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Federal probe into beating of cop-kill suspect tightens its focus in Maryland

A Federal probe into whether members of an elite Prince George’s County, Md., police squad used excessive force in arresting a suspect in a police shooting has narrowed down to the three officers who were the first to enter the man’s bedroom.

Jeffrey C. Gilbert, 26, who was later cleared as a suspect in the murder of Capt. John J. Novabilski, suffered a broken nose, a concussion and bruises over most of his body after members of the department’s emergency service unit burst into his girlfriend’s apartment on April 28, 1995, two days after the murder. Gilbert was hospitalized for four days. [See LEN, July 20, 1995.]

The FBI and Federal prosecutors have been investigating whether police violated Gilbert’s civil rights while caught up in the emotion of avenging a colleague’s death.

Sources told The Washington Post that prosecutors have not decided whether to indict any of the team’s six members after a year of gathering evidence. Two of the officers have met with prosecutors and are expected to be offered partial immunity, the sources said, when they invoke their Fifth Amendment rights during grand jury testimony.

The officers, Cpls. Jonathan Bean and Kevin Putnam, are the youngest members of the squad. They were scheduled to appear before the grand jury by October.

Novabiliski was shot eleven times in the head, torso and back while he sat in his cruiser moonlighting as a part-time security guard for a Landover liquor store.

At the time, police said three witnesses had identified Gilbert as the gunman. But one month later, prosecutors dropped charges against Gilbert when strong evidence surfaced that the killer was Ralph McLean. Both Novabilski’s gun and the Mac-11 assault weapon used to kill him were found near McLean’s body after he was killed in a May 29 shootout with the FBI. McLean was wanted in the ambush shootings of two Washington, D.C., officers.

Police officials said that Gilbert had “violently resisted” at the time of his arrest and had to be forcefully subdued. Gilbert claims police beat him for no reason, and that he can remember little because of his injuries.

Federal prosecutors are now targeting three members of the team, Sgt. Ronald Ledonne, and Cpls. Robert Arscott and Preston Asbury, who were assigned to enter the bedroom where Gilbert and his girlfriend, Alvita Vanbens, were sleeping.

Attorneys representing the men said their clients’ actions that night were consistent with their duties as police officers. “My client is a dedicated, professional police officer who acted consistent with the law in a very difficult situation,” said Ledonne’s attorney, William Brennan.

Relations between police and the county’s minority community, although improved in recent years, have traditionally been fraught with confrontation and suspicion. Still, Gilbert’s beating by police, as residents interviewed by The Post said that he may have deserved it, since he preyed on members of the community.

A black community activist, Freddie Dawkins, told The Post: “When [the beating] happened, people didn’t say, ‘Hey, this guy is a brother; we need to stick up for him,’ they said: ‘This guy is out there abusing and brutalizing people.  Now he just got what came to him.’ ”

 

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Nov. 15, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.