Rick Gregory just wanted to play music. That’s all. Just play his guitar.
He lived in Pukalani with his wife and four children. He surfed a lot, partied a lot and played his guitar a lot.
He was playing a guitar in a small Lahaina studio the night he died. But statements and reports made by numerous police officers, detectives and civilian witnesses indicate he was also acting strange, yelling about God and Satan and surfing to the other guys in the studio. That’s why the guys called the cops. None of them really knew him. He had come with a friend of theirs, but that guy had left. At first they’d been content to have Gregory hang out, but not now.
But now he was dead, laying flat on his back in the middle of the room, surrounded by three police officers whose actions would later be the subject of court documents and press reports. They certainly didn’t want that.
Richard Joseph Gregory died at the age of 51 shortly before 11 p.m. on Dec. 2, 2002 while being arrested by three Maui police officers. Statements by the three officers after the death said Gregory continued to rant and rave as they tried to cuff him, but also that he complained he couldn’t breathe as they attempted to restrain him.
All three officers said they ignored Gregory’s plea, telling him that if he could talk, he could breathe. They denied striking him or placing him in a chokehold, but one officer admitted that he was trying to perform a hold on Gregory that had the officer place at least one arm around his throat.
A coroner’s report concluded that Gregory died of a heart attack. An attorney with the Maui County corporation counsel insists the officers acted responsibly and were “not the proximate cause” of Gregory’s death.
Gregory’s wife sees it differently. Last summer she filed a lawsuit against Maui County for negligence and wrongful death.
“It is the opinion of the Maui County Coroner that, if the officers had adequately responded to Richard J. Gregory’s complaints of an inability to breathe, he would not have died,” wrote Mrs. Gregory’s attorney Eve Green in a July 7, 2003 complaint against the county. Green added that the three officers “negligently caused the death of Richard J. Gregory,” who “suffered grievous physical pain and conscious and extreme mental and psychic trauma and emotional harm before dying.”
Valerie Gregory refused to comment for this story.
“If everything was done right, we can live with that,” her attorney David Sereno told me. “But we believe the police were aggressive. They ask him to leave, then within seconds they move on him. Was he really a danger?”
In recent months, Maui police officers have found themselves in the midst of two high-profile incidents in which they’ve shot and killed suspects. Considering that the shootings are the first since the late 1950s, the media attention has been understandable.
But the case of Rick Gregory is different. Maui police officers didn’t shoot him, but they had been struggling with him when he died. The question of whether they had anything to do with his death is at the heart of Valerie Gregory’s suit against the county.
So who was Rick Gregory?
“I used to play bass with Rick,” said Scott Baird of the band Crazy Fingers. “He was totally a cool guy. But he was a very hyper guy. He was really proud of surfing big waves. We never thought he’d have a heart attack, but that happens. He was always giving me health stuff. He partied a bit. He used to go to Oahu to party.”
Gregory and his wife were very religious, regularly attending Calvary Chapel in Wailuku. Gregory’s only job when he died was playing the blues three nights a week at the Embassy Resort. He also smoked marijuana a lot. After he died, Police found marijuana, a “purple glass smoking pipe containing suspected marijuana vegetation/residue” and “a very strong odor of marijuana” in the van he’d parked outside. A toxicology report [from the coroner] found cannibinoids in his blood “indicating acute use.”
But it was music that made Gregory go to the Lahaina studio the night of Dec. 2. He wanted music lessons. There were three men in the studio with Gregory the night he died. They refused to comment for this story, but the statements they later gave police investigators tell a bizarre tale.
Gregory arrived at the studio at about a quarter to 10 p.m., on Dec. 2. He’d brought his $3,000 acoustic guitar. But he soon became “frantic” trying to tune it. Gregory’s friend left, but Gregory stayed, saying he wanted to tune the guitar.
Soon the men began to argue. They said Gregory began “ranting” about how he was a “good Christian” who didn’t like the “devil music” the other guys played.
“I ain’t going anywhere, I’m staying right here,” one witness later said Gregory told him. “You’re making me mad, man. You want to fight, man? What?”
The guys called 911, telling the dispatcher that Gregory was “on drugs and acting weird.”
After his death, police investigators talked to Gregory’s friends and relatives. They used terms like “high-strung” and “bipolar” to describe Gregory’s alleged mood swings. “Stated Richard was okay, then two weeks ago he started acting really hyper, and was not getting any sleep,” a detective reported after interviewing one of the Gregory’s close friends. “Stated one moment Richard would be okay, then next he would be very loud or upset about something.”
