Tuesday, 30 May 2023 16:39

They Held Down a Black Teen Who Had Tried to Shoplift. He Died From Asphyxia. Why Was No One Ever Charged?

When the clerk at VJ’s Food Mart confronted Corey Stingley, the 16-year-old handed over his backpack. Inside were six hidden bottles of Smirnoff Ice, worth $12, and the clerk began pulling them out one by one.

Stingley watched, then pivoted and quickly moved toward the door, empty-handed. But there would be no escape for the unarmed teen in the light blue hoodie.

Three customers, together weighing 550 pounds, wrestled the 135-pound teen to the floor of the West Allis, Wisconsin, store. They pinned him in a seated position, “his body compressed downward,” according to a police account. One of the men put Stingley in a chokehold, witnesses would later tell investigators.

“Get up, you punk!” that man, a former Marine, reportedly told Stingley when an officer from the police department finally arrived. But the teen didn’t move. He was foaming at the mouth, and his pants and shoes were soaked in urine.

He’d suffered a traumatic brain injury from a loss of oxygen and never regained consciousness. His parents took him off life support two weeks later. The medical examiner ruled Stingley’s death a homicide following his restraint in “a violent struggle with multiple individuals.”

That was more than 10 years ago.

None of the men, all of whom were white, were criminally charged in the incident that killed Stingley, a Black youth. Police arrested Mario Laumann, the man seen holding Stingley in an apparent chokehold, shortly after the incident in December 2012. But the local district attorney declined to prosecute him or the other two men, arguing they were unaware of the harm they were causing.

When a second police review led to a reexamination of the case in 2017, another prosecutor sat on it for more than three years, until a judge demanded a decision. Again, there were no charges.

Prosecutors move on, but fathers don’t. Refusing to accept that the case had been handled justly, Corey Stingley’s dad, Craig, last year convinced a judge to assign a third district attorney to look at what had happened to his son.

That prosecutor, Ismael Ozanne of Dane County, is scheduled to report back to the court on Friday. He could announce whether charges are warranted.

The case has parallels to a recent deadly subway incident in New York City. Both involve chokeholds administered by former Marines on Black males who had not initiated any violence. But unlike in Wisconsin, New York authorities acted within two weeks to file a second-degree manslaughter charge in the case.

While the New York subway incident grabbed national headlines, Corey Stingley’s death — which happened the same day as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut — did not gain much notice outside of southeast Wisconsin.

Years later, Craig Stingley tapped an obscure statute dating back to Wisconsin’s frontier days to convince the system to take a fresh look at his son’s death. The law states that if a district attorney refuses to issue a criminal complaint or is unavailable to do so, a private citizen can petition a judge to take up the matter. Today, it’s loosely referred to as a “John Doe” petition, though in this instance there was no doubt who restrained Stingley’s son: Laumann, who has since died, along with two other store patrons named Jesse R. Cole and Robert W. Beringer.

VJ’s Food Mart in West Allis, Wisconsin

No one is alleging that the men set out to kill Corey Stingley. His father is asking the prosecutor to consider a charge of reckless homicide or even a lesser offense for using extreme force to detain his son.

“He wasn’t trying to harm anyone. He was trying to leave that store,” said Craig Stingley, who thought his son made a youthful mistake. “I believe he was scared.”

“You Guys Killed That Kid”

VJ’s Food Mart is a typical small convenience store, packed with chips, candy, soda, beer, cigarettes and liquor. On Sunday mornings it offers a special deal on hot ham and rolls, a local tradition for an after-church meal. To combat theft, the store is equipped with security cameras.

On Dec. 14, 2012, Thomas Ripley and Anthony Orcholski stopped by the store for beer and snacks. Only a few steps in, they saw that three men had someone firmly pinned on the ground.

This video contains footage of violence. Surveillance footage from VJ’s shows the minutes leading up to Corey Stingley’s death in 2012. Stingley enters the store, then puts bottles of Smirnoff Ice in his backpack. A clerk confronts Stingley when the teen tries to pay for an energy drink. Stingley snatches his bank card back, then three customers grab the teen and wrestle him to the ground. Credit: Courtesy Stingley family attorney

Security video shows Ripley and Orcholski pausing next to the pile of people and watching intently. In statements to police they both said they saw Laumann lying on the ground with his arms around Stingley’s neck in a “chokehold.” Beringer had grabbed Stingley’s hair, they said; the third man, Cole, had his hands on Stingley’s back.

Ripley told police the teen was not moving and appeared to be limp.

“I don’t think he could breathe,” Ripley would later testify during a special review of the case to determine if there should be charges.

Orcholski told a detective that he was concerned about the teen on the ground and may even have instructed the men to let Stingley go.

