A killer dealBY BRETT BURSEY
Ricky Coleman was on duty the afternoon of July 20 when Douglas Fischer went shopping at Best Buy for a new computer, which he planned to buy with a fraudulent credit card.
Fischer, a 24-year-old Georgia State University business major, was living in Atlanta when he showed up at the Best Buy to indulge in what one of his friends calls "Doug's worst habit": using phony credit cards.
After ringing up $4,500 in computer equipment, Fischer was rolling his cart towards the door when he was confronted by Coleman and assistant manager Tom Davies, who told him they wanted to check his receipt.
After Fischer took off running, Coleman had him by the neck before he hit the parking lot.
The transcript of the 911 call shows Best Buy manager David Shomo telling the operator, "We have him in a headlock right now."
The two went down and struggled on the pavement.
"Coleman was choking Fischer," said Robert Godfrey, who witnessed the scene. "Another guy [Davies] was sitting on his back."
Godfrey was on his way into the store when the incident started. "There was no reason to choke him," he said. "They had him on the ground with his hands behind his back but Coleman kept choking him. It was ridiculous. Fischer was spitting up blood and choking, it was obvious he couldn't breathe. Coleman said, Quit fighting or I'll break your fucking neck.'"
Godfrey was not the only witness that afternoon. "There was a construction worker standing next to me," Godfrey said. "He told me They're going to kill him.' "
After Fischer stopped moving, the construction worker walked over and checked Fischer's pulse. "He's dead," he said and walked off.
He drove back by in his pickup and warned, "You'd better start resuscitation or you're going to have one hell of a lawsuit.
"They flipped Fischer over so hard that I felt his head hit the ground 15 feet away," Godfrey said.
Coleman and Davies failed in their attempts to breathe life back into Douglas Fischer.
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Spartanburg County coroner Jim Burnett ruled Sept. 25 that Fischer s death was a homicide but that no one should face charges.
"I do not see any basis for any legal charges or any criminal charges being brought against the employees of Best Buy," Burnett said.
He concluded that an autopsy provided no evidence that Fischer was choked, and that a latent heart condition was the cause of death.
"It appears at this point that he was responsible for his own death," Burnett said. "It's almost like to me if a man is drunk and runs into a tree and tries to blame the person who planted the tree for causing his injuries."
Erroll Maitland, who raised Fischer after the boy's parents died when he was three, is outraged that Spartanburg authorities ruled his adopted son's death an accident.
"The coroner is allowing Best Buy's private security guards to be the judge, jury and executioner," Maitland said. "What Douglas did was dumb and unacceptable, but certainly didn't warrant a death sentence. My son was lynched."
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Maitland arranged for Ful-ton County deputy chief medical examiner Dr. Kris Sperry to perform a second autopsy in Atlanta. Sperry determined that Fischer died as a result of being choked.
"The comment made by [Burnett] about this man causing his own death is really not very smart," Sperry said. "That sort of opinion is just one step away from saying he deserved it."
On Feb. 12, 7th District Solicitor Hol-man Gossett Jr. ruled Fischer's death an "accidental homicide."
"The issue in this case is not what caused his death," said assistant solicitor Anthony Mabry after the decision not to prosecute anyone for Fischer's death.
"One pathologist said he died from excitement, another said he died from being choked. The legal issue here is not how he died," Mabry said, "but did security guards have a right to put their hands on Mr. Fischer. When they attempted to make a lawful arrest, he resisted. They have the right to use force."pa
When asked if Coleman's past record of violent assaults had any bearing on the ruling of accidental homicide or the consideration of excessive force, Mabry said, We considered the facts of what happened at the store. [Coleman's] past didn't come into play in this incident."
Mabry suggested that Coleman's past and Best Buy's responsibility for hiring and supervising him are issues for a civil lawsuit to determine.
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On Aug. 5, Erroll Maitland received an anonymous letter from Spartanburg advising him to look into Coleman's past.
"Ricky Coleman is a very vicious person," the handwritten note said. "He is well-versed in judo and karate. He knows how to put any type death hold on a man. Many people are afraid of him, including myself. He is VERY MEAN and someone no one wants to tangle with."
