Cop Out

The pile in the road didn't look human. It was a cardboard box, crushed and mangled by Friday evening's rush hour, or a pile of stray clothes, fallen from the turtle shell carrier of a cross-country traveler's car. It didn't seem at all like a man.

But it was.

He was middle-aged, black, wearing dark trousers and a tee shirt. He lay at angles suggesting no possibility that he was still alive. His cheek was pressed against the pavement, lips parted and smooshed the way people look just before they wake up in the morning. His torso was twisted with one leg bent at an obtuse angle. His wrist peeked out from under his chest, just far enough to confirm he had no pulse.

Fifty feet up the road, a white tennis shoe lay carelessly on its side.

Other cars stopped to block oncoming traffic. A young man got out of one saying he knew CPR. He approached the body, and stopped in abrupt realization. The man was clearly dead. The would-be savior instead offered cigarettes to the people circled around the body. The helpless onlookers smoked in silence.

The driver of the car that hit the victim looked as if he'd just gotten off a roller coaster, fighting the inevitable urge to vomit by trying to remain very still.

Minutes later, an ambulance arrived and whisked the body away. Police took statements and the streets cleared. As if it never happened.

Friday, August 11, 2000, Jack McGhee was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was left there by two Phoenix police officers. Miles from home, disoriented and highly intoxicated, McGhee tried to cross East Washington Street from south to north, and was struck mid-block by a red Jeep. He sustained fatal injuries.

The newspapers didn't report the incident. The police didn't press charges against the driver of the red Jeep. It is a closed case, says Detective Gary Lipko of the Phoenix police's traffic safety department. A simple accident. He says McGhee was homeless by choice, and died from a blunt-force trauma. End of story.

Except, it isn't.

The last few moments of life slipped from a man named Jack McGhee, homeless by choice, dead by accident, crumpled in a heap on the pavement of a darkened Phoenix street. And his family members want to know why. They recently filed a wrongful-death suit against the Phoenix Police Department, and officers Howard Goldman and Ronald Ayres.

The suit claims the officers acted with negligence when they picked up McGhee, who had consumed a toxic amount of alcohol that night, drove him miles from where he lived, and left him in the dark on the six-lane street where he was killed.

The family's hope, above all, is to find out what happened to their loved one.

"I'm not going to stop until I feel better," says Patricia Blueford, the youngest of McGhee's sisters. "My whole family is grieving."

Lipko may have called McGhee "homeless by choice" because the dead man had so much family in the area that he could have lived with any of them. He was the youngest of 17 children, 10 of whom are still living. He had seven sisters and nearly 50 nieces and nephews who live in Phoenix. He was closest to Blueford, and would often stay at her house.

"Jack wasn't just some bum on the street. That's the way the police look at it and that's the way they want the family to accept it," Blueford says. "But Jack was always clean. He ate a good meal every day."

McGhee spent most of his time at a 7-Eleven at the intersection of 16th Street and Southern. Blueford had given the 7-Eleven owner her phone number and asked him to call her when McGhee bothered customers. In the past, she and her husband had picked up her brother there, and she says police officers had delivered him to her doorstep 15 or 20 times before.

On August 11, two officers responded to a 911 call regarding two black males panhandling in front of the 7-Eleven at 1601 East Southern, one of them identified as Jack McGhee.

According to a police department internal investigation, Officer Goldman had had several past contacts with McGhee, knew him by first name, and reported that each time he responded to the 7-Eleven call it was the same thing: McGhee was on the property begging, and the store owner wanted him gone. That night, the officers reported, McGhee agreed to leave the property when they offered him a ride elsewhere. They say he asked not to be taken to jail.

The officers could have taken McGhee to the Local Alcohol Reception Center (LARC), which accepts anybody with a substance abuse problem who needs to be observed. Or they could have taken him to jail to sleep it off. Or to Blueford's house, a few blocks from the 7-Eleven.

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Amanda Scioscia
Contact: Amanda Scioscia