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‘A heavy situation': N.Y. EMT testifies in inmate death trial

EMT Robert Molesk said he felt intimidated by Erie County deputies when treating Robert A. Metcalf Jr.

By Aaron Besecker
The Buffalo News

ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. — When emergency medical technician Robert Moleski pushed his gurney into a second-floor infirmary at the Erie County Holding Center, he saw six jail deputies holding a man face down on an exam table.

The man’s head was covered. His hands were cuffed behind his back and his legs shackled, Moleski told a jury Friday.

When jail deputies and the EMT eventually loaded the man into the back of his ambulance, Moleski pulled the pillowcase off that had been wrapped tightly around the man’s head.

That’s when he finally saw Robert A. Metcalf Jr .'s face. It was swollen and “cherry red.”

“Pretty much double the size of a normal head,” Moleski told jurors.

That was around 10:55 p.m. Nov. 28, 2012, after jail deputies called Rural/Metro Medical Services for an ambulance to transport an inmate to the hospital.

About 42 hours later, Metcalf was pronounced dead at Erie County Medical Center.

The civil trial over the 35-year-old Depew man’s death wrapped up its first week on Friday, with Moleski taking the stand.

Metcalf’s father, Richard Metcalf Sr ., is seeking damages for the injuries and death suffered by his son, which he alleges is due to neglect, excessive force and deprivation of medical care by Erie County and five current and former deputies. The trial is expected to last at least another four weeks.

A statement Moleski gave the State Police for their 2013 investigation of Metcalf’s death informed a 2016 state Commission of Correction report that concluded jail deputies’ poor training led to Metcalf’s asphyxiation and death.


Staff at the Holding Center called Rural/Metro at 10:24 p.m. The call was for a patient with “psych and abnormal behavior.” It was dispatched as a “cold call,” rather than “hot,” which requires an ambulance to use lights and sirens.
When the two-person EMT crew arrived at the Holding Center, they left their bags of supplies in the ambulance, which Moleski said is required by jail protocol. The jail doesn’t want something mistakenly left behind that could cause a safety issue, he said.

After being escorted to the infirmary, Michelle Joseph, Moleski’s partner, walked in first. She was told to leave for safety concerns, Moleski said.

After Moleski entered the infirmary, three deputies were standing to the right near Metcalf’s head; one deputy stood near his waist while two more stood near his feet.

Moleski said he told the deputies that the man restrained on the table needed to be turned over to be taken on the stretcher to the ambulance.

The only deputy who spoke the entire two minutes Moleski was in the infirmary said the man needed to stay on his stomach for everyone’s safety.

“I want him left like this,” Moleski said he was told by the deputy. “He has been fighting us.”

The proper way to transport a patient is on their back, because moving a patient face down poses the risk he or she might suffocate, Moleski said.

From the time he walked into the room, the only things Metcalf was doing were moaning, grunting and slightly moving. It looked like Metcalf was trying to arch his back, he said.

“What I witnessed, he was not resisting at all,” Moleski told jurors.

‘A heavy situation’

When Moleski asked about the pillowcase, he was told Metcalf had been spitting blood.

Deputies prevented him from assessing Metcalf’s head, Moleski said.

What the deputy didn’t tell the EMT was that beneath the pillowcase over the man’s head was a spit mask, which had been knotted around the man’s neck three or four times. Additionally, Metcalf had chewed through the spit mask.

Inside the infirmary, which was also referred to as the medical room, the situation felt “awkward,” Moleski said.

“It was a heavy situation,” he said. “You could feel that there was something wrong, but you didn’t know exactly what it was.”

On the way out of the jail, Metcalf stopped breathing before the stretcher reached the ambulance. Inside the ambulance, Moleski had to push into Metcalf’s neck in order to get some space for his trauma shears to cut away the tied mask.

Metcalf had no pulse.

Moleski asked for keys to remove Metcalf’s handcuffs, but couldn’t get the restraints to unlock. A deputy jumped into the ambulance to remove the cuffs.

It was 11:08 p.m. before the ambulance left the Holding Center. Although jail officials wanted the ambulance to go to Erie County Medical Center, Moleski said Metcalf — because of his condition — had to be taken to Buffalo General Medical Center where he could receive advanced life support.

CPR was performed in the ambulance. A jail deputy who rode in the ambulance assisted with ventilating Metcalf using a bag valve mask.

Metcalf regained a pulse by the time they arrived at Buffalo General, Moleski said.

During cross-examination by Jennifer Persico, attorney for Erie County and three deputies, Moleski said his descriptions of the color of Metcalf’s face and the amount of swelling used in court Friday did not appear in his initial report written Nov. 28, 2012.

None of the five current and former deputies who remain defendants in the case have testified yet.

The 2016 report from the Commission of Correction found, among other things, the deputies:

— interfered with the emergency medical crew

— said they couldn’t remember who tied the spit mask around Metcalf’s neck

— tried to blame the ambulance medics for keeping Metcalf on his stomach as he was taken to the ambulance

— claimed Metcalf continued to resist them as he traveled on the stretcher to the ambulance, something

Disproven by jail surveillance video

Moleski told the jury that he had never before encountered someone who refused to follow his directions for what should be done with a patient.

Moleski said he didn’t argue with the deputies because he believed it would be quicker and better for Metcalf to get him into the ambulance where the EMTs would control what happens.

Persico asked Moleski why he didn’t do more to insist on more urgency after he noticed Metcalf stopped breathing.

He felt intimidated by the deputies, Moleski said.

Trial testimony will continue Tuesday.

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