Share this article

print logo

Officers won't be indicted in Taser death; Grand jury finds actions appropriate in incident involving Lancaster man

Two police officers who fired their Tasers in an attempt to subdue a violent 27-year-old Lancaster man who was high on cocaine will not be charged in the man's death last August.

A grand jury reported Thursday that it has declined to indict Lancaster Police Officers Brian T. Firestone and Michael J. Gozdalski for their actions in a chaotic struggle with Nicholas A. Koscielniak, the first person in Erie County to die after being shot with a Taser by police.

Grand jurors found the officers acted appropriately and accepted the finding of the Erie County Medical Examiner's Office that "excited delirium" brought on by cocaine intoxication and a heart condition -- and not the use of the Tasers -- caused Koscielniak's death.

"These cops did everything possible to keep the use of force to an absolute minimum," said Thomas H. Burton, the attorney for Firestone and Gozdalski, who have remained on duty since the incident. "It's beyond question they acted lawfully."

District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said he brought the case to a grand jury because he wanted an independent review when a man died following an encounter with police.

Lancaster Police Chief Gerald J. Gill Jr. has stood behind his officers since the Aug. 30 episode at a Village of Lancaster home.

But Koscielniak's family and friends Thursday challenged the official account of that day's events, and they still believe he died because he was shot by Tasers.

"There was a life lost because of wrongdoing," said Michael Lewandowski, the boyfriend of Koscielniak's mother, Lori.

According to a law enforcement investigation, Lancaster officers responded at about 5:30 a.m. on Aug. 30 after Bill Delzer, Koscielniak's uncle, called 911 to say his nephew and roommate were fighting in Delzer's Oakwood Avenue garage.

Delzer told police Koscielniak was "freaking out" and warned officers "you better bring lots of guys," according to a law enforcement investigation.

Koscielniak was 6 feet, 3 1/2 inches and 276 pounds.

The first officers to arrive found a tumultuous scene, with Koscielniak sweating profusely and acting delusional as he rolled around on the floor with Delzer's roommate, who begged police to help him. The men had their shirts off, their pants were around their ankles and they were covered in roofing tar.

The encounter lasted 25 minutes, and Lancaster Volunteer Ambulance Corps members said Koscielniak acted combative and paranoid throughout.

The officers fired their Tasers at 5:49 a.m. and 6:13 a.m. Firestone attempted to use his seven times, and Gozdalski attempted to use his five times.

Koscielniak ripped out the probes from the Taser fired by Firestone, which might have meant the device did not have its intended effect. It's not known whether either officer successfully discharged his Taser.

Police say Koscielniak twice broke through his restraints, and remained violent even after the second Taser shots. Officers say they did not use a Taser while Koscielniak was restrained.

But Delzer said he saw Koscielniak stop struggling after the first Taser shots.

He said his nephew followed officers' orders and fell to the ground, allowing officers to tie his hands behind his back.

"I just don't understand why they felt they needed to taser him again," said Delzer, who concedes he did not see officers fire the second time.

Tasers are fired from a distance. Two probes released from the Taser gun attach to the target and connect back to the gun through two thin wires.

Dr. Ronald Moscati, an attending physician in Erie County Medical Center's emergency department, said the pulses work for five seconds, causing pain and involuntary muscle spasms -- "You can't even stand up" -- and giving officers time to restrain the subject.

Moscati has studied the effects of Tasers on human subjects and said he believes they can be used safely as nonlethal control devices. In cases where someone dies after being shot by a Taser, the cause often has nothing to do with the use of the Taser, Moscati said.

Koscielniak became unresponsive during the ambulance ride and was pronounced dead in Sisters Hospital -- St. Joseph Campus in Cheektowaga.

Toxicology testing found Koscielniak had a large amount of cocaine, as well as marijuana and alcohol, in his system. An autopsy showed he had hypertensive cardiovascular disease.

The medical examiner concluded Koscielniak died from "excited delirium" triggered by the cocaine in his system and the previous heart condition.

Excited delirium occurs when people push their bodies beyond their limits to the point where they are at risk of a serious, even fatal, health issue, often because someone is intoxicated, has a mental-health problem, or both.

The subject is likely to suffer serious medical consequences regardless of whether he is shot by a Taser, Moscati said.

The medical examiner's conclusion that the Taser did not contribute to Koscielniak's death doesn't satisfy his loved ones.

They say they had no indication Koscielniak suffered from a bad heart and they believe he would have lived if police hadn't fired Tasers a second time.

Sedita and Gill both say they believe the officers did their best to restrain Koscielniak without hurting him. Gill noted the officers were cleared by the office's internal probe, the medical examiner's review of the case and, now, the grand jury.

Family and friends of Koscielniak remain bitter at how police handled the incident and the follow-up investigation.

Lori Koscielniak said her son had been upset over personal issues, but he was a gentle, considerate person. She choked up Thursday as she talked about her family's loss, which leaves Nick's son, Nixon, who is 2, without a father.

"I don't want to see somebody out on the street with their Taser gun put some other family through what we went through," she said.

Bill Delzer, who called police to his home, is haunted by thoughts of his nephew's final minutes. "It's tough. I relive it every day," Delzer said. "The kid was fine, and then all of a sudden he's gone."