Man claims officers beat him unconscious for spat with cop-neighbor, gets $250,000
VINELAND — A Pittsgrove man who claimed Vineland police beat him into unconsciousness and let him get banged around a cop car without a seatbelt — all because of his escalating, neighbor-vs-neighbor dispute with an officer — will be paid $250,000 in a settlement.
The settlement was reached a month ago, but made public this weekend by government transparency activist John Paff on his NJ Civil Settlements blog. As with most such cases, none of the parties involved admit any wrongdoing.
As described in the lawsuit and blog, John Panarello and wife Sheri had ongoing disputes with their next-door neighbors — Vineland Officer Antonio Ramos and wife Jeanne — usually about the boundary between their properties.
The police department became involved in February of 2010, when, after an argument, Ramos told Panarello he'd get the "brotherhood" of officers after him, Ramos' lawsuit claims.
Months later, Sgt. William Bontcue came to the Panarello to speak about an internal affairs complaint Panarello filed, the lawsuit states. But the sergeant himself became aggressive, Panarello claimed:
"Sgt. Bontcue slapped the video recorder away from the Plaintiff and then proceeded to shove him and use his chest to push Panarello toward the front of the house," the lawsuit states. "Bontcue then directed Sheri Panarello to stay in the backyard. When Panarello refused to answer questions, Sgt. Bontcue told Panarello that if he harassed Ramos again that he would be arrested and 'taught a lesson' and that Bontcue would take care of that personally.
On that same day, another spat with Ramos escalated, the lawsuit says. Panarello had been trimming weeds along his fence; Ramos then squirted Panarello the in the face with the "extremely hot" water that was lying in his hose, burning him, the lawsuit claims.
The fight continued — and the two got into a struggle, the lawsuit states. Panarello ran into his house to call police, and Jeanne Ramos called the cops herself, saying Panarello attacked Antonio Ramos with a block of wood, it says.
Sgt Jeffrey Riggione ordered "all available police units to the Ramos property," and at least 11 showed up, the lawsuit says. Those first on the scene learned quickly that the Ramoses weren't hurt, but that a 2x6 board Panarello says he used to block the hose came close to hitting Ramos' head, it says.
They ran around the Panarello house, surrounding it. Then, three officers entered the home, held Panarello down on his dining room floor, and beat him "about the face and head with closed fists until (Panarello) was unconscious" as his wife and 7-year-old daughter watched.
One Officer, Brian Armstrong, allegedly drove the police car, jerking it around, to let Panarello bang around the back as he was taken to the station, the lawsuit says. It also accused Officer James H. Day of pepper-spraying him in the face while he was handcuffed.
The lawsuit says when the officers encountered Panarello, he had no board or other weapon, and had been moving away, toward the backdoor of his own house.
The lawsuit made claims against several officers and supervisors, and against the city itself, for having an ordinance that gave police the power to arrest, without warrant "all persons found under suspicious circumstance." The lawsuit claims that's unconstitutionally vague.
Earlier this year, a District Court judge dismissed many of Panarello's claims. But it didn't do away with warrantless arrest and entry charges against two officers, excessive force claims against another two or battery claims against Ramos.
Paff's blog notes it's not clear how much of the settlement was underwritten by Vineland or paid by Ramos.
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