Cops probing pepper-spray death

Posted: September 27, 2011

HOMICIDE detectives are investigating how a 48-year-old man died in SEPTA police custody after officers sprayed him with pepper spray Friday night.

A sergeant in the Homicide Unit said SEPTA police responded to a call of a theft at the Wayne Junction rail yard, on Windrim Avenue near 18th Street in Logan, where they spotted Willie McCray, who had allegedly trespassed onto the property.

Police said McCray ran from the officers and hid in bushes nearby, then grabbed an officer when he was approached. A second officer then sprayed him, police said.

Officers apprehended McCray and took him to Albert Einstein Medical Center to be cleaned up and treated for the spray, but found that he was in "obvious distress" when they arrived.

He was taken into the hospital and pronounced dead at 9:06 p.m., police said.

"It's very hard," Gwendolyn Thomas, McCray's fiancee, told Fox 29. "He gave me respect and loved me unconditionally. It was me and him."

Police in the Homicide Unit said pepper spray is nonfatal. The safety of the chemical, however, has been called into question in the past. A 2003 study by the National Institute for Justice found that the spray is generally safe, but can potentially cause death in those with asthma or other respiratory conditions.

SEPTA spokeswoman Heather Redfern said that the agency was investigating, and that the officers involved are on radio-room duty pending the results.

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