MERCED -- A man is dead after he drove the wrong way on Highway 99 in Merced on Thursday and later struggled with Merced police and California Highway Patrol officers.
Three officers were injured during the episode. Questions remain over how the man died, especially because he was subdued by a Taser just moments before he lost consciousness.
The incident occurred after CHP dispatch received a call at 7:38 a.m. about a man driving a silver Dodge truck southbound in the northbound lanes of Highway 99, according to CHP spokesperson Shane Ferriera.
He identified the driver as Richard Earl Abston, 53. His hometown was unknown at press time.
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He collided with five cars and eventually came to a stop on the center median of the highway near the Childs Avenue exit. Ferriera said no one in the other vehicles was injured.
A CHP officer ordered Abston to get out of his truck, which he refused to do, Ferriera said. A struggle ensued, with the officer trying to remove Abston from the truck.
At that point, Abston began waving his arms and became combative. During the struggle, the officer struck him with a baton, Ferriera said.
Abston then fled on foot, running south on the highway -- and climbed on top of a parked big rig's cab, Ferriera said. By that time, Merced police had arrived. Abston was ordered to get off the truck. While he was on top of the truck, he was pepper-sprayed by officers, according to Merced police Cmdr. Floyd Higdon.
When Abston did jump off the truck, he ran from officers. Police said he was Tasered at 7:47 a.m. to prevent him from running into incoming traffic.
Police tried to restrain him after he fell to the ground, but Abston continued to struggle. Officers turned him on his back, put his arms in front of him and handcuffed him, Higdon said.
After Abston was restrained, he lost consciousness. Higdon said an ambulance was called at 7:49 a.m., and he was transported to Mercy Medical Center Merced. He was pronounced dead at 8:47 a.m.
Merced police Lt. Bimley West said Abston banged his head several times against the highway as officers tried to restrain him. During the struggle, police said, he kicked Merced police officer Jason Hart in the shoulder, injuring him. Merced police officer Noemi Arellano and CHP officer Shane Kensey suffered twisted ankles during the incident, police said.
Police are awaiting autopsy and toxicology results from the Merced County coroner's office to determine how Abston died and whether illegal or controlled substances were a contributing factor. Because the incident involved the CHP and the Merced Police Department, Higdon said, the Merced County Sheriff's Department will lead the investigation into Abston's death. Tom MacKenzie, Merced County Sheriff's Department spokesperson, said an autopsy will be conducted today.
The Taser used by Merced police has a peak strength of 50,000 volts.
"There are no studies to show that a Taser can be deadly," said Merced police Sgt. Don King, the department's Taser instructor. "I would suggest that we just have to wait for the coroner report to come back to find out what really happened to him, because we just don't know."
Statistics about Taser-related deaths vary. For example, a U.S. Department of Justice Department study said there were 36 arrest-related deaths involving Tasers from 2003-2005. The report also noted, however, that more than half of those deaths were blamed on other causes, including intoxication, and not the Taser's use itself.