A Nassau police detective was charged with assault and suspended without pay Tuesday after he tried to restrain a man who died minutes later after being placed in police custody last year, authorities said.
Det. Karl Snelders, 55, of Port Jefferson Station was arraigned on a charge of third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, in Suffolk County Court in Riverhead and released on his own recognizance.
The man who died, Michael Murphy, 42, of Rocky Point, sustained blunt force injuries after he was restrained by Snelders — who was off-duty at the time — and struck by another man outside the Rocky Point Ale House on Oct. 3, 2015. Murphy had earlier argued and fought with a group of men in the bar with Snelders, and had displayed a pocketknife, prosecutors said.
An autopsy revealed, however, that Murphy did not die from those injuries sustained outside the bar, prosecutors said.
Murphy had underlying hypertensive cardiovascular disease, obesity and bronchial asthma — all factors that contributed to his death, prosecutors said. He went into cardiac arrest and died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, about 20 to 25 minutes after police were called to the bar.
His family could not be reached Tuesday.
“According to the medical examiner, there was no evidence he was choked or strangled in any way,” said Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Glenn Kurtzrock in an interview. He added: “We were unable to directly connect the death to any injuries he sustained during this altercation.”
Snelders’ attorney, Joseph Conway of Mineola, said he believes the charges against his client will be dismissed.
“Even though he was off-duty, he was acting as a police officer and we believe the charges are unfounded,” Conway said.
Snelders is a 30-year veteran assigned to the district attorney’s office who in 2010 was the defendant in an excessive force case that resulted in a $15 million settlement. His suspension without pay was effective Tuesday, Chief of Department Steven Skrynecki said in a statement, and the department is conducting an internal affairs investigation.
The second man involved, a friend of Snelders, was Scott Loeser, 52, of Rocky Point. Loeser was charged with second-degree attempted assault and third-degree assault, according to an indictment unsealed Tuesday.
Loeser and Snelders surrendered to prosecutors Tuesday. Loeser was also released on his own recognizance after being arraigned in Riverhead, Loeser’s attorney, Joseph LoPiccolo of Garden City said.
Kurtzrock said witnesses and surveillance video showed Murphy walking over to Snelders’ group in the bar. An argument then turned into a fight as Murphy pulled out a pocketknife.
“On the video, it even appears that Snelders tried to break up the fight,” Kurtzrock said.
One person in the group said he believed Murphy had stabbed him, prompting bar employees to take Murphy outside the bar, Kurtzrock said.
Murphy re-entered the bar through a side door, but left through a back door leading to the parking lot, he said. Snelders followed Murphy outside and told him to wait for the police, Kurtzrock said.
At some point, Snelders tried to get Murphy onto the ground, Kurtzrock said.
“The evidence shows that he was attempting to restrain an individual who he believed had stabbed a friend of his inside the bar,” Kurtzrock said, who added that no stabbing took place.
Witnesses told authorities that Snelders was on top of Murphy asking him where his knife was, Kurztrock said. He added: “There was no indication” Snelders struck Murphy at any time.
But Loeser — the brother of the bar patron who believed he was stabbed — “struck Mr. Murphy at least a few times” while he was on the ground being restrained, Kurtzrock said.
Police were called and gave Murphy oxygen after he complained of breathing problems, Kurtzrock said. Murphy was handcuffed while officers searched for and found the knife, Kurtzrock said.
Police called medical personnel, who checked his vitals and found Murphy didn’t appear to be in any apparent distress, according to the prosecutor.
But about 10 minutes later, Murphy started to show signs of distress, Kurtzrock said. Police uncuffed him and put him in the ambulance. “About a minute after they checked his vitals for a second time, he went into full cardiac arrest,” Kurtzrock said.
He sustained blunt impact injuries and a fractured fibula but the medical examiner was unable to say whether those injuries were caused from the struggle on the ground or from being struck, according to Kurtzrock.
Loeser’s attorney, LoPiccolo, entered a not guilty plea in court. He denied his client, a construction worker, struck Murphy “with any intent to cause injury.”
“Any action by my client was done with the intent to help subdue Mr. Murphy for the police,” LoPiccolo said.
“It is with deep regret that Mr. Murphy passed after an incident in which he attacked Mr. Loeser’s brother with a weapon,” LoPiccolo said.
A Newsday story published Oct. 5, 2015, concerning the death read: “Police said an off-duty Nassau County police officer was in the bar at the time but had no involvement in the incident.”
Asked about that assertion Tuesday, Justin Meyers, the Suffolk Police chief spokesman, said: “The public information office sent out a press release on Oct. 4, 2015. It made no mention of off-duty police officers and I would refer you to the DA’s office on any further inquiries.”
Kurtzrock said he couldn’t speak to what Suffolk police said at the time, but said police did an exhaustive investigation and tracked down more than 50 witnesses, most of whom were called before a grand jury.
Glenn Ciccone, president of the Nassau Detectives Association Inc., the union representing detectives, said Snelders is “an excellent detective with a great career who will be exonerated” from what he called a “false charge.”
Snelders did not return a phone call to his home on Tuesday.
A federal jury in 2010 decided Snelders used excessive force when he drove his squad car into Thomas Hartmann in March 2004 after Hartmann reached into his waistband as if he was armed. Hartmann was unarmed.
Snelders was pursuing Hartmann, who was threatening his wife and police officers. Snelders said, at the time, he feared for his life and his partner’s life, according to a confidential Nassau police deadly force report obtained by Newsday. Hartmann lost his right leg as a result of the collision, court records said.
The jury awarded Hartmann $19.6 million in 2010; he later collected a $15 million settlement.