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Suit Filed Over Man's Death at Shelter


The family of Lionel Berry, a man killed during a January altercation with security guards at a downtown homeless shelter, filed a wrongful death suit Friday alleging that three guards beat and restrained him without cause and then refused to release him despite complaints that he couldn't breathe.

Named as defendants in the suit are the Weingart Center, which is one of Los Angeles' biggest agencies serving the homeless, and Pinkerton Security Inc. Weingart officials could not be reached for comment.

A Pinkerton attorney said he had not seen the suit and would not comment. Also sued were the three security guards, who have not been publicly identified.

The Los Angeles County coroner's office last month ruled Berry's death a homicide resulting from asphyxiation and concluded that his injuries occurred during "restraint maneuvers." Los Angeles police have referred the case to the district attorney's office, which is investigating but has not yet determined whether criminal charges will be filed.

Accounts of the Jan. 17 incident differ. Most witnesses have said that for an unknown reason, Berry was asked to leave a food line at a small cafe run by the Weingart Center at 6th and San Pedro streets. Witnesses said that at some point guards tackled Berry.

The civil suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, claims among other things that guards placed their knees on the 39-year-old Berry's neck while he was lying on the ground and further cut off his airway by placing him in a "violent" chokehold. Paramedics later took Berry to County-USC Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

The suit also alleges that Weingart and Pinkerton officials should have known that the security guards involved were "dangerous and violent employees, prone to use excessive and unreasonable force."

That charge is likely to be crucial to the suit, said attorney Brian Dunn, a member of Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.'s law firm. Also representing the Berry family in the suit are attorneys Paul Woolls and Jacquelyn Thomas.

The Weingart Center has garnered accolades for its services to the homeless. But the agency's security force has also won a reputation among downtown's homeless population as aggressive. Weingart officials contend that they have addressed those issues.

Berry's family members said he had been living in San Diego and was not homeless. But they were uncertain why he was in Los Angeles and seeking a meal at the Weingart Center.

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