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Suit: Pa. Troopers Lied in Boy Shooting

February 15, 2003

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ The family of 12-year-old boy who was fatally shot during a police chase has filed a lawsuit claiming state troopers intentionally fired at the boy, then lied about how the violence unfolded.

The child, Michael Ellerbe, was killed while running away from troopers Samuel Nassan and Juan Curry on Dec. 24 in Uniontown, about 40 miles south of Pittsburgh.

Ellerbe’s father, Michael Hickenbottom, said in the lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court that both troopers intentionally fired at his son and failed to warn the child to stop.

At a coroner’s inquest, Nassan testified he only fired at the boy because he heard a gunshot during the chase and saw Curry fall. Nassan said he fired because he believed his partner had been shot while they were chasing Ellerbe, who was suspected of stealing a vehicle.

Curry testified his gun fired accidentally _ and was not aimed at the child _ while the officer was crossing a fence. An autopsy showed the boy died after a single bullet struck him in the back and went through his heart.

The family’s lawsuit alleges Nassan and Curry concocted the story about Curry’s fall and filed false reports to back it up.

``We are dissatisfied with the investigations which have taken place so far,″ said Pittsburgh attorney Kelly Scanlon Graham, whose firm filed the lawsuit.

Fayette County District Attorney Nancy Vernon opted not to pursue charges against the troopers after a coroner’s jury recommended against it.

The lawsuit also alleges at least two unnamed employees of an undisclosed agency or agencies aided the troopers in covering up what Hickenbottom alleges really occurred.

Graham said the cover-up allegations are based on recently discovered witnesses, including at least one who works for a state agency that she wouldn’t identify.

The lawsuit alleges wrongful death and civil rights violations in Ellerbe’s death because Graham claims witnesses say Curry fired at least once at the child, but missed, before Nassan fired the fatal shot. Graham would not identify the witnesses.

Joel Sansone, another lawyer for the family, has said he wants to know whether race may have played a role in the boy’s shooting. Ellerbe was black, and Nassan is white. Curry is black.

Hickenbottom and Ellerbe’s stepmother, Rene Randolph, were present when Graham announced the lawsuit but refused comment.

Curry and Nassan did not immediately return messages left at their work number. Both remain on administrative duty pending the completion of an internal investigation. Curry has an unlisted home number and Nassan did not immediately return calls to a phone listed under that name. The state Attorney General’s Office, which will defend them in the lawsuit, declined comment.

Federal authorities in Pittsburgh are also conducting a civil rights investigation into Ellerbe’s death. The troopers are represented by private attorneys in that probe.

``All these allegations of a cover-up are completely and totally unfounded,″ said Nassan’s attorney, Robert Donahoe.

Curry’s attorney, William Manifesto, did not immediately return calls Friday.

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