A decade later, Orcholski is still bothered by what he saw. “I’m upset,” he told ProPublica. “Three men thought they were going to be heroes that day because a 16-year-old boy was shoplifting. There could have been numerous different ways to restrain him other than choking him to death.”

He added, “It’s common sense: When you squeeze somebody that hard for that long, they’re not going to be alive after it.”

West Allis Police Department report. Highlights by Stingley family legal counsel.

The security video is grainy, and much of the confrontation took place out of view of the cameras.

Authorities had a third witness, though. Troubled by what he’d seen, store customer Michael Farrell felt compelled to go to the West Allis police station that evening and give a statement.

“I felt bad. I’m a dad,” he explained, court records show.

Farrell told police he could see through the store’s glass door that a man with a “crazed look on his face” had someone in a chokehold, very near the entrance. The guy was “squeezing the hell out of this kid and never let up,” he said. Farrell picked Laumann out of a photo lineup. (Farrell and another witness, Ripley, couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.)

Corey Stingley and his dad lived just a couple of blocks from the store, making them one of the few Black families in a predominantly white neighborhood and city on the border of Milwaukee. Comments from the three men who held Stingley down imply that they saw him as an outsider.

Ripley told police that Beringer, 54, held Stingley by the hair and shook the teen’s head a couple of times. “You don’t do that,” he said Beringer scolded Stingley. “We’re all friends and neighbors around here.”

With Stingley subdued, the store clerk held a phone to Beringer’s head so he could talk to a police dispatcher. “We have the perp, three of us have the perp on the ground holding him for you,” Beringer said, according to a transcript of the 911 call.

Police estimated that the men held Stingley down for six to 10 minutes. When Stingley stopped struggling, Cole later told police, “I thought he was faking it.”

He added: “I didn’t know if he was just, you know, playing limp to try and get real strong and pull a quick one, you know.”

When an officer arrived, she handcuffed Stingley with Beringer’s assistance but then realized that he wasn’t breathing and called for help.

Beringer walked outside the market, according to Farrell, only to be confronted by another bystander who said, “You guys killed that kid.”

“We didn’t kill anyone,” Beringer responded.

At nearby Froedtert Hospital, doctors concluded Stingley’s airway had been blocked while he was restrained.

He had petechial hemorrhages — tiny red dots that appear as the result of broken blood vessels — to his eyes, cheeks and mouth. A deputy medical examiner attributed this pattern to “pressure applied to the neck.” There also was a bruise at the front of Stingley’s neck, she testified.

She noted that his asphyxia also could be linked to compression of the chest.

Doctors put Stingley in a medically induced coma, attached him to a ventilator and inserted a feeding tube. As the situation became increasingly hopeless, his family spent Christmas at his bedside. Four days later, his parents made the agonizing decision to take him off life support.

“Mario Did Have a Temper”

In the New York subway case earlier this month, it took less than two weeks for the Manhattan district attorney to charge Daniel Penny, a former Marine, with second-degree manslaughter for the choking death of Jordan Neely, a homeless man who had yelled at other subway passengers. A prosecutor emphasized that Penny continued to choke Neely even after he stopped moving.

Penny’s lawyers have defended his actions by saying he was protecting himself and other passengers. Laumann, in contrast, never claimed Corey Stingley was a danger. But he did dispute that he put his arm around the teen’s throat.

Interviewed by police that night, Laumann, then 56, recalled “just leaning on him.”

Pressed by a detective, Laumann appeared less confident, saying, “A headlock is when you got your arms locked, right? And I didn’t have him locked.” He added: “I had my arm around like this, yeah, but I didn’t have him in a headlock. Unless maybe I did, maybe I — I don’t, no, I, I don’t remember that, no.”

His account conflicted with that of witnesses. And Laumann’s older sibling Michael, also a former Marine, isn’t so sure, either. Chokeholds are a part of basic combat skills, he said, used to restrain a person and take them down.

“That’s the first thing they teach you, not only in boot camp but also in subsequent infantry training. It becomes an automatic restraint, to save your own life,” Michael said. “I’m not saying that Mario did that. Because I don’t know the situation. But all I’m saying is that when you’re in the Marine Corps you’re taught how to save your own life. And to save the lives of your brotherhood. Sometimes it becomes, say, an automatic response.”

Michael Laumann said he and Mario — who died last year at age 65 — seldom talked, and when they did, the store incident never came up.

Mario Laumann, who worked in construction after leaving the Marines, lived about two miles from the store. His family had been dealing with a variety of crises. His wife was battling cancer. She had been arrested four years earlier for driving under influence of prescription medications. She died in 2013.

