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Ruling in Jail Death Ends Case, Not the Pain : Law: Alhambra police thought the teen-ager writhing on the ground was on PCP, and jailed him. When they finally sent him to a hospital, he was brain-dead. A blood vessel in his brain had burst.

January 25, 1990|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A blood vessel burst in Alexander Serwacki's brain on a warm March day in 1984, leaving him writhing on a neighbor's lawn, drenched in sweat, foaming at the mouth and tearing out fistfuls of grass.

He needed medical help.

Instead, he was thrown in jail.

Alhambra police officers suspected the 17-year-old high school sophomore of being under the influence of PCP, a potent hallucinogen also known as angel dust that often produces violent, psychotic reactions.

But there were no drugs found in his body, only a malformed blood vessel in his frontal lobe.

By the time he was taken to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center two hours later, he was in a coma and brain-dead.

Last week, his parents, Jan and Janina Serwacki, were awarded $6 million by an Alhambra Superior Court jury, which deliberated one hour before concluding that police were responsible for the boy's death by not seeking immediate medical care.

Although the sum is a staggering amount of money for the two Polish immigrants, it is no match for the loss of their son, a bookish Boy Scout who they had insisted learn to read and speak their native tongue.

"My parents have been through hell," said Alexander's sister, Barbara Zbiegiel, 24. "He was their only son, the only person to carry on the family name. It was just the beginning of his life and he never even got a chance."

The attorney representing the city of Alhambra, however, criticized the award as being based solely on sympathy, not on any proof of negligence, and said he was considering an appeal.

"There was never any evidence to the officers involved that this person needed immediate medical care," said Thomas J. Feeley, the city's lawyer. "All the evidence suggested that he was under the influence and that the approach needed was custody and detoxification."

At least that is the way it seemed to James Henchey, the first Alhambra police officer to arrive on the scene after a neighbor saw the boy, who had left school feeling ill, collapse at about 10:50 a.m. a block from his home.

Henchey, now a lieutenant with more than 10 years on the force, testified that PCP cases were at near-epidemic levels in the city at the time. He claimed he smelled the distinctive chemical scent on Alexander's shirt that comes from smoking the stuff.

When Henchey tried to speak to the boy, he said, Alexander was unresponsive and rigid, his blond hair soaked with perspiration, his head jerking from side to side.

"These are all symptoms of PCP intoxication," Henchey said. "That's pretty much what he was doing, and that's what I was basing my opinion on."

That was not, however, the Alex Serwacki that his friends and family knew. Clean-cut and fond of argyle sweaters, he had spent five years in a Polish folk-dance troupe. Saturdays were reserved for Polish school at his church. He was not yet interested in girlfriends or weekend parties, his sister said. Always, he wore a small gold cross around his neck.

Nor was it the same Alex Serwacki described by Arthur Archuleta, a friend who happened to be driving down the 900 block of 4th Street when he recognized Alex sprawled on the ground. He said he told police that the boy didn't use drugs but an officer ordered him to step back.

"He was just laying there," Archuleta, now 24, testified. "He was very white. He was garbling like he was trying to speak, but nothing was coming out. . . . I asked if anyone was going to take him to the hospital."

Henchey, fearing the possibility of a violent reaction, had called for backup. Two more officers arrived. They, however, thought it appeared to be a medical problem, not a drug overdose.

"I thought something else was wrong," said Officer Dennis Sullivan, a 19-year veteran. "I didn't know what. I thought it would be wise to take the kid to the hospital."

But when their supervisor, then-Sgt. Raymond Berndt, pulled up in his patrol car about 15 minutes later and conferred with Henchey, he gave the go-ahead for the arrest.

Alexander was rolled on his stomach and handcuffed. His feet were bound. And he was laid face down on the floor of Alhambra city jail. Several times, guards had to move him so he would not suffocate in his own drool.

As soon as she heard the news, Janina Serwacki ran to the police station from the job she then had as a cook in the Garfield Elementary School cafeteria two blocks away.

"I said, 'My son never take that kind--any kind of drugs,' " she testified in court. "They told me, 'What kind of mother you are you don't even know what you're son been taking this day?' "

A few minutes later, Jan Serwacki arrived from the job he then had as a painter in the engineering department of Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital.

"Police told me (they were) 95% (confident) he was on drugs," he said. Serwacki said he told police that he would not be against punishment, if warranted, but that medical help should come first.

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