Death by Electrocutioner

In a worst-case scenario for stun guns, a Phoenix cop kills a suspect with an 84-second tasing

Second of two parts

Just before midnight on May 3, 2005, the life of 24-year-old Keith Graff was about to come to a violent end on the third-floor landing of his north Phoenix apartment.

During his Army days a few years earlier, the spirited Graff had been known to pals as "The Terminator."

Keith Graff died on May 5, 2005.
courtesy of Terry Graff
Keith Graff died on May 5, 2005.

Now, Graff was about to be terminated — by Phoenix police officer Charles Anderson III.

For reasons that go to the heart of this story, Anderson fired his Taser stun gun into Graff's bare chest from close range and held the trigger for 84 uninterrupted seconds as it discharged 50,000 volts of electricity into the man.

That's about 79 seconds longer than it normally takes police to subdue someone shocked by the device (see last week's "Aftershock!," part one of this series).

For all intents and purposes, Graff was dead when Anderson finally released the trigger. Doctors at Paradise Valley Hospital made the official pronouncement at 12:57 a.m. on May 4, 2005.

Investigators soon learned that Graff was trying to flee from Anderson and Officer Carla Williams after they'd surprised him at the apartment. He'd been unarmed when Anderson used his Taser on him.

Graff had at least two good reasons for splitting:

Though the Phoenix officers didn't yet know it, Graff had a warrant pending for his arrest for violating probation on a methamphetamine-related conviction. On top of that, he knew the cops were looking for him after an incident a few weeks earlier when he'd pushed Officer Williams aside and fled on foot after she'd asked to see his identification.

The law calls that assault of a police officer.

Losing Graff and another suspect during the earlier incident had been troublesome for Officer Williams, especially in light of a similar negative mark already in her personnel file. A 40-year-old with just a few years on the force, Williams had been reprimanded a year earlier for allowing a handcuffed shoplifting suspect to escape from custody.

Graff was well-aware that the police were after him, even though they didn't yet know his real name. Reports indicate that Officer Anderson was trying hard to find the punk who had jostled Williams in the April 17 incident. Armed only with a nickname, "K.G." or "Cage," he worked sources for any information on the guy's whereabouts.

Chuck Anderson's concern about Carla Williams was more than professional:

County property records show that the squad mates had bought a home in Surprise in the summer of 2004, shortly after Williams filed for divorce from her husband of 14 years.

Anderson finally struck pay dirt on the evening of May 3, when a source told him that Cage was staying at the Bellridge Apartments at 844 East Bell Road. Anderson contacted his girlfriend, Officer Williams, who soon met him and two other cops at the large complex.

Within minutes, Keith Graff would be stretched out and not breathing on the third-floor landing.

His death made news for a day or so, but it soon was overshadowed by the May 10 meth-fueled murder of veteran Phoenix cop David Uribe on Cactus Road ("The Case of The Grim Tweaker," February 2, 2006).

The county's Office of the Medical Examiner said Graff's death was an accident caused by "excited delirium due to methamphetamine intoxication." The autopsy report listed Graff's "history of a fight with police officers [and] history of Taser deployment" as contributing factors.

The amount of meth in Keith Graff's blood was minimal, and his behavior before being Tased didn't fit the classic criteria of someone about to succumb to "excited delirium."

But to most people who heard about the case — including cops — those details were secondary to the startling, 84-second Tasing.

It takes an awfully long time to count to 84, a Phoenix police officer said shortly after Keith Graff died. Then the officer did just that: "One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two . . ." until he got to 10.

What's most chilling about this under-the-radar case is why it happened: The evidence strongly suggests that the fatal shocking was more about vengeance than police work.

That evidence includes police interviews with officers Anderson and Williams, whose varying accounts are consistent on one crucial point: Keith Graff didn't resist for the entire 84 seconds, or anything close to it.

But Anderson never released the trigger, which would've cut off the electricity pouring into Graff, to see if the suspect would comply, until the two other officers — who had been in another part of the complex — came up the stairs.

Under Phoenix police policy, officers are supposed to use their stun guns to subdue suspects, not to force compliance through the infliction of pain. Certainly, an officer isn't supposed to hurt someone who had the audacity to "assault" a fellow cop (the inflicting officer's paramour in this instance).

"In my opinion," retired Los Angeles Police Department SWAT commander Ron McCarthy wrote earlier this year, "the 84-second, nonstop application of the Taser by Officer Anderson was a criminal act, beyond the category of excessive force, and appears to have been done to punish Graff."

That alleged criminal act could be as serious as second-degree murder, which is defined in Arizona as an act, while not premeditated, that is committed "knowing that the person's conduct will cause death or serious physical injury."

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