Man's death highlights lack of cages in Iowa patrol cars

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- Officers failed to guard an Iowa drunken driving suspect before he escaped from a State Patrol car while handcuffed and was struck by a van and killed, video and reports obtained by The Associated Press show.

Matthew Lentzkow's death has brought attention to how Iowa State Patrol vehicles lack cages to transport suspects. Lentzkow's father said the lack of a cage - and the trooper's decision to not place his son in the nearby vehicle of a sheriff's deputy that had one - was one of several factors that contributed to the death.

"I'm hoping that nobody else has to bury their kids because of silly mistakes," Gary Lentzkow said in his first media interview about the death of his son, who he recalled as a missionary worker in Mexico and Romania, talented welder and one-time professional bull rider. "He shouldn't have been drinking and driving but that's not a death penalty."

Trooper Matthew Papin stopped and arrested Lentzkow, who was heavily intoxicated and driving erratically on Interstate 80 about 35 miles east of Des Moines.

Two Jasper County deputies who assisted with the Nov. 1 stop offered to place Lentzkow in the cage of their vehicle after he tried to flee once and was tackled and handcuffed. Papin declined the offer, buckling Lentzkow in the front passenger seat of his car with Lentzkow's hands cuffed behind his back, deputies' reports show.

Patrol video shows all three officers leaving the 36-year-old Newton man in the car while they searched his truck 45 feet away. Lentzkow unbuckled his seatbelt, opened the door and minutes later attempted to run across the interstate. A van driver slammed on his breaks and tried to swerve but hit Lentzkow.

Jasper County Sheriff John Halferty said the officers, who thought they had done everything right at the time, are haunted by the man's death.

"If it's hindsight, they would have put him in a cage and had somebody sit with him the whole time," he said.

After Lentzkow got hit, Papin turned to one of the deputies and asked: "What the hell are you doing?" He noted in his report that he'd asked the deputy to watch Lentzkow during the search in which marijuana was found.

The deputy wrote that he was watching Lentzkow and also monitoring oncoming traffic to protect the officers. He drew his gun and unsuccessfully ordered Lentzkow to stop after he got out.

Joe Cacciatore, the attorney for Lentzkow's family, said relatives are considering legal action against the state and county.

"A person in custody should never be in a position to escape from a patrol car when he presents a danger to himself and others," Cacciatore said. "The officers knew he was impaired. They knew he was a flight risk. Yet they left him unguarded."

Iowa State Patrol spokesman Scott Bright said Papin followed standard procedure when he placed the handcuffed Lentzkow in the front seat. He noted Lentzkow had apologized after the scuffle and become cooperative.

Bright called the death a tragedy, but blamed Lentzkow for driving drunk and trying to escape.

John Niehaus, owner of Custom Cage Inc., which supplies cages to state patrols in Wyoming and Utah, said he helped the Iowa patrol equip cars with cages a decade ago for a pilot program, but they were not adopted.

Bright said troopers do not like how cages reduce their backseat space, which they mostly use to store equipment and transport stranded motorists. He said cages won't likely be added in the future.

While most police forces use the cages, state patrols often don't because they typically transport fewer unruly detainees, said Mike Navarro of Pro-Gard Products, which supplies state police forces in Ohio and Louisiana with them. He said cost also can be a factor - they range from $450 to $2,000 per vehicle.

Gary Lentzkow said he thought all law enforcement cars had cages until now.

"This was a preventable death," the father said.

© 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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