Shock and Law

July 30, 2008 9:31:23 PM PDT
A bizarre encounter has ended up in a multi-million dollar court fight. Depending on which side you believe, this was either a police officer's practical joke that went terribly wrong or a police accident that sent a Tinley Park restaurateur into convulsions and caused him to bite off a chunk of his own tongue.

Regardless of the cause, neither police nor victim disputes the outcome: an innocent man ended up with two taser prongs in him - a victim of shock and law.

Alexander Mendez and his wife, Claire, have been selling homemade pizzas and all the trimmings for 21 years.

They say Tinley Park police officers have been among their steadiest customers.

"They would park their squads in the back and say hey or get something to eat, like friends," said Claire Mendez.

"They would come in here on a daily basis," said Alexander Mendez.

Among them was veteran patrol officer Jose Vega Jr. According to court records, Vega and Mendez were good friends until the night of June 15, 2007.

"He was in uniform, on duty. He came in the back. I said I just made some salad, so I went in the cooler to get him some," said Alexander Mendez. "When I came out of the cooler, I noticed there was a red laser on my face, right by my eye area. I seen it, so I went to brush it away and I moved and all I heard was a pop and I woke up in the ER in Palos."

Mr. Mendez was hit by a taser gun carried by all 79 Tinley Park patrol officers. And he didn't know why. His wife says Officer Vega was pulling a prank because he knew her husband had a fear of guns.

"Alex was in the cooler getting him his food, and he was in the back by the sink and he said to me, 'Do you want to see me scare the sh-- out of Alex'?" said Claire Mendez.

"I'm a shop owner in my own shop minding my own business, and police officer comes in and shoots me in the head for no reason?" said Alexander Mendez.

In this police report, Officer Vega describes a reason. It was an accident, a taser malfunction. The holster, wrote Vega, "would not lock-in the taser." So, he removed it and it "fired in the direction of Alex."

Nothing in his report calls it a prank or practical joke. Officer Vega contends he was at the restaurant to conduct a "business check" and not to eat pasta salad.

Vega did receive a three-day suspension for taking the taser out of his holster, which, according to department policy, should only occur during an imminent threat - to control physically dangerous or violent subjects - and not to be aimed at a person's eyes, face or neck.

"Meanwhile, the officer pulls the prong out of his head and it's supposed to be surgically removed, but he, he ripped it so there was blood coming out of his head and mouth," said Claire Mendez.

"It was very traumatizing," said Alexander Mendez .

Vega ordered the I-Team off his property and wouldn't talk about the $2 million lawsuit filed against him and Tinley Park by pizza man Alex Mendez.

In court papers, Vega and the suburb deny any wrongdoing. Shortly after the incident, Tinley Park police confiscated the pizza parlor's security video, a tape the Mendezes' lawyer says they have not seen since.

"The chief demanded to come in here, kept saying it was procedure, he needs this he needs that, he took the whole VCR, the tape, everything," Claire Mendez said.

In a statement, Tinley Park police say they follow standard training procedures. They provided video of their taser methods used since 2004 that they call an "important officer training tool."

At the time, Tinley Park police recalled all tasers issued to officers and sent the devices to Taser International in Arizona to test for defects. According to Tinley officials, all tasers were returned certified and approved for continued use.


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