A 550-pound Bel Air man died yesterday at his home after police said he threatened himself and others, and they tried to subdue him with pepper spray, a chemical compound that experts say rarely results in death unless the suspect suffers from other medical problems.
Police are awaiting the results of an autopsy on David P. Matarazzo, 47, who died at his Hillside Drive home after state police responded to a domestic disturbance call.
"The issue becomes what was going on physiologically within the person," said Dr. Joseph A. Prahlow, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners. "In and of itself, there is no way pepper spray can cause death."
Matarazzo had yelled threats from his front lawn after returning from a party about 10:30 p.m. Monday, police said. His wife, who said Matarazzo threatened her and their children, called police, as did several neighbors. The wife told police that her husband, who stood 6 feet 7 inches tall, was holding a large rock and waving a metal folding chair.
The incident was the second time in two days that police were called to the residence. On Sunday, Matarazzo's wife called police and said her husband was despondent and threatening suicide. Police said Matarazzo was referred to a crisis unit at an area hospital. He went to the hospital voluntarily and returned home Monday, police said.
Monday night's incident frightened Cheryl Wiggins, a caregiver for several mentally disabled residents who live next door to the Matarazzos.
"I was in the living room, when I heard a lot of yelling," Wiggins said. "It became more and more intense, and we became scared. The man said he would kill the people in his house and in the neighborhood. But he was also saying, 'Call the police.'"
Two troopers from the Bel Air barracks of the state police arrived and confronted Matarazzo.
"When troopers told him to drop the chair, Matarazzo refused and said, 'You have to kill me,'" said Greg Shipley, state police spokesman.
When Matarazzo continued to resist, police used pepper spray, Shipley said, adding that the troopers followed established procedure.
"It is the next step after a verbal command," Shipley said. "It had little effect on him."
The officers handcuffed Matarazzo and washed his eyes using water from a garden hose. Pepper spray will irritate eyes and mucous membranes and can affect breathing and blood pressure, medical experts said.
"Officers are taught what amount to administer and how to administer and to get water on the person as soon as possible after," said Doug Ward, director of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins University. "Most studies say it is not pepper spray but underlying medical issues that cause death."
Minutes after restraining Matarazzo, troopers noticed that he was having trouble breathing and called for help. Paramedics from the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company arrived and administered treatment, but Matarazzo was pronounced dead at 12:30 a.m. yesterday.
"Police will have to determine what role, if any, pepper spray played in this incident," Prahlow said. "This sounded like a high-intensity situation, and that alone could be a contributing factor in inducing a heart abnormality."
Matarazzo had a history of health and legal troubles stemming from a work-related accident in August 2002, when he fell 8 feet from scaffolding. He has been involved in lawsuits with his insurance company over disability benefits.
In February 2005, Matarazzo told the Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission that the fall caused him back and leg pain among other health problems, according to records in Harford County Circuit Court. Medical records in the court file also indicated that Matarazzo suffered from depression and had heart complications.
Last week, his insurance company sought to appeal an Aug. 10 decision by the compensation commission awarding benefits to Matarazzo, according to court documents.