A Lexington firefighter used excessive force in killing a man after the man grabbed another officer’s gun during a search for explosive devices in Harlan County, the dead man’s father has charged in a federal lawsuit.
The shooting at issue happened in August 2016. Mark Sawaf, a mental-health and substance-abuse counselor who worked in Harlan and Lexington, died as a result of a gunshot to the head.
Sawaf, 39, was in federal custody on charges of making and possessing illegal explosive devices. He allegedly put explosive material in trail cameras and mounted them in the woods because he was angry that thieves had stolen some of his cameras.
Three people were hurt by exploding cameras linked to Sawaf, according to a court record.
Sawaf was awaiting trial when he offered to show police where he had placed other booby-trapped cameras. He didn’t want other people to get hurt, his attorney told police.
Sawaf went with police and directed them to several devices, which officers destroyed.
The officers with Sawaf at the time of the shooting were Lexington police Lt. Matt Greathouse; Capt. Brad Dobrzynski, a Lexington firefighter who also had completed the police training academy; and Todd Tremaine, an agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
ATF had asked for assistance from other agencies.
Dobrzynski was the medic assigned to one team, according to the lawsuit and other records.
Late in the day, Sawaf jumped off the back of an all-terrain vehicle and tried to run away down a steep hill, according to an investigation by Kentucky State Police.
Greathouse and Dobrzynski caught up with him after he fell. As they tried to get Sawaf up the hill, Sawaf grabbed the butt of Greathouse’s gun and tried to pull it from the holster.
Greathouse pushed down on the gun to keep it in the holster while Tremaine slugged Sawaf, but he would not let go of the gun.
Sawaf’s hands were cuffed to a chain around his waist. The cuffs were attached at a point where he could have moved his hands a range of about six inches, according to the investigation.
Dobrzynski told investigators that Greathouse yelled “He’s got my gun! He’s got my gun! Shoot! Shoot!” and that he thought Sawaf was going to shoot Greathouse.
Dobrzynski shot Sawaf one time with his .40 caliber pistol.
State police concluded Sawaf had used the offer to help find explosive devices as a way to arrange an escape attempt, then forced the deadly confrontation when it didn’t work.
Sawaf screamed at police to kill him during the confrontation, Tremaine told investigators.
A grand jury declined to indict Dobrzynski.
Sawaf’s father, Ali Sawaf, alleges in the lawsuit that the three officers stood by for about 20 minutes after the shooting without checking whether Sawaf was alive or providing first aid.
An ATF medic who arrived about 20 minutes after the shooting found Sawaf was still breathing and started unsuccessful efforts to save him.
The lawsuit alleges that Dobrzynski did not try to use other non-lethal ways to subdue Sawaf and that fatally shooting him was excessive given that he was handcuffed and the number of officers there.
Dobrzynski’s supervisor should not have let him take part in the operation because he’d been up on other duties more than 33 of the prior 36 hours and was sleep-deprived, the lawsuit argues.
Police allowed Sawaf to suffer, subjected him to cruel punishment and violated his rights, the lawsuit claims.
The complaint also claims deficiencies in police training in Lexington.
Douglas E. Asher II, an attorney in Harlan, filed the lawsuit for Ali Sawaf.
The defendants are Dobrzynski; Greathouse; Clayton Roberts, a Lexington police officer helping supervise the search operation; and the Lexington-Fayette County Urban Government.
It seeks an unspecified amount of damages and an order for improved police training in Lexington.
Susan Straub, spokeswoman for Lexington government, said the city does not comment on pending lawsuits.