive force in the use of prone restraints caused Fernando’s death.”

Channel 2′s Jorge Estevez first reached out to Henry County officials Tuesday night, seeking comment about the lawsuit.

Petchenik followed up Wednesday morning with e-mails to leaders at both Henry County and the City of Hampton about the lawsuit and allegations, and to seek information about the status of the officers involved.

The Henry County Police and County Manager referred Petchenik to the county attorney’s office. The county attorney responded Wednesday evening saying it is his office’s practice to not comment on pending litigation.

Nobody from the City of Hampton had yet responded to Petchenik’s request as of Wednesday afternoon.

Rodriguez’s family said his death has left a huge void in their lives.

“My brother was a happy person,” said Kevin Rodriguez. “He was full of light. He was always smiling. He’s always telling me to be cheerful, to be the (one) to smile, be strong. For all of us.”

Fernando’s sister, Octavia, said he will be missed.

“It’s hard, you know, for my family, because we miss him,” she said. “Sorry, I I want to cry, but it’s, it’s been really, really bad. We want justice for him. Because, you know, we don’t think it’s right, what they did. And I think, you know, the police officers needed to pay what they did my brother.”