Alteria Woods’ mother files lawsuit against officers in fatal drug raid

PHOTO PROVIDED BY WOODS FAMILY

Yolanda Woods filed a lawsuit in federal court earlier this month against three law enforcement officers involved in a drug raid that ended with her daughter struck 10 times by gunfire while lying on a bed.

Alteria Woods – who was not the target of the March 19, 2017 narcotics probe – was caught in the crossfire between officers and her boyfriend Andrew Coffee IV in Gifford. 

Woods, a 21-year-old pharmacy technician, died after being riddled with bullets, including one round that pierced her chest and went through her heart. The lawsuit also details how a team of 20 officers participated in the Indian River County Sheriff’s early morning operation. 

“Alteria posed no threat to the officers and did nothing to deserve to die at their hands,” Sherris Legal P.A., the Orlando-based law firm representing Woods’ mother, said in a statement to Vero News. 

“Plaintiff brings this litigation to hold defendants responsible for their misconduct and to ensure that Alteria’s death will not be forgotten or ignored.”

The lawsuit was filed Jan. 4 in the U.S. District Court Southern District of Florida against Indian River County Sheriff’s Deputies Christopher Reeve and Patrick White, and Indian River Shores Officer Richard (Rick) Sarcinello. 

The suit states the officers used flash bangs and “fired indiscriminately” into the home after the target of the probe – Andrew Coffee III, father of Andrew Coffee IV – was already detained.

“We brought this action in order to address the reckless and dangerous behavior of the  defendants,” said attorney Mary Sherris, who is representing the Woods family.

“We not only seek justice for the death of Alteria Woods for her family. We also seek to end the abusive police practices by the defendants in this case.”

In the suit, Yolanda Woods is seeking “an award of compensatory and punitive damages, attorneys’ fees, costs, and any other relief that is just.” The suit also demands a trial by jury. 

Civil summons have been issued for Reeves, White and Sarcinello, according to federal court documents. 

The officers were originally put on paid administrative leave after the incident, but later returned to duty and were exonerated by the grand jury. In turn, prosecutors charged Coffee IV in Woods’ death, saying he committed a felony and should have known responding with gunfire would cause harm to others.

Deputies said Coffee IV initiated the gun battle, but Coffee’s family members said deputies fired first, and that Coffee shot back in self-defense, not knowing who was outside. Coffee IV, now 26, was 23 years old when the incident took place at the residence, where he lived with his father and grandmother.      

Coffee IV remains held at the Indian River County Jail on $440,000 bond. Indian River County Sheriff Eric Flowers – who was not the sheriff when the raid occurred – declined to comment, saying the sheriff’s office does not comment on pending litigation.

Defense attorneys for Coffee IV are pushing for Judge Dan Vaughn to dismiss the charges based on statutory “Stand Your Ground” immunity. The motion will be heard in court the mornings of Feb. 3 and Feb. 4. 

Florida’s Stand Your Ground law states “a person who is in a dwelling or residence in which the person has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground.” That person also has the right to use deadly force if they feel their life is in danger, the law states.   

The night before

Alteria Woods, a National Honor Society of High School Scholars inductee, went to see the movie “Get Out” with Yolanda Woods the night of March 18, 2017. The Sebastian River High School graduate then went to the county fair.

Family members said it was a night filled with joy and laughter for Woods, who attended Indian River State College and planned to become a pharmacist. Woods went to Coffee IV’s home in the 4500 block of 35th Avenue later that evening.

Fatal drug raid   

By 5:30 a.m. the next morning, deputies were outside getting ready to conduct the drug raid. Deputies received a tip that Andrew Coffee III was in possession of 14 grams of cocaine at the residence, the lawsuit states. 

The suit states at least 20 law enforcement officers, including Reeves, White and Sarcinello, went to the home. The officers arrested Coffee III near the front door.

Officers then decided to deploy a “flash bang” device through the open front door, according to the suit. The suit states Reeve and Sarcinello broke a glass window near the door and tossed another flash bang, which landed in a bedroom where Woods and Coffee IV were staying.

“The use of the ‘flash bang’ device was unreasonable and unnecessary. The target of the warrant was already apprehended and in custody,” the lawsuit reads. “Upon information and belief, Coffee IV did not know defendants Reeve and Sarcinello were police officers and, instead, believed these defendants were attempting to rob his home.”   

Coffee IV picked up a weapon and exchanged gunfire with Reeve, who had a handgun. The suit states Sarcinello – who had an assault rifle – “began firing indiscriminately” toward the bedroom.

“Upon information and belief, defendant Sarcinello intended to shoot Alteria Woods,” the suit reads. “Alteria Woods was shot by defendant Sarcinello 10 times.”

The suit states officers Kelsey Zorc and Robert Ryan were also grazed by Sarcinello’s gunfire. 

Sarcinello stopped firing when his rifle jammed. White then approached the window and fired rounds into the room, the suit states. 

The suit states Woods “died on the bed.” 

The investigation

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement – authorized to investigate the use of force by police officers – was not contacted to review the deadly shooting, the suit reads. The Indian River County Sheriff’s Office instead conducted its own investigation, “thus ensuring that the shooting would be deemed justified by the authorities,” according to the suit.

The Indian River County Sheriff’s Office has dashboard cameras, but no body cameras.  

The sheriff at the time – Deryl Loar – initially said Woods was struck by “one of the rounds” fired by deputies. Woods’ autopsy report showed she was hit 10 times.

Loar also previously said Coffee IV used Woods as a “human shield,” but had not explained the basis for the statement. 

“He insisted that Coffee IV had used Alteria as a human shield, despite having no factual basis to make such a claim,” the suit reads. “Indeed, his own investigation determined Alteria was shot while she was on the bed and was nowhere near Coffee IV during the shooting.”

Reports that Woods was pregnant at the time of her death also proved to be false, according to her autopsy.

The suit states investigating officers did not interview Reeve, White or Sarcinello until 11 days after the shooting. The internal investigation was presented to a grand jury who “exonerated the officers based on the investigation conducted by their co-workers,” the suit reads.

“Upon information and belief, none of the defendants who fired into the residence were subjected to any professional discipline – not even defendant Sarcinello, who not only killed Alteria Woods but also shot two of his fellow officers,” the suit reads.

The grand jury heard from more than two dozen witnesses, 19 of whom were law enforcement personnel. Prosecutors charged Coffee IV with second-degree murder for Woods’ death, shooting or throwing a deadly missile, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and three counts of attempted first-degree murder on a law enforcement officer by discharging a firearm.  

The suit states Reeve and White – in addition to firing their own weapons – did nothing to stop Sarcinello’s “unreasonable use of force.”

“The use of deadly force against Alteria Woods was not reasonable under the totality of the circumstances,” the suit reads. 

The suit states the actions of Reeve, White and Sarcinello violated Woods’ 4th amendment and 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The 4th amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, while the 14th amendment prohibits states from “depriving any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”

Hale & Monico, LLC, a Chicago-based law firm, was also expected to join Sherris Legal P.A. in the civil suit. No court dates have been set.

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