NEW ORLEANS -- Sheriff's deputies in a New Orleans suburb sat on a shackled, obese, severely autistic 16-year-old boy for nine minutes and put a chokehold on him for part of that time until he died, according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday against the sheriff and seven deputies in the death last year.
The sheriff's office described the lawsuit as “rife with false claims and malicious accusations.”
Its statement did not mention specific “false claims” but said the youth had mental conditions that made him violent, and deputies were called because he had attacked his father. They “tried to control the violent teenager’s outbursts to prevent him from again attacking his parents and first responders,” it said.
The suit, filed in New Orleans by Donna Lou and her husband, Daren Parsa, says they had to watch as their only child, Eric Parsa, suffocated in a shopping center parking lot in suburban Metairie on Jan. 19, 2020. The allegations in the lawsuit include excessive force and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“We are private people ... but we understand that sharing Eric's story is the only way to bring change,” Lou said, weeping as she read a statement during a news conference on Zoom. Because she and her husband are witnesses, they could not answer questions, attorneys said.
Eric regularly played laser tag, which he enjoyed. But after the Jan. 19, 2020, session at the Metairie strip mall, he went into a “melt-down” and began slapping himself and slapping and grabbing his father, biting his father hard enough to draw blood, according to the lawsuit.
It said the laser tag manager called in Chad Pitfield, a sheriff's office reserve deputy who was providing security for the complex, Westgate Shopping Center, telling him the “adult child” was autistic. When on duty for the sheriff's department itself, reserve deputies are unpaid volunteers.
Deputies called to help Pitfield also were told that Eric Parsa was severely autistic, attorneys said.
“Our position is that techniques and actions by the sheriff's department would have been inappropriate in any circumstances,” said attorney Howard Manis.
He said Eric Parsa's disability “only exacerbates how egregious the conduct by the sheriff's department was.”
Both obesity and autism make breathing more difficult when someone's face-down, the lawsuit said.
According to the lawsuit, a “seriously overweight" Pitfield had little difficulty getting Erica Parsa prone. The deputy weighed 365 pounds (165 kilograms) and stood 6 feet 3 inches (1.9 meters) when he applied to the sheriff's department in 2007, it noted.
Pitfield then sat on the teen's rear end for about seven minutes, after which another deputy “took his place on E.P.'s back side,” the lawsuit said.
It said eventually seven deputies were “sitting on, handcuffing, shackling, holding down, or standing by E.P. as he was restrained and held face down on his stomach against the hard surface of the parking lot.”
He was held there for 9 minutes and 6 seconds, the lawsuit said. During that time, according to the suit, “there were several clear and distinct opportunities, when E.P. was secured, was calm, was not actively resisting,” when deputies should have but didn't “appropriately reduce the use of force.”
It said the second deputy atop Parsa raised the teen's cuffed hands above his head and also put a chokehold on him.
When that deputy was trading places with a third, they noticed that Parsa had gone limp, according to the suit. At that point, Parsa was rolled onto his side. “By then it was too late. E.P. was dying,” the lawsuit said.
Until then, nobody was checking to see whether Parsa could breathe, and he wasn't put on his side or a sitting or “recovery” position to let him breathe more easily, the lawsuit said.
Deputies tried CPR but did it wrong, pressing on Parsa's belly rather than his breastbone, according to the suit.
Lou told the deputies she was a doctor and offered to help with CPR, but the deputies “told her to stay back and let them do their job,” the suit said, adding the parents watched as their son turned blue, foamed at the mouth and was dying.
An ambulance then took the boy to a hospital, the lawsuit said, and a nurse later called to tell the couple their son's heart had stopped, according to the suit.
The parish coroner ruled the death accidental, “as a result of Excited Delirium” with his obesity and “Prone Positioning” among contributing factors, the lawsuit said. But it added: “E.P. did not die of ‘excited delirium’ and his death was not accidental."
The sheriff's office's statement said, “While the Sheriff’s Office understands that all deaths are cause for sadness and a time for grieving, this lawsuit is rife with false claims and malicious accusations against the first responding deputies.”