The estate of a woman who was fatally shot by Greenwood police officers in March has filed a tort claim against the city alleging, among other things, that officers used excessive force.
Monica W. Vaught, 49, was fatally shot by officers in the Greenwood Justice Center parking lot at 186 Surina Way on March 29. On Friday, an attorney from one of the two law firms representing Vaught’s estate announced that they had filed a tort claim on July 13 against the city of Greenwood, announcing the estate’s intent to bring a lawsuit against the city, the police department, the city council, the state of Indiana and their agents acting in official and individual capacities for “negligent acts and omissions” that ultimately resulted in her death, according to a copy of the claim given to the Daily Journal.
In a news release, attorneys for the estate allege that officers used excessive force, failed to follow department policy and ignored widely accepted law enforcement standards when Vaught was shot. They also said that officers violated Vaught’s constitutional rights while she was in the department’s parking lot. Vaught was shot 12 times, seven shots of which struck her from behind, the news release says.
Vaught’s estate is seeking more than $3 million in damages, saying that there has not only been the loss of Vaught’s life and freedom, but also “emotional injuries to her and her family that are not yet ascertainable,” the claim says.
“Monica’s friends and family describe her as a beautiful soul and loving mother of three in addition to being a former Greenwood High School valedictorian and Indiana University salutatorian. The estate will continue to seek justice for Monica Vaught,” said Brian K. Lowe, an attorney with Greenwood-based Deenik Lowe, LLC.
Deenik Lowe, along with Boren, Oliver and Coffey, LLP, a firm with locations in Martinsville and Bloomington, reviewed raw video footage, photographs, an autopsy report and other documents in connection with Vaught’s death before deciding to move forward with the tort claim. Over 1,270 pages of documents were provided by Greenwood police, including officer logs, the Conduct Review Board Report and the department’s police and training manuals, Lowe said.
City officials declined to comment on the claim, saying they do not comment on “threatened litigation.”
What the footage shows
The shooting occurred following a police pursuit involving Vaught. Officers had responded to a report of a possibly impaired driver around 11:16 p.m on March 29. The driver, later identified as Vaught, was driving southbound in the northbound lane on Madison Avenue, police said in March.
When police located her about one mile south of the county line and attempted to make a traffic stop, she did not stop and a pursuit ensued, according to videos released by Greenwood police in May.
The chase wound around Old Town Greenwood, with turns around Meridian, Broadway, Wiley and Longdon streets until she comes to rest momentarily after crashing into the guidewire on a utility pole. The video shows an officer getting out of his car and ordering her to do the same with a gun drawn. She did not comply and instead drove away, eventually turning into the parking lot at Greenwood Justice Center, the video shows.
In the parking lot, Vaught rammed into a police car, then drove around the parking lot and appeared to be coming to a stop in a parking spot, footage shows.
At that point, the footage shows the two officers driving their cars over to box her car in. They got out of their cars and were joined by additional officers with guns drawn.
On the tape, officers scream for Vaught to get out of the car, but she remains in the car. They attempt to shatter her windows but are unsuccessful. They put spiked stop sticks under the car’s wheels and managed to bust her tires.
Still, she breaks out of the box by accelerating and taking a sharp turn toward two of the officers. The officers fire shots at the vehicle as she drives past, footage shows.
She circles the parking lot after breaking out of the box. While circling, she drives within close proximity and then directly toward an officer. The officer runs to get out of the way and multiple officers fire shots at the car, the footage shows.
The incident ends with Vaught crashing into a fence on the west side of the parking lot, footage shows.
Officers rushed to the car to administer first aid and called an ambulance. Despite their efforts, she was pronounced dead at the scene, Greenwood police said.
Toxicology reports later showed there were three types of drugs in Vaught’s system, including methamphetamine, police say.
Officials say actions were lawful
In April, the department released the names of the four officers who shot at Vaught: Sgt. Brandon Cox, with more than six years of experience; Officer Elijah Allen, with three years of experience; Officer Ben Louzon, with more than one year of experience; and Officer Zane Hennig, with eight months of experience.
The officers were put on paid leave pending an investigation into the incident, but have since returned to work, as the Johnson County Prosecutor’s Office determined their actions to be lawful, Greenwood police said in May.
As a result of the internal investigation, GPD’s review board found one officer who was not involved in the shooting didn’t turn his bodycam on until several minutes into the incident, and he was given a counseling form, as this was his first violation. Another officer was coached on positioning himself in the path of a moving vehicle, Greenwood Police Chief James Ison said in May.
Vaught struggled with mental health
After the shooting, Vaught’s three children wanted the public to know she was more than how her life ended. They published an obituary detailing her personal struggles with mental health.
To the outside world, they say she was successful, sensitive, empathetic and proud of her Asian heritage. Despite her success, she was plagued by mental health issues that she attempted to hide from family members, they said.
“Our family has worried about her for years, trying again and again to get her the help she so desperately needed. We have watched from the sidelines, helplessly, as she attempted to hide her struggles and we have watched with worry as she began to be overcome by them. That worry and helplessness has been replaced by a deep feeling of loss that exists knowing we will never hear out beautiful mother’s voice again,” the obituary said.
They hope their mother’s story inspires people who are struggling to get help.
“We live in a cruel world where mental health issues are stigmatized and swept under the rug. This obituary, we pray, instills hope in someone, if only one person. Hope that more people will accept help and be open about their demons. It is to tell people there is nothing to be ashamed of. There are people who love you with every ounce of their being and want nothing more than for you to just be happy,” the obituary says.