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Federal jury awards $1 million to Tony Timpa’s son, finds 3 Dallas police officers liable for his death

A man in a blue suit with six microphones in front of him points to a screen on the left of the image that shows a man lying facedown on grass with a hand on his back.
Jake Bleiberg
/
AP
Attorney Geoff Henley points out details in body camera footage from 32-year-old Tony Timpa's 2016 death in the custody of Dallas police officers during a press conference, Friday, Aug. 2, 2019 in Dallas. Two Dallas police officers involved in the arrest of a 911 caller who died in their custody told commanders they mocked the handcuffed man as part of a "strategy" to get him to respond.

A federal jury found three Dallas police officers liable for the 2016 death of Tony Timpa Wednesday and awarded $1 million to his 15-year-old son — far less than the $300 million his family’s lawyers pushed for in the trial.

Timpa, a 32-year-old trucking executive from Rockwall, died on August 10, 2016 during an arrest after calling 911 for help.

His family filed a wrongful death lawsuit alleging Dallas Police Officer Dustin Dillard violated Timpa’s Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force that led to his death and officers Raymond Dominguez, Danny Vasquez and Sgt. Kevin Mansell failed to intervene.

The jury found all but Mansell liable Wednesday.

In closing arguments Tuesday afternoon, attorney for the Timpas Geoff Henley encouraged the jury to give Timpa’s estate more than $100 million, his parents $40,911,911 each and Timpa's son $120,911,911. The jury ultimately landed on the $1 million figure for just his son.

Attorneys with the city of Dallas argued Timpa's history of substance abuse, mental illness and heart conditions ultimately led to his death.

Senior Assistant City Attorney Lindsay Gowin said the defense’s evidence showed officers had followed all protocol for handling Timpa and did not cause his death.

She asked jurors to consider evidence alone in their verdict, as the jury charge asked.

"This isn't about symbolism or the Dallas Police Department," Gowin said. "This is about whether these men will be called killers."

It took three years for the Dallas Police Department to publicly release body camera footage from the incident. A grand jury indicted Mansell, Vasquez and Dillard in 2017 for misdemeanor deadly conduct in Timpa's death, but Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot later dismissed those charges.

U.S. District Judge David C. Godbey dismissed the Timpa family's excessive force lawsuit in 2020 because of qualified immunity.

But the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, allowing the suit to move forward, and the trial began Sept. 18. It was originally set for July, but Godbey delayed it due to his concerns about media attention influencing the trial.

A fatal 911 call

According to the lawsuit, Timpa called 911 while outside New Fine Arts, a sex store on Mockingbird Lane. He explained he dealt with anxiety and schizophrenia and was off his medication.

Frederick Johnson testified over Zoom from prison Tuesday in white scrubs. He said he met Timpa that night and had helped Timpa buy marijuana.

Johnson described Timpa as seeming nice, warm and calm, but after Johnson returned from a bathroom and smoke break, Timpa seemed “extremely terrified.”

“He was acting weird and I was a little afraid,” Johnson said.

Surveillance footage from New Fine Arts shows Timpa pacing in front of the store while talking on the phone and to others outside. Then, at about 9:22 p.m. on the tape, Timpa suddenly darts away from the store and runs into the street.

The lawsuit states Timpa crossed the 1700 block of Mockingbird Lane multiple times in a "disoriented panic" before flagging a security guard. Two security guards ended up handcuffing him on the ground, according to the lawsuit.

Once Dallas police arrived, Dillard’s body camera footage shows Timpa in handcuffs behind his back writhing on the ground, asking for help while Dillard and two other officers in view attempt to calm him down.

When Timpa rolled over and tried to sit upright, the officers rolled Timpa onto his stomach and Dillard and Vasquez held him down — Dillard using his knee — while Timpa groaned and repeatedly yelled, “help me!”

After 11 minutes of Dillard kneeling, Timpa stopped moving. But Dillard still kneeled on Timpa for about three more minutes. He and the other officers can be heard asking Timpa if he was OK.

Then Dominguez and Vasquez jokingly pretended to be a mom trying to wake a kid up for school, and the officers can be heard laughing. Mansell, who was first on the scene, was away from the group talking to Timpa’s stepmother on the phone.

The officers then lifted Timpa on a gurney to get him inside an ambulance.

“I hope I didn’t kill him,” Dillard can be heard saying. Dominguez and Vasquez joke that it isn’t a “we” issue.

Then paramedics in the ambulance told the officers Timpa was dead, and the officers performed CPR but failed to resuscitate him.

"Seven years ago, Tony Timpa made that phone call, and over the last seven days, we've been imploring you to answer it," Henley told jurors.L Tuesday.

Dallas County Medical Examiner Dr. Emily Ogden ruled Tony Timpa’s death a homicide, according to the lawsuit, specifically “sudden cardiac death” caused by the “toxic effects of cocaine and physiologic stress and physical restraint.”

The Dallas Morning News reported Dillard testified Sept. 21 he doesn’t believe he did anything wrong that day.

“I did not hurt Mr. Timpa,” Dillard said. “I did not kill Mr. Timpa.”

Vasquez and Dominguez apologized to Timpa’s family in their testimonies for joking while Timpa died, The News reported.

Still, they maintained they were only trying to elicit a reaction from Tony because they thought he was sleeping and wouldn’t change what they did to control him.

Deadly force or deadly health problems?

Determining whether the officers caused Timpa’s death hinged on extensive testimony from both sides’ medical and law enforcement experts.

The News reported Dr. Martin Tobin, a pulmonologist who testified in the trial of Derek Chauvin over George Floyd’s murder, was a key witness for the plaintiffs. He told the Dallas jury he determined the force of the officers’ hands and Dillard’s knee on Timpa’s back deprived him of oxygen, which Tobin referred to as “compressive asphyxiation.”

Law enforcement expert Michael D. Lyman testified Tuesday Dillard’s use of force was “improper, unnecessary and unreasonable.” He said in his research and experience, prone restraint violates various policing standards, and the other three officers reasonably could have intervened.

The jury also heard from defense witness Dr. Jeffrey Barnard, chief medical examiner for Dallas County. He was not involved in Timpa’s autopsy, but he said he and Ogden work on the same team.

Timpa had 0.647 milligrams per liter of cocaine in his body, according to an autopsy report from three days after his death.

“That’s a significant amount of cocaine,” Barnard said.

He told jurors Timpa had an enlarged heart, which could be attributed to pre-existing heart conditions, cocaine use or both. He also said pictures of Timpa’s body showed signs of decomposition rather than asphyxia.

Barnard said Timpa’s family didn’t tell him Timpa had dealt with issues like elevated blood pressure and heart palpitations as medical records showed, nor that he had a history of substance abuse and had been to rehab at least four times. He agreed with Gowin that such information is helpful for a post-mortem assessment.

Senior Cpl. Sam Hanson, who trains Dallas police officers on use of force and crisis intervention, explained to jurors the department’s use of force continuum that’s used in training.

Given the circumstances, he said, Timpa was in a crisis and posed a threat. Therefore, Dillard keeping his knee on Timpa’s back to control him was reasonable.

“(The officers) don’t really have any good options,” Hanson said. “There were no good options in this scenario.”

Emotional family testimony

The News reported the Timpa family, all plaintiffs in the suit, shared with jurors the toll his death took on their family.

Joe Timpa, Tony Timpa's father, testified he and his son were business partners in the family’s trucking company and said he believes the company’s sales dropped by about half because of his son’s death.

Tony Timpa’s stepmother Kim Timpa said her stepson had struggled academically at Baylor and went to rehab multiple times, but had never abused substances in front of the family.

Tony Timpa’s 15-year-old son Kolton Timpa shared he missed his father and mourned the future he lost with him.

Tony Timpa's ex-wife Cheryll Timpa said telling their then-8-year-old son of his father's death was "the worst thing as a mother" she's ever had to do.

The News reported Tony Timpa's mother Vicki Timpa gave a tearful testimony Friday. She left the courtroom nearly each time attorneys showed the body camera footage of her son's death or his autopsy photos.

Got a tip? Email Toluwani Osibamowo at tosibamowo@kera.org. You can follow Toluwani on Twitter @tosibamowo.

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Toluwani Osibamowo is a general assignments reporter for KERA. She previously worked as a news intern for Texas Tech Public Media and copy editor for Texas Tech University’s student newspaper, The Daily Toreador, before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She is originally from Plano.