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Family disputes details of death involving off-duty cop

Holly Fournier, and Candice Williams

Detroit — The family of a man killed Monday by an off-duty Lathrup Village police officer is disputing police accounts of the altercation.

Wayne Wheeler, 41, died after he was struck in the head by the off-duty officer around 7:40 p.m. in the 8500 block of Whitcomb, said Keith Young, Wheeler’s brother-in-law.

Police have said the officer was grilling in his backyard on Detroit’s west side when Wheeler, a neighbor, jumped the fence into the officer’s yard during an argument. The two got into a physical fight that ended when Wheeler sustained a fatal blow to the head.

But an old injury left Wheeler disabled and unable to jump the 41/2 foot fence, Young said.

“He had screws in one knee and one leg was shorter than the other,” Young said Thursday. “He didn’t have the ability to jump a fence because at the age of 17, he was in a car accident that almost killed him.”

Young also said bushes and a vehicle parked near the fence would make it difficult to leap over.

“Wayne’s not here to defend himself or provide any feedback against what this officer is saying,” Young said. “It’s difficult to see these reports that are factually incorrect in terms of what we knew Wayne could do.”

Detroit police Sgt. Cassandra Lewis on Thursday said initial reports indicate Wheeler hopped the fence prior to the altercation.

“That’s still what we’re saying because that’s the information we have,” she said. “Any disputes with that would be something for the prosecution. If it goes to court, if it goes to trial, those are things that have to be ironed out at that point.”

The Prosecutor’s Office will look at the evidence to determine if charges will be filed, police said.

As of Thursday the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office had not yet received paperwork from police regarding the incident, said Maria Miller, spokeswoman for the prosecutor.

Young’s comments Thursday came days after Lathrup Village’s police chief said the off-duty officer appeared to have acted in self-defense.

“It's my understanding that he was attacked by the other man while he was in his own yard — it sounds initially like self-defense,” Chief William Armstrong said Monday. “The matter remains under investigation by Detroit and we will have to wait to see their eventual findings to determine what happens next regarding his employment here.”

But Wheeler’s inability to jump the fence casts doubt on police accounts of the incident, said his brother Benson Wheeler.

“Because of the first part I can’t believe the rest,” he said.

Benson Wheeler said it was known that the officer and his brother did not like each other. He said his brother, however, wasn’t “just one of these regular guys just messing with people.”

“He’s a father,” Benson Wheeler said. “He’s a deacon. He’s got a mother, three sisters, a brother. He’s got a lot of people who cared about him. People will say no way he would jump the fence. We are trying to have these prosecutors please don’t just let this go.”

Wayne Wheeler leaves behind a 13-year-old daughter, his brother said.

“That young girl will never see her daddy again,” Benson Wheeler said.

Detroit police on Monday said they believe the fight stemmed from an ongoing dispute that was not related to the officer’s profession. Details of the confrontation remain unclear, but it appears no weapon was involved in the death, Detroit police Sgt. Michael Woody said. The officer was detained for questioning Monday and has since been released.

The Detroit News is not naming the officer because no charges have been filed. He is on administrative leave pending the outcome of the Detroit investigation.

The officer involved has been employed for six years as a part-time patrol officer with the 18-officer Lathrup Village department, Armstrong said. He previously worked for the Royal Oak Police Department.

He is married with no children, Armstrong said.

“He has been a good officer here and done an exemplary job with no problems, no disciplinary matters at all,” he said.