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Ex-officer sues over firing in Harper Woods jail death

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Harper Woods — A police officer who was fired after being accused of altering his report of a woman's death inside a holding cell filed a lawsuit Wednesday claiming he was scapegoated by a supervisor who had ordered him to change his written account of the incident.

Former Harper Woods officer Michael Pineau and Deputy Chief John Vorgitch were fired in August, after Priscilla Slater, who'd been arrested as part of a shooting investigation, died June 10 while in Harper Woods Police detention cell #4.

Priscilla Slater

The death sparked protests and a lawsuit from Slater's family, who accuse the police department of covering up the incident. Michigan State Police are investigating Slater's death. She died from an undetermined cardiac problem and may have suffered from a seizure, according to the Wayne County autopsy report.

John Szymanski, acting city manager, said in an Aug. 19 statement that he'd fired Pineau and Vorgitch for trying to cover up the incident. 

"Unfortunately, our city has discovered that members of its Police Department attempted to conceal and manipulate evidence in the 'in custody death investigation' of Priscilla Slater," Szymanski said.

On Wednesday, Pineau fired back with a 46-page lawsuit filed in Wayne Circuit Court, which asserts he was merely following Vorgitch's order to change his report. Szymanski and the city are named as defendants in the suit.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, along with reinstatement and back pay for Pineau.

A banner is put on the overpass at I-94 during a march for Priscilla Slater in Harper Woods.

Police officials did not immediately respond Wednesday to a phone call seeking comment. A call to Vorgitch's listed phone number could not be completed.

According to the lawsuit, a civilian employee at the police station told Pineau that Slater appeared to be dead in her cell, a day after she'd been arrested in connection with a report of shots fired at the Parkcrest Inn in the 20000 block of Harper.

Pineau investigated, and when he started to check Slater's pulse, he "quickly determined that the wrist and arm were cold, showing that Ms. Slater was obviously dead," the lawsuit said.

Pineau wrote in his report that rigor mortis had apparently set in on Slater's body, but was later chastised by his deputy chief, Vorgitch, for his "lack of medical training," according to the suit. Pineau claims Vorgitch ordered him to remove that language from the report.

Pineau "initially followed the order of the Deputy Chief," the lawsuit said. "But upon a later review of (the computer reporting system, CLEMIS), he realized that Deputy Chief Vorgitch had skirted the CLEMIS audit system by using the telephone to contact him. 

"Deputy Chief Vorgitch then failed to add his name as the supervisor who initially rejected the report, thereby making it appear that Officer Pineau had on his own altered the report," the filing said.

The Michigan Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents Harper Woods patrol officers, has filed a grievance on Pineau's behalf.

ghunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN