Deptford officer says he's innocent

The Deptford patrolman said he used only proper methods to subdue an unruly young Phila. man.

Posted: July 12, 2007

A Deptford Township police patrolman accused of beating a motorist after a Feb. 2, 2006, traffic stop testified yesterday that he followed police procedures to subdue his handcuffed prisoner.

John Gillespie, a four-year veteran of the Deptford police force, said the 19-year-old South Philadelphia man he arrested was kicking inside his police car and threatened to smash the window and escape.

"It's my duty to go back there and subdue him," said Gillespie, 35, of Deptford. "I'd be responsible if he jumped out of the window and got hit by a car."

A video camera mounted on the dashboard of a second police cruiser, parked behind Gillespie's, recorded the brawny Gillespie and another police officer tussling with the screaming, handcuffed suspect in the backseat of Gillespie's cruiser.

Gillespie testified in his own defense yesterday in the two-week-old jury trial before Superior Court Judge M. Christine Allen-Jackson in Gloucester County. He is charged with official misconduct and aggravated assault.

The prosecution alleges that Gillespie and Patrolman Timothy Parks punched, kicked and choked motorist Joseph A. Rao, now 20, of the 1500 block of South Broad Street, after Gillespie stopped Rao's car for allegedly running a stop sign. Parks is scheduled to go on trial later.

The centerpiece of the trial has been the police car video, which shows the officers climbing into the backseat with the handcuffed Rao, who explodes in wails of protest.

Rao testified last week that Gillespie repeatedly choked him and that Parks punched him, causing him a concussion, cuts, bruises and neck pain. Doctors who treated him reported no visible neck injury.

"I absolutely never choked him," Gillespie said yesterday, answering questions posed by his attorney, Ron Helmer.

Gillespie said Rao kicked him in the groin and then kicked Parks in the head. Gillespie said that he and Parks never used excessive force but had to restrain the unruly suspect.

As soon as he approached Rao's stopped car, he said, he was afraid. He said Rao began swearing at him and made furtive movements as if he might be reaching for a weapon in the seat cushions.

Gillespie said he pulled the driver from the car according to his police training.

The officer admitted he was unprofessional in cursing and shouting at Rao, but said the force he used was warranted.

"He made me very nervous. I was in fear for my life. I was fearful I wasn't going to see my 5-year-old daughter and my pregnant wife again," said Gillespie, who was on the Deptford police force four years before he was suspended without pay after the incident.

Rao was charged with resisting arrest and traffic offenses, but prosecutors later dropped the charges. Rao has filed a notice that he intends to sue the officers and Deptford Township police for more than $1 million, saying he suffered "severe physical, emotional, and psychological damage."

Later, after Gillespie brought Rao to the police station, the suspect taunted him, calling him a "f-ing pig," and threatened to kill his family, Gillespie testified.

"He threatened to find out where I lived and said he can because he's in the mob and he knows people, and I took that pretty serious," said Gillespie.

Gillespie denied that he abused Rao at the police station.

Senior Assistant Prosecutor Paul Colangelo has told the jury that Gillespie removed Rao's handcuffs, told a female officer to leave the two alone, and then challenged Rao to a fight. When Rao declined, Gillespie handcuffed him and choked him again, the prosecutor alleges.

Gillespie acknowledged he asked Officer Sandra Reid to leave the room, but it was to protect her from Rao's offensive language.

"I consider her to be like a little sister to me and it was absolutely offensive," he said.

The trial is to resume today, when Gillespie is to be cross-examined.


Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.

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