Kass: Was police killing of 95-year-old necessary?

Common sense tells me that cops don't need a Taser or a shotgun to subdue a 95-year-old man.

 John and Helen Wrana

John Wrana and his wife, Helen in 2005. Helen died in 2005. (Family photo courtesy Attorney Nick Grapsas)

When John Wrana was a young man, fit and strong and fighting in World War II with the U.S. Army Air Corps, did he ever think he'd end this way?

Just a few weeks shy of his 96th birthday, in need of a walker to move about, cops coming through the door of his retirement home with a Taser and a shotgun.

The old man, described by a family member as "wobbly" on his feet, had refused medical attention. The paramedics were called. They brought in the Park Forest police.

First they tased him, but that didn't work. So they fired a shotgun, hitting him in the stomach with a bean-bag round. Wrana was struck with such force that he bled to death internally, according to the Cook County medical examiner.


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"The Japanese military couldn't get him at the age he was touchable, in a uniform in the war. It took 70 years later for the Park Forest police to do the job," Wrana's family attorney, Nicholas Grapsas, a former prosecutor, said in an interview with me Thursday.

Wrana's family wants answers. The Illinois State Police are investigating the horrific incident but won't comment, and neither will the Park Forest police pending the outcome of the inquiry.

I wasn't at the scene, and maybe the police have a good explanation. But common sense tells me that cops don't need a Taser or a shotgun to subdue a 95-year-old man.

And after doing some digging, I found there are two versions of events: The police version, and a new picture that raises questions of whether John Wrana was killed unnecessarily.

The Park Forest police version is that on the night of July 26, John Wrana, a resident of the Victory Centre senior living facility, threatened staff and paramedics with a 2-foot-long metal shoehorn and a metal cane. The police statement neglects to mention that the old man also used a walker, at least according to photographs supplied by Grapsas.

"Attempts were made verbally to have the resident comply with demands to drop the articles, to no avail," the police statement reads. "The resident then armed himself with a 12-inch butcher type kitchen knife."

But lawyer Grapsas says that Wrana's family never saw a knife in his room and that staff also told him Wrana didn't have such a knife.

"So where did the knife come from?" Grapsas asked.

The police statement leaves the impression that the staff was under threat, leaving police with no choice other than to shoot him.

But according to Maria Oliva, an executive with Pathway Senior Living, the staff was kept out of the room after police arrived. So there was no imminent threat to staff.

"The staff was not inside once the police were on the scene," Oliva told us. "At different times the staff were in there, but not when they were called. They (the police) were in charge at that point."

Police said there had been threats made against the staff. But Grapsas said he was told that staff begged to be allowed to try to calm down the old man.

"If there were threats to the staff, why did the staff want to intervene and say, 'Let us handle this; we'll get him calmed down'?" he asked.

Grapsas says he was told that police used a riot shield to come through the door before shooting bean-bag rounds at the old man as he sat in his chair.

Riot shields are used to push back mobs of angry young protesters in the streets, or against dangerous convicts in prison cells, not to subdue an old, old man in a chair.

"At some point, I'm told there were between five and seven police officers, they went back to the room with a riot shield in hand, entered the door and shot him with a shotgun that contained bean-bag rounds," Grapsas said.

If this is true and police had a riot shield, why on earth would they need a shotgun?

Most veteran cops I talked to suspect this is a case of unnecessary force. I've never met a police officer who couldn't handle a 95-year-old man in a walker. And John Wrana wasn't Jason Bourne. He was an old war veteran who didn't want to be pushed around.

But one senior police official who has trained police recruits in defensive tactics had a different take.

"When I first heard it, I was like, 'C'mon,'" he said. "Then I thought it through. We don't know what occurred. We don't know what information they had at that time. If you don't have all of the facts, it's hard to judge someone. … Anyone can be dangerous."

Sharon Mangerson, 74, doesn't see her stepfather as dangerous.

Wrana and Mangerson's mother, Helen, were married for more than 30 years. Helen died in 2005. So Wrana lived with Mangerson in the south suburbs until his health — and her health — began to fail.

She said he was a fiercely independent member of the greatest generation, honorably discharged as a sergeant after serving in India and Burma during the war.

"He was a very vital 95-year-old, let me tell you. He still played cards. He taught the 70-year-olds how to play gin rummy," she said in an interview. "I used to admire him so much because he was able to keep doing those type of things. As independent as they come, trust me."

On the night of the incident, he wound up at Advocate Christ Medical Center. The doctor was on the phone with Mangerson, telling her that even if Wrana survived surgery, he'd likely be on life support. Wrana wanted to talk to her. The doctor held the phone up to his ear, she said.

"He just said, 'Thank you for everything you've done for me. I love you and goodbye,'" Mangerson recalled, her voice cracking. "That was it."

Will the family ever get an explanation?

"I want answers," she said. "I want someone held accountable."

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass

 

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