And, by the time of the encounter with Stingley, Laumann’s youngest son, Nickolas, was serving time in prison for sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl, intimidation of a victim and theft.

Writing online while in prison, Nickolas said his father would “scream at me” for drug use and “whoop my ass.” The police report about Stingley’s death notes that Laumann had been arrested twice for battery, but charges in both cases had been dismissed.

“Mario did have a temper,” another brother, Mennas Laumann, said recently.

The three men who held Stingley down didn’t know each other. Beringer, who lived next door to the food mart, told police he only recognized Laumann as “a neighborhood guy.”

Like Laumann, Beringer had had previous encounters with police. In 1996, Beringer pulled a gun on a Pakistani-born man and told him he hated “fucking Iranians,” according to a police sergeant’s sworn criminal complaint. Beringer pleaded guilty to misdemeanor gun charges and was jailed briefly then put on probation. A judge ordered him to complete a course in violence counseling or anger management and continue with mental health treatment, court records show.

Beringer, who no longer lives in West Allis, declined to talk to ProPublica. He came to the door of his apartment building and when asked to discuss Stingley’s death said, “No, no, see you later,” and closed the door.

The third man to wrestle Stingley to the ground, Cole, was a 25-year-old electrician who lived about a mile from the store. He’d gone there to get cigarettes. The prior year he had pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, for carrying a Glock handgun in the center console of his car and a magazine with 11 hollow-point bullets in the glove box. Cole didn’t respond to ProPublica’s attempts for comment.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, all three men cooperated with police.

Cole said that as he and the others tried to halt Stingley’s attempt to flee, the teen took a swing at him and landed a punch. He ended up with a black eye.

Asked by police why he restrained the teen, Laumann replied: “Because he’s a thief.”

“He Was My Buddy”

Several days after the struggle, West Allis police arrested Laumann and processed him for second-degree reckless injury. It was up to Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm to decide whether to prosecute him and the other men.

Chisholm eventually arranged for a judicial proceeding where sworn testimony could be heard. There, the three men invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in declining to answer questions. The original witnesses recounted seeing Stingley grabbed around the throat.

Though Farrell said he couldn’t recall telling police that Laumann was “squeezing the hell out of” Stingley, he didn’t back away from his original description of a chokehold.

Months went by with no word on charges. But Craig Stingley, a facilities engineer, couldn’t just sit and wait. He rallied support from politicians in the community and tried to keep the pressure on Chisholm.

Stingley brought state Sen. Lena Taylor to meetings with the prosecutor to discuss the case. They came away discouraged. Taylor got the impression that the case was challenging for prosecutors on many levels. The video was not sharp, for one thing. Taylor also believed that race relations in Milwaukee County fed Chisholm’s concern that a jury might not convict anyone in the case.

At one meeting, Taylor said, she questioned what would have happened if the people involved had been of different races. “They wouldn’t let a group of Black guys do that to a young white guy, without any consequences,” she said.

More than a year after the incident, in January 2014, Chisholm announced he would not bring charges, on the grounds that the men did not intend to injure or kill Stingley and didn’t realize there was a risk to his life or health. “It is clear that the purpose of restraining Corey Stingley was to hold him for police,” Chisholm wrote in a five-page summary of his investigation.

“None of the actors were trained in the proper application of restraint,” he added

Corey’s mother, Alicia Stingley, was stunned. “It’s just mind-boggling to me, just the decision that was made that it was more so because he didn’t think he could win a case or didn’t think what they did was on purpose,” she said. “There were no repercussions for a grown man taking a young child’s life — by choking him.”

For Craig Stingley, it’s inconceivable the men did not know his son was in distress during the prolonged time they held him down. Applied properly, a chokehold “can render an aggressor unconscious in as little as eight to thirteen seconds,” according to a 2015 Marine Corps instructor guide.

Chisholm is still the district attorney. Through an assistant, he declined comment, citing the new review. Among the questions sent by ProPublica to Chisholm was whether he investigated Laumann’s training in restraints as a Marine.

Chisholm’s decision sparked media coverage and community protests. To Craig Stingley, Corey was more than a symbol, he was a cherished son.

Craig Stingley made a shrine for Corey at his new home.
First image: Craig Stingley views photos of Corey. Second image: A black and white photograph, center, of Craig Stingley’s children, including Corey at right.

“He was my buddy,” Stingley said, describing how he and Corey would watch sports together. A skilled athlete, Corey Stingley was a running back on his high school football team and a member of the diving team. He took advanced placement classes in school and made the National Honor Society at school, his father said. He also worked part-time at an Arby’s.

His social media accounts include references to girls and partying. It also catalogs his love of Batman, the Green Bay Packers and Christmas and shows him gently mocking his friends and family.

