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Positional asphyxia a factor in death of SEMO dean's son

Saturday, March 27, 2004

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- A man restrained by police after he ran naked on a downtown street suffocated after officers wrestled him to the ground, an autopsy report released Friday said.

The Hamilton County medical examiner's report has prompted the man's mother to question whether officers used excessive force when they tried to arrest 37-year-old Leslie Vaughn Prater.

The report shows the "cause of death is exactly what I have been saying all along -- that he was not allowed to continue to breathe," said his mother, Loretta Prater of Cape Girardeau. She is dean of the College of Health and Human Services at Southeast Missouri State University. She and her husband, Dwight, moved to Cape Girardeau about a year and a half ago from Chattanooga.

The report says Prater died from "positional asphyxia," with contributing factors of acute alcohol and cocaine intoxication, a heart condition and mild obesity.

Chattanooga police spokesman C.W. Joel said the report shows officers acted properly when Prater continued fighting as they tried to arrest him Jan. 2.

Four officers involved in the arrest have returned to work since being suspended for a week.

The report "confirmed there was no restraint of the person's neck and that the positional asphyxia was directly related to him being detained to the ground by the several officers, which has never been in dispute," Joel said. "The earlier implication was he was choked out."

In addition to multiple fractured ribs and a dislocated shoulder joint with a fracture, the 5-foot-11, 232-pound Prater suffered multiple abrasions and "acute hemorrhage of the pubic and lower abdominal wall soft tissues and scrotal sac, consistent with blunt trauma impact," the report shows.

"I think that is body trauma," Prater's mother said. "You have one individual who is obviously in some kind of distress and four officers."

'Was acting erratically'The report also describes a "small amount of green-brown apparent grass" in Prater's mouth.

"We were called to him because he was acting erratically in public and naked," Joel said. "The injuries were sustained in the attempt to restrain him. What people are concerned about is whether force was excessive. The resistance never stopped."

The report, signed by F.K. King Jr., describes Prater's death as a homicide, which a spokeswoman said is not shown as a cause of death but indicates that other people were involved.

Police previously said after an autopsy in Hamilton County that there was "no physical evidence whatsoever which would indicate any excessive force being used by the arresting officers."

Prater's parents have previously met privately with police chief Steve Parks, who has said the department's major crimes unit and internal affairs division were investigating the death.

Joel said the autopsy report would become part of those investigations.

Police records show Prater resisted arrest, including efforts to subdue him with pepper spray. An ambulance was called while officers scuffled with Prater, who lost consciousness and died at a hospital.

Prater's mother said Friday she was also awaiting results from a separate autopsy. She has said she was paying $2,000 to a private forensics lab for an autopsy performed in Nashville six days after Prater's death.

Prater's mother said she still could not explain why he ran naked and fought the officers.

"We just don't know," she said. "I'm hoping that will surface. ... It had to be some kind of plea for help in some regard."

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