The police charged three Wal-Mart employees with manslaughter on Friday, July 29, 2016. Their second-degree felony charges stem from the death of 64-year-old Kenneth Wisham, whom the staff members detained as a suspected shoplifter.
“The Ledger,” reported that Polk County Sheriff’s Office in Lakeland, Florida arrested the defendants on Thursday. Crucelis Nunez, 23, Nathan Higgins, 35, and Randall Tomko, 58, appeared before County Judge Robert Fegers during their bail hearing.
Higgins’ lawyer, James Franklin stated that his client was free after posting a $2,500 bond and entering a written plea of not guilty. August 30 is the scheduled hearing date for Higgins.
Nunez worked as a customer service manager. Higgins was a support manager, and Tomko was a loss-prevention specialist.
On Feb. 7, Wisham supposedly stole nearly $400 in merchandise from the DVD collection at the store. The store employees accosted him, but he ran, so Tomko and Nunez followed him. However, according to initial reports, his pants kept falling, and he eventually ended up on the ground.
At that point, the Wal-Mart employees held him down while awaiting the arrival of the police. In one of the audio recordings from emergency services dispatch, Wisham can be heard in the background. His voice is raspy and somewhat faint. However, it is clear that he is complaining of his inability to breathe.
During the struggle, Wisham quit breathing and the employees began to take life-saving measures. Someone called emergency services requesting an ambulance. The alleged shoplifter succumbed to his injuries and passed away at a local hospital.
The coroner’s office performed an autopsy and found that Wisham had died from mechanical asphyxiation as a result of being restrained. He suffered 15 broken ribs during the assault.
The arrest report indicated Nunez recalling the victim was pleading for them to let him up off the ground and he told the employees that he could not breathe. “The Washington Post” reported that Nunez claimed heard the security alarm activate and saw another employee confront Wisham. When he ran, she pursued, and they ran out of the store into the parking lot.
Nunez claimed she barely touched him when he fell. She told the police that once he hit the ground, Higgins held Wisham’s feet, and Tomko secured his head, while she used pressure applied to his mid-back to hold him down.
Conversely, a witness told police she saw a woman jump onto Wisham’s back knocking him down to the ground. Rebecca Baggett also told investigators she saw Nunez punch Wisham several times.
By Tomko’s account, he and Nunez chased Wisham. However, she reached him first. The affidavit indicated that the shoplifting suspect became combative and began to fight Nunez. This varies from Tomko’s first account in which he stated that when he approached Wisham and identified himself that the man became violent.
In yet another account, Tomko indicated that when he caught up with Nunez and Wisham, they were already on the ground. Supposedly, Tomko was fearful that the victim had a gun, so he grabbed Wisham’s hands. He stated that they pinned they shoplifter to the ground, and he held the suspect by laying across him until the police arrived. He believed it was at least 10 minutes.
Higgins was not present during the initial confrontation. His assistant manager, Erica Emerling asked him to assist his coworkers with detaining Wisham. He claimed to have grabbed the victim’s ankles and held them down to the ground but freed them when Wisham shouted to be released. All witnesses indicated that he stopped struggling after several minutes.
By Cathy Milne
The Ledger: 3 Polk Wal-Mart employees charged with manslaughter in death of suspected shoplifter
The New York Times: 3 Walmart Employees in Florida Face Charges in Death of Shoplifter
The Washington Post: ‘I can’t breathe!’: Walmart employees charged with fatally crushing suspected shoplifter
Image Courtesy of Mike Kalasnik’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License