Man sues police in wife's death Howard Strumph also sued a man wounded in the 1999 shooting in which Strumph accidentally killed his wife.

Posted: September 19, 2001

Almost two years after Voorhees resident Howard Strumph accidentally shot and killed his wife and critically wounded Richard Ventura Jr., a teenager who did odd jobs around their home, Strumph has filed a civil lawsuit in Superior Court against Ventura, now 20, and the Voorhees Police Department. The lawsuit, filed Sept. 7, seeks punitive damages against Ventura for allegedly assaulting Strumph's wife, Michele, and charges the police with taking too long to enter the house to save her.

"I accidentally shot my wife," Strumph said during an interview at his home. "But the Voorhees Police Department killed her."

Ventura filed a lawsuit against Strumph in July. The lawsuit seeks damages and charges Strumph with recklessly using "deadly and excessive" force. Ventura suffered brain and spinal injuries from the shooting. He has the use of his arms but must use a wheelchair and feels no sensation below his waist, said his attorney, Charles H. Nugent Jr.

The Voorhees Police Department would not comment on the case.

On the day of the shooting, Sept. 20, 1999, the Strumphs were preparing to celebrate a birthday party for their 1-year-old son, Willem.

Ventura was at the Strumph home to help with the preparations by clearing out the garage. Ventura, a son of the Strumphs' housekeeper, had completed several jobs for the Strumphs and was a familiar face in their household.

Strumph recalls being upstairs in the bathroom when he heard his wife screaming. The couple's 10-year-old daughter, Jennifer, called 911 and told the dispatcher that Ventura was "acting crazy."

In the background, according to 911 transcripts, Michele Strumph screamed at Ventura, "Please stop it! You're hurting me!" She then called out, "Howard!"

Howard Strumph has multiple sclerosis and had been using a wheelchair or a walker since back surgery in 1998. Supporting himself with the walker, he grabbed a .38-caliber handgun concealed behind a wall clock in the bathroom and activated an alarm.

He made his way to a balcony over the living room and kitchen. There, according to Strumph's complaint, Strumph saw Ventura attacking his wife. When his wife pushed Ventura back, according to the complaint, Ventura attacked again and Strumph heard her yell words about a knife. Strumph yelled several times at Ventura to stop, according to court papers.

Ventura, in his complaint, said a "disagreement" developed over the type of work and the amount of money to be paid for it. "The disagreement escalated into an argument, and during the course of the argument, Michele G. Strumph screamed for help," it said.

Ventura's complaint said that he never assaulted, struck or harmed Michele Strumph but did "raise his voice to her" and "grabbed onto her hands."

The situation was resolved, according to the complaint, when Ventura lowered his voice and, at Michele Strumph's instruction, "got down on his knee."

Despite this, his complaint states, Howard Strumph "pointed the firearm at or in the direction of the plaintiff and Michele G. Strumph, negligently and carelessly pulled the trigger."

Howard Strumph fired a shot. When Ventura continued to lunge at his wife, Strumph said, he fired several more shots and wondered if the shots were blank, since Ventura did not fall.

Three bullets struck Ventura in the head and upper body. One lodged in a door. A fifth passed through Michele Strumph's chest, hitting the top of her lung.

A police officer was within sight of the Strumph residence when the gunshots sounded through the neighborhood. The officer pulled back and called for reinforcements. Howard Strumph sent his daughter outside to tell the police what had happened.

Inside, Howard Strumph sat immobile in a chair on the second floor, cradling a phone and begging the police to come in. A 71-page transcript records his conversation with a police officer on 911. In it, Howard Strumph appears at turns frantic, pleading and angry.

"How long does it take to do this?" he asked. "It's, you know, it's been a half-hour already. Please help her."

In the background on the tape, Ventura could be heard wailing in agony. "Why, oh why?"

"This is why people die," Howard Strumph told the dispatcher at another moment. "People die because people bleed to death because you don't send somebody in."

At the end of the 911 tape, Howard Strumph expressed his full frustration.

"I'll tell you something, if my wife dies from you waiting . . . I'll own this . . . town. I can't believe this already," he said.

While he held up his hands to police observers, the SWAT team, clad in black body armor and helmets, broke through the door at the rear of the house.

"You see this on television," Howard Strumph said to the dispatcher after the police had entered the house. "You never think you see it here in person."

Michele Strumph was pronounced dead at Virtua-West Jersey Hospital Voorhees at 5:01 p.m.

In September 2000, a grand jury declined to indict either Strumph or Ventura.

According to Strumph's complaint, he spent about 45 minutes on the phone speaking with police and begging them to enter the home. The complaint states that the police delay led to Michele Strumph's death. It also says the police should have also known that Howard Strumph was immobile because they had responded to two emergency calls in previous months to assist him when he had fallen.

The lawsuit argues that the police "willfully, recklessly and wantonly failed to perform" their duties.

Brendan January's e-mail address is bjanuary@phillynews.com.

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