In any case, things went from bad to worse at 10:43 p.m. when three Maui police officers—Edwin Among, Nicholas Angell and Garret Tihada—arrived on scene. Though the Maui Police Department has thus far refused to name the officers who were involved in the Gregory incident, their names appeared in court records filed on Mar. 5 by Valerie Gregory’s attorneys and in police reports Maui Time obtained through the State of Hawaii open records act.
The officers found a small studio crammed with speakers, a drum set and computer. A sofa lined one wall, piled high with drum cases. Inside was Gregory, all three officers later said, holding a jug of water and a pen. Officer Among later reported that Gregory “began rambling about how glad he was to see the police and that he was a Christian and god was with him.”
At this point the officers and Gregory were the only ones in the studio. The other guys were in a nearby room, but told investigators they never saw what happened next.
“Gregory appeared extremely high strung, excitable and jumpy,” reported Officer Angell. “His body appeared to be very rigid and tense. Gregory’s eyes further appeared saucer like. He spoke very loudly and rapidly even though officer’s [sic] were well within earshot of him.”
Angell wrote in his report that he asked Gregory to drop the pen. Gregory apparently refused. All three officers told investigators that Gregory never attacked them or even seemed ready to attack them. Nonetheless, they admitted making the first move, grabbing Gregory’s arms.
Officer Tihada later told investigators he grabbed the pen from Gregory and threw it aside. Tihada also told investigators he repeatedly asked Gregory to “relax already,” but that Gregory kept struggling.
The officers reported that the whole tangle of men then tumbled partly onto the couch. Initially, reported the officers, they managed to push Gregory face down on the floor. Tihada put in his own report that he was on top, holding Gregory down and the officers slapped the cuffs on.
“I used both palms push down on the back of Gregory’s neck in an attempt to hold him down,” he reported. But that didn’t seem to work.
“I could not control Gregory by pushing down on him, so I changed position to control him,” reported Tihada. “I positioned my armpit on the back of his neck with my right arm under his neck and my right hand towards his right armpit. For about thirty seconds I could restrict Gregory’s movement due to my weight holding him down.”
That’s when Gregory began complaining that he couldn’t breathe.
“He said, yeah, he said, ‘I cannot breathe, I cannot breathe,’” Tihada told a detective six hours after the incident. “I was like, ‘No, you can breathe because you’re talking to me. If you couldn’t breathe, you cannot talk’… He must have said it about like 10 times.”
Whether Gregory could breathe or not, all three officers agreed that at this point Gregory managed to spin himself around, so he was lying on his back. Tihada told Detective Ronald Hiyakumoto that Gregory didn’t seem aggressive to them, but seemed just to want to escape.
“[N]either he nor us, none of us, you know, never made any striking movements toward each other,” he told Hiyakumoto. “It was just us trying to hold him down to arrest and him just trying to get away from us, you know, he wasn’t… [all ellipses were in the original statements] it wasn’t where, you know, trying to injure us at all.”
According to Tihada’s statements to Detective Hiyakumoto, the officer then tried to apply a new hold around Gregory’s neck.
The significance of this is crucial—if Tihada applied a so-called “Carotid Hold” or sleeper hold on Gregory incorrectly, it could have killed him.
“We’re looking at whether they used a carotid hold,” said Sereno. “Most police departments don’t permit that. If held too long, it deprives oxygen to the brain and the guy can die.”
Tihada denied using a carotid hold on Gregory, but in a way that’s worth looking at in some detail. Clearly, the matter seemed to concern Hiyakumoto:
HIYAKUMOTO: Was there any time that your forearm, either your right or your left, came close to the throat or the bottom of his neck?
TIHADA: When… when we first were on the couch at one point, it did but then after that when we got down to the… towards the ground, then I knew I… I made sure that there was like… there was like space so that… that’s why we could keep talking the whole time.
And later in the interview:
HIYAKUMOTO: Uhmm, at any time, did you have a choke hold on, uhmm, on Gregory, uhh, carotid…
TIHADA: Carotid, no, not a carotid.
HIYAKUMOTO: This is… uh, what you mean by on the chest and around the…
TIHADA: Yeah, well, I had… I had my arm around but at not [sic] time was… was for the carotid kind.
Carotid hold or not, Gregory stopped struggling shortly after Tihada changed position, allowing officers Among and Angell to finish cuffing him. Though Gregory was 51 years old, standing five-foot-seven and weighing 185 pounds, all the officers said they struggled for five minutes to subdue him.
“It’s extremely unusual for someone to have superhuman strength for five minutes,” said Sereno, Valerie Gregory’s attorney. “We’re skeptical it took five minutes. Was he difficult or were they frustrated? Either the guy had superhuman strength or they were bullying him. And how does the struggle go on for five minutes and nothing is disturbed in a relatively small space?”
Interestingly, there were slight differences between the stories the officers gave as to when they noticed that Gregory was “unresponsive.”
Angell and Tihada told investigators that after they cuffed Gregory, they rolled him over. Tihada said he then “looked at [Gregory’s] face and it just looked odd.”
But Angell said that after rolling Gregory over, they “brought him up” into a seated position. That’s when Angell said he thought Gregory “looked like he, he looked like, initially I thought he might be holding his breath.”
As for Officer Among, he told Detective Hiyakumoto that Gregory was still conscious when they rolled him over:
HIYAKUMOTO: Then when you sat him up, was he conscience [sic]?
AMONG: Yeah he was.
HIYAKUMOTO: Like what, what is he doing?
AMONG: He was just talking, all of a sudden he just went… we thought he was faking or something so I even rubbed the sternum rub [sic], nothing happened, ah.
The “sternum rub” Among mentioned was a method of inducing a small amount of pain to elicit a response—to see if Gregory was playing possum. But he was not, which the officers say they then realized.
They told investigators they tried reviving him with CPR and then an Automated Emergency Defibrillator (AED). Nothing worked.
Paramedics arrived at 10:57 p.m. This time, they got Gregory’s heart beating again for about a minute, but then it stopped for good.
No one called Valerie Gregory to tell her Rick was dead until nearly 4 a.m.
The coroner’s office finally pronounced Gregory dead a half-hour before, at 3:23 a.m. on Dec. 3, but by then he’d almost certainly been dead for more than four hours.
According to Maui County Coroner Dr. Anthony Manoukian, Gregory “died of a cardiopulmonary arrest during a violent struggle complicated by arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease, mild cardiomegaly and cannabinoid intoxication.”
Manoukian observed “multiple superficial non-life-threatening injuries” to Gregory’s forehead, tongue, right elbow, wrists and right knee. He observed “no head or neck injuries.” When he examined Gregory’s heart, he found it slightly enlarged with a narrowing of the right coronary artery—in other words, heart disease.
But what about the timing of the death? Would Gregory have died of a heart attack anyway? Did the struggle cause the heart attack? Or did it merely hasten an inevitable event? On this point, Manoukian seemed less certain.
“Sudden death during or immediately after a violent struggle is well-described in the forensic literature,” wrote Manoukian. “Often, these events are unassociated with a fully explanatory anatomic cause of death. In the typical scenario, the deceased has engaged in the violent struggle with one or more individuals. Restraint or positional considerations may be contributory. During the struggle, or more commonly immediately after it, the individual abruptly becomes unresponsive, develops cardiopulmonary arrest, and does not respond to resuscitation.”
Manoukian also addressed the “hypothesis” that deaths like Gregory’s could be the result of “norepinephrine and Epinephrine surges” that could instigate a heart attack, but stopped short of saying that caused Gregory’s death.
“Since this violent struggle has occurred between individuals, the best classification of the manner of death is homicide,” concluded Manoukian. “It is noted that homicide as used here is a pathologic classification and does not indicate criminal activity, nor does it imply murder.”
Sereno isn’t implying murder either, but he said he will look at a whole range of issues in the suit. No trial date has yet been set, and Sereno said he and Green, are still in the discovery phase.
“We’re looking at whether the officers were properly trained,” he said. “We’re exploring whether they acted appropriately from the time they walked in the door. We’re looking at their approach from the beginning. We want to know if the contact and interaction between Mr. Gregory and the officers was appropriate.”
As far as the county is concerned, their discovery is proceeding at pace. And they’re casting a wide net. Corporation counsel attorneys have subpoenaed any video cassettes Calvary Chapel might have given Rick Gregory referring to “heavy metal music being ‘devil music’ and/or not ‘of God’ and/or not of Christ or refers to heavy metal music as being inappropriate in any matter.”
Corporation Counsel attorneys are also subpoenaing any and all records related to Rick Gregory from the Elks Club, as well as all “education, medical and counseling” records relating to the Gregory children, two of whom are barely four years old.