Parents sue officers in death of 'severely autistic' son

Minyvonne Burke and The Associated Press
·4 min read

A "severely autistic" Louisiana teenager died after deputies placed him in handcuffs, shackled him, and sat on him for more than nine minutes, his parents said in a federal lawsuit filed this week.

The teen, Eric Parsa, died on Jan. 19, 2020, following an incident in the parking lot of the Westgate Shopping Center in Metairie, about seven miles northwest of New Orleans.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in New Orleans against the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office and seven of its deputies.

“Never did we ever think that our 16-year-old son with special needs would die in front of our eyes and in the hands of law enforcement,” Eric Parsa's mother, Donna Lou, said via video conference Thursday, according to The Times-Picayune.

Image: Eric Parsa (Daren Parsa / Parsa Family via AP)
Image: Eric Parsa (Daren Parsa / Parsa Family via AP)

Donna Lou and Daren Parsa said they were at a laser tag center with their son when he began having a "meltdown" in the parking lot of the Westgate mall, according to the suit. The teen, who was described as obese, non-verbal, and severely autistic, started slapping himself in the head.

He then slapped his father and bit him, causing the man to bleed. The manager at the laser tag center asked the family if they needed police assistance and the family said yes, the suit states.

Jefferson Parish Deputy Chad Pitfield, who provided security at the mall, was the first to respond. The suit states that by the time Pitfield arrived at the scene, the physical altercation between Eric Parsa and his father had ended.

But after the deputy's arrival, the teen again began slapping himself and his father. Eric Parsa then slapped Pitfield as the deputy was turned away.

"Pitfield responded by taking E.P. to the ground," the suit states. "Deputy Pitfield then stated that E.P. bit his leg. Pitfield responded by hitting E.P. with a single strike…towards the head area."

The suit states that Pitfield knew Eric Parsa had autism. At some point, the deputy had called for other officers to assist.

Image: Eric Parsa (Parsa Family / via AP)
Image: Eric Parsa (Parsa Family / via AP)

During the altercation, Pitfield restrained the teen with two pairs of handcuffs because of the teen's size. Pitfield is accused of sitting on Eric Parsa's back for about seven minutes.

Six other deputies responded to the scene. Eventually, Pitfield got off the teen and another deputy, Nick Vega, took over sitting on Eric Parsa's back, according to the lawsuit.

Vega is also accused of raising the teen's cuffed hands above his head and putting him in a chokehold or neck hold after Erica Parsa tried to get up.

The teen was held on the ground for 9 minutes and 6 seconds, according to the lawsuit. During that time “there were several clear and distinct opportunities, when E.P. was secured, was calm, was not actively resisting,” it states, adding that deputies should have but didn’t “appropriately reduce the use of force.”

He was left in that position on the ground until his body went limp. At that point, Eric Parsa was rolled onto his side. "By then it was too late. E.P. was dying," the suit states.

The teen's mother told deputies that she was a doctor and offered to help perform CPR but she was “told her to stay back," according to the lawsuit. Eric Parsa was taken to the hospital by ambulance where he was pronounced dead.

"The JPSO deputies knew that E.P. was obese. They knew that he was autistic and a 'special needs child.' They knew he had been involved in recent physical exertion. They knew E.P. was in a crisis situation and that the family needed help. They knew he was unarmed. Yet they persisted in dangerously and forcefully restraining E.P. without appropriately monitoring his condition, until they killed him," the lawsuit claims.

The parish coroner ruled the death accidental “as a result of excited delirium” with his obesity and “prone positioning” among contributing factors. The suit says that the death was not an accident.

The sheriff's office said in a statement, "While the Sheriff’s Office understands that all deaths are cause for sadness and a time for grieving, this lawsuit is rife with false claims and malicious accusations against the first responding deputies.”

Sheriff's officials said that deputies were trying to control a violent teenager's outburst and prevent him from hurting himself and others.

"The case centers on a severely autistic teenager diagnosed with numerous other mental conditions which caused him to have frequent violent outbursts," the statement said. "The teenager beat and bit his own father, causing significant bloody injuries."

Deputies Pitfield and Vega could not immediately be reached on Saturday.

The family is seeking an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages.