EASTON, CT — Police violently broke in on a couple of men watching television, exploded concussion grenades, and shot one man roughly a second after entry. The fatal, under-investigated raid yielded no arrests and led to the shooter being named “Officer of the Year.” All because someone was suspected of getting high without government permission.
* * * * *
The disturbing operation happened on the afternoon of May 18th, 2008. Homeowner Ronald Terebesi was sitting in his living room with his friend, 33-year-old Gonzalo Guizan of Norwalk.
At around 2:00 p.m., the entrance door of 91 Dogwood Drive in Easton was abruptly splintered by a battering ram. In an instant, explosions were rocking the house and shadowy figures dressed in black poured into the home. When the smoke cleared and the chaos was over, Mr. Guizan lied in a pool of blood, shot multiple times.
The violence wasn’t the result of a street gang or cartel; the gun-wielding men were members of a SWAT team serving a no-knock search warrant for narcotics. The explosions were three (3) flashbang grenades that police had tossed through the windows and doors.
Besides killing Mr. Guizan, police allegedly assaulted Mr. Terebesi by pinning him to the floor and hitting him in the head with a rifle stock. Officers then tore apart the home looking for contraband.
Death in seconds
An amateur video of the raid was recorded from a moving vehicle (shown below). The clip shows little of the raid but a brief glimpse of the SWAT team lined up outside the home before entry.
More revealing, however, was the accompanying audio. The sound of the door breaking occurred at the 1:18 mark of the video. The shooting erupted almost immediately and the gunfire stopped at 1:20. Mr. Guizan was shot full of holes in just 2 seconds after entry.
Like an army
The nine-man team lined up, single-file, in a “stack formation” outside the home, led by a man bearing a large metal shield. The team was accompanied by an armored police vehicle and several SUVs, along with multiple snipers that had positioned themselves in the nearby woods.
“It looked like the Russian army had approached,” neighbor Drew Clark commented to NBC Connecticut. “This was overkill.”
Officer Michael Sweeney of the Monroe Police Department was the shield-bearer, and was told to rush in and pin Mr. Terebesi with the shield. He was directed to not even wait for the final flashbang to detonate.
In formation, with rifles ready, the team began to count down over the radio. “Ten, nine, eight…” At the count of “one,” police behind the house shattered the back windows and threw in the concussion grenades into the dining room as a distraction. The entry team would come in from the front.
Mr. Terebesi, in an interview following the incident, said that he and his friend were watching television when they “heard what sounded like the dining room chandelier falling down, followed by two shotgun blasts.” These sounds were actually the glass windows being shattered and the first two flashbang grenades exploding.
Both Terebesi and Guizan moved away from the commotion, towards the den room at the front of the house. “As they approached the front door, it opened, followed by sharp flashes,” according to State Attorney Jonathan Benedict’s report. “Both men were immediately knocked back and pinned by an officer using a large shield.”
The team had rushed in so quickly that the third grenade detonated in the proximity to the police officers, causing debris to strike the leg of Officer Sweeney, who led with his sheild. He yelled, “I’m hit, I’m hit!”
Officer Brian Weir, believing his comrade was under attack, fired one shot, but didn’t hit anyone. Sweeney unleashed a volley of bullets at Mr. Guizan, striking him half a dozen times.
Officer Sweeney later testified that Terebesi and Guizan rushed him, tugged on his shield, and that Guizan tried to take his pistol. However, no evidence backed that claim up. Officer Weir testified that he did not see any struggle between the men. There were no fingerprints found on Sweeney’s gun belonging to the decedent. And as the video demonstrates, the entire confrontation happened in about a second.
“There is undisputed evidence Guizan and Terebesi were huddled in a corner when police shot,” Gary Mastronardi, an attorney for the homeowner, told the Connecticut Post.
Grounds for the raid
The police proceeded with the raid on an incredibly flimsy basis. The morning of May 18th, the Easton Police Department received a call from a self-described exotic dancer who called herself “Chandra Parker.” The unvetted informant — who had given a fake name, and actually had a criminal record — claimed that she spent 30 minutes at Mr. Terebesi’s home and saw him remove an unknown material from a tin container, put it in a pipe, and smoke it.
That was all the evidence that was needed for Easton Police Chief John “Jack” Solomon to call out the Southwest Regional Emergency Response Team (SWRERT), which is comprised of police officers from Easton, Monroe, Trumbull, Wilton and Darien. The chief was eager to rid the neighborhood of a resident that was viewed as a nuisance after a series of petty complaints.
“I want this search warrant done today,” the chief demanded, according to the deposition testimony of Officer Christopher Barton. “He didn’t want it to wait until Monday or Tuesday or something like that. He wanted it completed that day.”
SWRERT team commander Lieutenant Ronald Kirby of the Trumbull Police Department had reservations about the raid, due to the fact that a child’s birthday party was happening across the street; there were balloons tied to the neighbor’s mailbox. Kirby said that Chief Solomon was insistent that the raid be performed immediately.
According to Solomon, the urgency was to ensure that the bust occurred while evidence was still present. He stated that the raid was necessary to “obtain the evidence that the crime — obviously a crime was occurring, and to obtain that evidence.”
Following the operation, police had little to show for their efforts. Besides Mr. Guizan’s bullet-riddled body, they took a scale, a couple glass pipes, a legal Vicotin prescription, an empty tin, and no weapons.
The prize of the operation was the recovery of an empty plastic bag with colored “residue” of drugs on it. The traces were so minimal that prosecutors allowed Ronald Terebesi, Jr., to go to through a pretrial diversionary program with no trial or prison time. The whole ordeal was settled with some drug education classes.
It was no major bust, and the men who were just minding their own business.
“These were two guys with no criminal records at all,” said attorney Gary Mastronardi. “No history of violence at all.” And although Mr. Terebesi was a gun owner, he had never threatened anyone.
“It was the most blatant overuse of police power I’ve ever seen,” Mastronardi added, speaking with a background as a former FBI agent.
During a deposition, Officer Sweeney later asked: “Why didn’t we just knock on the door?”
No individual accountability
Easton Police Chief John “Jack” Solomon faced no accountability for the botched, under-investigated raid and voluntarily retired a few years later.
Officer Michael Sweeney continues his career and was declared the Monroe Police Department’s “Officer of the Year” for his role in shooting Mr. Guizan to death.
As is often the case, no one faced any discipline, termination, or criminal charges for the fatally inept police work.
Mr. Terebesi, and Mr. Guizan’s survivors, each hired attorneys and have spent several years attempting to pursue the associated police departments for rights violations and excessive force.
District Court Judge Janet Bond Arterton ruled in 2012 that the departments are responsible because the SWRERT team entered the home with undue force and without enough warning.
In February 2013, the five towns agreed to a $3.5 million dollar settlement with the estate of Mr. Guizan. Ultimately the taxpayers were punished, but not the police.
In August 2014, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling which cleared the way for a jury to decide whether the five associated police departments violated Mr. Terebesi’s constitutional rights during the raid.
“The plaintiffs presented evidence indicating that all of the defendants understood that the warrant was for a small amount of drugs meant only for personal use. The basis for the officers’ entry, in other words, was related to an offense that was neither grave nor violent,” the appeals court wrote in its 51-page decision.