Spent bullet becomes key in Florida deputy shooting lawsuit

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A spent bullet found behind the pickup truck of an unarmed nurseryman fatally shot by a Palm Beach County sheriff’s sergeant is becoming a centerpiece at the trial of his family’s federal lawsuit against the deputy and the agency.

The bullet, believed to be the first of four fired by Sgt. Michael Custer, tore through Seth Adams’ right forearm and was found smashed into the asphalt about 10 feet behind Adams’ truck on the passenger side. The late-night shooting happened in the parking lot of the nursery where Adams lived and worked with his brother and sister-in-law.

Wallace McCall, the lead attorney for Adams’ parents, contends the bullet’s location disproves Custer’s pretrial statements to investigators and lawyers that he shot Adams, 24, as they fought between the truck’s open front door and the driver’s seat on May 16, 2012.

The bullet is believed to be the first to strike Adams because his forearm showed gunpowder marks; the two fatal wounds to his chest did not, as Custer says he retreated as he fired. McCall has argued that if Custer’s story were true, the bullet would have wound up inside the truck’s cab.

McCall and criminologist Peter Barnett, testifying Tuesday for the sheriff’s office, clashed over whether the bullet could have skipped under the truck, as Barnett speculated, and wound up where it did. McCall got Barnett to concede that the bullet’s location, along with blood evidence and shell casings, could also support the family’s theory that Custer shot Adams several feet from the truck when he posed no deadly threat.

Custer, who is expected to testify soon, was working in plain clothes when he parked his unmarked SUV in the nursery parking lot as he supervised a surveillance team searching for a gang of ATM thieves, all white males in their 20s, like Adams. About 40 minutes later, Adams returned home from a nearby bar where he had been drinking. Tests showed his blood-alcohol content was 0.13, well over Florida’s 0.08 limit for driving, but the family’s attorneys contend those results could have been skewed by his massive blood loss.

Custer, who was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, has said Adams, who had no criminal record or history of violence, almost immediately began yelling profanities at him “as loud as a person could” and demanded to know who he was without identifying himself as a resident. Custer, who is also white, said he identified himself as a sheriff’s deputy, but Adams again cursed him, said he had no right to be there and started walking quickly toward him.

Custer said he showed Adams his sheriff’s identification, but Adams grabbed him by the throat. He has said he broke free and punched Adams in the chest. Then he pointed his Glock .40-caliber handgun at Adams and ordered him to the ground. Instead, he said, Adams ran to his truck and began rummaging in the cab as if retrieving a weapon. He said he kicked the truck’s door shut and grabbed Adams around the neck from behind, warning he would be shot if he didn’t comply.

He said Adams spun toward him, so he fired.

A member of Custer’s surveillance team testified earlier for the family that he drove past the parking lot about a minute before the shooting and saw no signs of hostility between Custer and Adams and heard no yelling.

The Adamses are seeking unspecified millions. The sheriff’s office lost a $22 million federal lawsuit last year over a shooting that left a young man paralyzed, a verdict it is appealing, and settled three other lawsuits over questionable shootings, totaling $2.7 million.

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