Bound and Gagged

As a family waits for answers, S.F. police refuse to talk about how a controversial restraint was used on a suspect who died in custody

Gloretha Caldwell, 63, an employee of the California State Disability Insurance Office who lives not far from the Mervyn's on Geary Boulevard, doesn't get out much these days. She tried going back to work in early December, not long after she learned that her son had mysteriously died in police custody. Family members and friends have doggedly tried to get police to release official information showing precisely how and why Caldwell's son Gregory died, to little avail. These records are secret, pending investigation, police said.

Caldwell couldn't help imagining the worst. She suffered nightmares, in which she would imagine 41-year-old Gregory dying in myriad horrible ways. These lynching dreams left her so traumatized by morning that it was impossible to collect herself enough to face the world. Her grief distracted her from office tasks. Caldwell's efforts to keep working became futile. She went home for good in mid-December on disability leave, and she has been under a therapist's care ever since.

"The last time I had seen him, he was all right. I didn't understand after all that happened about him. I just didn't understand it," says Caldwell. "It's a terrible feeling. Every time I talk about it, I get teary. You want something, some sort of information, and nobody tells you what happened. You have all these dreams, and there are things you read about, where there's someone helpless who was killed. When it's someone helpless like that, it's like a lynching, more or less. It's always on my mind. I try to deal with it, I see a therapist. But it's very hard to deal with."

On the evening of Dec. 3, 2001, Gregory Caldwell allegedly was caught trying to steal a blender at the Geary Boulevard Mervyn's, an incident I first described in the Dec. 12 issue of SF Weekly. Guards tackled him, fought with him, subdued him, handcuffed him, then held him until police arrived. According to the police incident report -- released to the family only last week -- another struggle broke out just as officers walked Gregory Caldwell to the squad car. It took three officers to hold him down -- one on each handcuffed arm and one on his head, the report said. Police then restrained Caldwell using what the report called a "hobble" device, which binds a subjects hands to his ankles, either behind the back or in front of the torso. Caldwell became briefly calm, the police report said. Soon Caldwell struggled and complained he couldn't breathe, according to a police spokesman's account. Caldwell became still, again. Store security guards suggested he might be "playing 'possum," as the report said. But he wasn't. Caldwell died at the Kaiser Hospital emergency room at 6:59 p.m.

The police officers then did what they typically do when a person dies in police custody in San Francisco: They obfuscated, they made misleading statements, they withheld official police documents.

In the case of Gregory Caldwell, by following their usual practice of concealment, department officials may have hidden information that could reveal whether the police officers killed Caldwell, or whether his death was an unavoidable medical misfortune.

The hobble device is famous for causing people to die from asphyxiation in cases when it is used to hogtie subjects with their limbs behind their backs. When I asked a police spokesman about the incident in December, he didn't mention the hobble device at all. When I asked an investigating officer last week to explain in what way police used the device to restrain Caldwell, she refused.

"I've given you an answer: A hobble was used. And as soon as the case is completely over, we will release the information," said Lt. Judie Pursell.

Gregory Caldwell's sister Wendy has spent the past two months visiting the Police Department and leaving messages, in hopes of obtaining an explanation of her brother's puzzling death.

"I've been down there and made calls, and they tell me it's still under investigation. They tell me the autopsy could take three weeks. I kept calling, and they never returned my calls; and I asked them to call me when the autopsy was ready, and they never called me back," Wendy Caldwell says. "I went to court down there, and I asked them to let me go by the homicide office and let me see about the autopsy. But it seems like everything's so hidden," says Caldwell, who was eventually able to talk to a detective. "She was saying that they actually had done an autopsy. I asked what the cause of death was. She said he had a history of heart disease. I asked her, "How did you know if he had a history of heart disease unless you knew who he was, and what his medical history was? She said that he had cocaine in his system, which could have caused it. I told her, "First you told me heart disease. Every time I speak to you it was something different.' I asked her what percentage of cocaine [in the blood] could cause death? She showed me the Police Department's pictures of his body. I wasn't trying to be negative or anything, but the pictures the funeral home took didn't look anything like theirs. In the funeral home's pictures his eyes were swollen, and he had a lump on the forehead."

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