When Best Buy hired Coleman as a security guard (the store had only been open for two weeks at the time of Fischer's death) there were outstanding warrants for Coleman in Greenville.
Coleman was arrested in November 1994 for Violation of the Private Security Act, Assault and Battery and Pointing a Firearm at a Person. Coleman didn't show up at his trial, and bench warrants are still outstanding.
SLED initiated the charge for violating the Private Security Act because Coleman was not licensed to run a private security service. On Nov. 11, 1994, Coleman was working security at Club 7 in Greenville under the name of Coleman Security.
The police incident report charging Coleman with assault and battery indicates that after security guards maced an unruly customer at the nightclub door, Cole-man followed the man and maced him again as he sat in his car.
Coleman then followed the man to a pay phone where he was talking to Greenville police, pulled a pistol on him, forced him to the ground and handcuffed him. The man brought charges against Coleman for assault and battery and pointing a pistol.
SLED charged Coleman with violating the Private Security Act that requires security agencies to be licensed.
Greenville Police Lt. G.S. McLaughlin said recently (before he knew Coleman was involved at Best Buy) that, "We've had trouble with Coleman and his security outfit before. They are untrained, overreacting and causing more trouble than they solve. Their idea of security was shooting the customers."
Lt. McLaughlin was surprised that SLED hadn't picked up Coleman on the outstanding warrants and shocked to learn that Coleman was involved in the death at Best Buy.
McLaughlin said he wouldn't be surprised if Coleman used excessive force. "That's this guy's way of dealing with problems," he said.
"What surprises me is that any responsible company would hire him to be a security guard. The other scary thing is that this [death] happened and SLED hasn't served outstanding warrants."
McLaughlin noted that the chokehold that Coleman used on Fischer has been banned by police departments. "Three or four minutes of a chokehold is what kills people," McLaughlin said.
A check of Coleman's driving record at the Department of Public Safety indicated he has been arrested six times since April 1993 for driving under suspension. The latest charge of "habitual offender" on Dec. 21, 1994, cost Coleman his license until the year 2000.
A Best Buy spokesperson in their Minneapolis headquarters said that Coleman's police record, like their 40,000 other employees, would have been checked before he was hired. Best Buy has stores in 29 states and assets of over $1.5 billion.
"He bought my children their first puppy. I only told them in the last few days that Pa that's what they called him was dead. What he did was wrong. Douglas wasn't perfect, but he was something special. Those people at Best Buy don't know what they took from us."
Fischer's father is convinced that the fact that his son and Coleman's other victims have been black reflects a racist tendency on the part of Spartanburg authorities to ignore the situation.
When Lloyd Maitland, Fischer's uncle, wanted to place a wreath on the site where his nephew died, he called Spartanburg County Council member David Dennis for help. Maitland explained that it was a New York city custom to place flowers on the site where someone had died.
According to Maitland, Dennis responded by saying, "I've never heard of such a custom and I don't care about the customs of you Northerners. Why don't you northern niggers keep your asses up there and we'll keep our asses down here."
Dennis told the Spartanburg Herald-Journal last August that the FBI had been asked to look into telephone threats "made against county personnel and property."
According to the Herald-Journal, the calls included death threats and at least one threat to blow up the county administration building. Most of the calls went to Spartanburg Coroner Burnett's office and were believed to have come from listeners of a New York city radio station where Fischer's father works.
Erroll Maitland is a producer and reporter for WBAI, the second-oldest listener-supported station in the country and an original member of the progressive Pacifica Network. Maitland gave out the phone number of the Spartanburg coroner's office and urged listeners to call Burnett and demand justice.
"I want to see someone held responsible for my son's death," Maitland said, "I'm disgusted that not a single law enforcement agency in the state has been willing to bring a case and let a jury decide."
At press time, Ricky Coleman is still providing security for Spartanburg Best Buy, and warrants for his arrest are still outstanding at SLED and in Greenville County.
"The coroner is allowing Best Buy's private security guards to be the judge, jury and executioner. What Douglas did was dumb and unacceptable, but certainly didn't warrant a death sentence. My son was lynched."