Crime - Sacto 911

He suffered severe burns at the hands of police. Now he wants more than $26 million

Burned man’s mom: ‘My son needed help from the officers, instead of being harmed by them’

Tarsha Benigno, with husband Barry Benigno, talks about the severe burns her son received while being held on the hot asphalt by Citrus Heights police.
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Tarsha Benigno, with husband Barry Benigno, talks about the severe burns her son received while being held on the hot asphalt by Citrus Heights police.

A man who suffered severe burns when Citrus Heights police pinned him to the ground in a restaurant parking lot on a hot day last June has filed a claim asking for compensation of more than $26 million from the city.

James Bradford Nelson spent nearly two months in the hospital recovering from burns to his face, torso, legs and buttocks after officers held him down on the pavement on an afternoon when temperatures reached triple digits.

According to a claim filed against the city, Nelson’s medical expenses as of last month were $1.8 million. The claim asks for another $25 million in “general damages,” as well as an unspecified amount in punitive damages against the officers involved in the incident on June 23, 2017.

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A photo of a hospital photograph shows the burns on James Nelson’s face and chest. The injuries occurred June 23, 2017 in a KFC parking lot when Citrus Heights police officers held him on the hot pavement after receiving calls that he was acting erratically. Courtesy of the Benigno family

Claims for damages typically are precursors to lawsuits, and provide an outline of the plaintiff’s case.

Citrus Heights police chief Ronald Lawrence declined to comment in detail on the legal action, but said the city is reviewing Nelson’s claim and intends to respond. The case, he said, is “something that will involve the judicial system, and will not be resolved in the court of public opinion.”

The chief in the past has said his officers were forced to take Nelson to the ground because he was combative and trying to flee from them. When they realized Nelson was burned, they poured water over him and called an ambulance, he said.

Nelson, 28, suffers from a variety of mental problems including paranoid schizophrenia, according to his legal claim. His mental illness “is exacerbated in extreme conditions of weather,” it says.

His burn injuries occurred after Citrus Heights police responded to calls that he was acting erratically at a KFC restaurant. Eight officers ultimately responded, and at least two held a shirtless Nelson on the ground for five minutes or more on a day when temperatures soared to 100 degrees in Sacramento.

The temperature of the pavement would have been close to 170 degrees, according to estimates by the National Weather Service. An egg begins frying at about 144 degrees, and human skin is “instantly destroyed” at 162, according to the weather service.

“During this time on the ground Nelson was screaming and yelling in excruciating pain,” the claim reads. “However, the officers forced his head down onto the hot pavement, leaning onto it with such force that Nelson could not move it for relief, exposing the right side of his face and neck to the scorching heat of the concrete.”

By the time he was placed into an ambulance, about 20 minutes later, Nelson was unconscious.

Nelson spent weeks in intensive care in the UC Davis burn unit, underwent skin graft surgeries and had treatment for liver and kidney failure related to his injuries, according to the claim. The incident left him with physical scars, post traumatic stress disorder and permanent disabilities, it says.

Security video from June 23 shows Nelson in the KFC, bare chested with his pants sagging from his waist. He appears agitated, darting around the restaurant and gesticulating. Before he runs out the door, Nelson takes a swing at the manager, and appears to reach toward the rear pockets of the man’s trousers. He also dives over the counter.

The Sacramento County District Attorney’s office initially charged Nelson with trying to rob a KFC employee of his wallet, as well as being under the influence of a controlled substance and resisting a police officer. But in light of the “unique facts and circumstances” of the case, those charges were dropped and he was charged only with a parole violation.

The incident reflected an ongoing cycle of mental episodes, arrests and incarcerations that has defined Nelson’s life since he was a juvenile, court records show. During the past 10 years, he has been charged with felony attempted robbery, burglary and larceny and misdemeanor drug possession, among other offenses.

Court records indicate that Nelson currently is in the Sacramento County jail, charged with larceny and drug offenses. His mother and stepfather, Tarsha and Barry Benigno of Stockton, declined to comment on their son’s incarceration or the claim filed on his behalf by attorney Mark Thiel.

The claim says Citrus Heights officers involved in Nelson’s case used excessive force and “assaulted and battered” him. His injuries, according to the claim, “were the direct and proximate result” of the department’s policies, training and practices.

A man is suspected by Citrus Heights police of several crimes and erratic behavior, including jumping over a fast-food counter, taking a swing at an employee.

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert

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