“My dad just got texting and he’s experimenting with winky faces,” he wrote in 2012, ending with “#ohlord.”

Corey Stingley with friends before a school dance Credit: Courtesy of Craig Stingley

Craig Stingley and his ex-wife filed a wrongful death suit in 2015 against the three men and the convenience store, which led to a settlement. Records show that Laumann’s homeowners insurance paid $300,000, as did Cole’s. (Beringer didn’t have homeowner’s insurance.) There was no admission of wrongdoing by the defendants. In court filings the three men said their actions were legal and justified, citing self-defense and their need to respond to “an emergency.”

A good portion of the proceeds from the suit went to pay for hospital and funeral costs and lawyer fees, Stingley said.

In the civil suit, an expert forensic pathologist hired by the Stingley family’s lawyer concluded the teen died because his chest was compressed and he was strangled.

“Once his airway became completely obstructed,” Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen of the University of Michigan wrote, “Corey would have experienced severe air hunger, conscious fear, suffering and panic with an impending sense of his own death for a period of 30 seconds to approximately one minute until he was rendered into a fully unconscious state.”

Craig Stingley still obsessed about what had happened and how to revive a criminal case. He relived his son’s death over and over, watching the surveillance video of his last moments frame by frame, looking for something new.

Using a movie maker app on his computer, he slowed the video down and grabbed individual frames. He concluded that Cole initially had his son in a headlock, but that Laumann too had an arm around his neck before bringing him to the ground. That conflicted with Laumann’s statement to police.

Stingley took his findings to the West Allis police, where a detective agreed they’d missed this detail. The department wrote a supplemental report for Chisholm, who asked a judge to appoint a special prosecutor for another look.

Racine District Attorney Patricia Hanson got the case in October 2017. But what followed was more waiting.

Stingley said he called Hanson’s office routinely in the years that followed, but she never met with him. Reached via email recently, Hanson declined to comment.

The case “has not even been assigned a referral or case number after three years in that office,” state Rep. Evan Goyke complained in a December 2020 letter to Milwaukee County Circuit Court Chief Judge Mary Triggiano. “This is unacceptable,” he wrote.

In later correspondence, Triggiano noted Hanson had refused to say when her decision would be forthcoming because in the midst of the pandemic, she had a lot of cases needing attention.

In March 2021, Hanson told the court in a one-page memo that she had reviewed Chisholm’s file and agreed with his earlier decision: “I do not find that criminal charges are appropriate at this time.”

“My Son Got His Humanity Back”

John Doe proceedings allowing citizens to directly ask a court to consider criminal charges date back to 1839, when Wisconsin was still a territory, according to an account in state supreme court records. The law is used infrequently, legal experts said, and rarely successfully.

Petitions have been filed by prisoners, by activists alleging animal cruelty in research experiments and by citizens claiming police misconduct. The efforts typically fail, ProPublica found in reviewing court dockets, news accounts and appellate rulings. In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin’s most populous, there were only 19 such cases in 2020, dockets show, including Stingley’s. None succeeded.

Other states have similar methods of giving citizens a voice, but none are exactly like Wisconsin’s. According to the National Crime Victim Law Institute, six states — Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota and Oklahoma — allow private citizens to gather signatures to petition a judge to convene a grand jury to investigate an alleged crime. In Pennsylvania, individuals can file a criminal complaint with the district attorney; if rejected, they can appeal to the court to ask it to order the district attorney to prosecute.

Milwaukee attorney Scott W. Hansen, who has served as special prosecutor in a John Doe case, is critical of the Wisconsin process. He said it allows citizens to present a one-sided, skewed version of facts to a judge, “without benefit of cross-examination or adverse witnesses.”

The law, however, does state that the citizen’s petition must present facts “that raise a reasonable belief” a crime was committed.

Former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske described the John Doe petition as a check and balance on prosecutors by citizens. “If people believe a crime has been committed, and you’ve got prosecutors not living up to their responsibilities, and you think somebody ought to be held accountable, it’s a way to have some judicial review,” she said.

Stingley has known all along that the odds were against him, so turning to a longshot petition didn’t daunt him. Writing to Chief Judge Triggiano in late 2020, he alleged “dereliction and breach of legal duty” by the Milwaukee and Racine county district attorneys to conduct thorough criminal investigations into his son’s death.

Triggiano assigned the case to Judge Milton Childs. He formally appointed Ozanne, the first Black district attorney in Wisconsin, as special prosecutor last July. Ozanne’s inquiry has included reviews of court transcripts and interviews with West Allis police and others.

Craig Stingley was pleased that Ozanne and his staff met with him for several hours to listen to his concerns and to hear about his son.

“When I left that meeting,” Stingley said, “my son got his humanity back.”

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