It was the middle of the night on Feb. 7, at a Florida Walmart Supercenter, when Kenneth E. Wisham, 64, allegedly decided to steal $380.74 worth of DVDs.
Pushing a shopping cart stacked high with them, Wisham tried to leave the store without employees noticing, but when they did — and then confronted him — the man ran, police said, tugging at his falling pants along the way.
At some point Wisham fell, the initial police report says, and three Walmart employees detained him.
Twelve hours later, Wisham was dead.
Reports from police at the time hinted at a medical mystery that had overtaken the 64-year-old man, who stopped breathing while he was being detained. Wisham never regained consciousness, despite life-saving efforts at Walmart and the hospital, and was pronounced dead later that afternoon.
Two days later, the Polk County Medical Examiner’s Office performed an autopsy.
The cause of death, officials determined, was mechanical asphyxia by restraint, meaning his airwaves were suppressed during a struggle.
Wisham also had 15 broken ribs.
Nearly seven months after the man died, Lakeland police issued arrest warrants for three people last week, all employees of Walmart. They face one charge each of manslaughter. The two men and one woman — Nathan Higgins, 35; Randall Tomko, 58; and Crucelis Nunez, 23 — were taken into custody on Friday.
A Walmart spokesman told the Lakeland Ledger that the company is conducting its own investigation, and the employment status of the three individuals involved is under review.
“Our hearts go out to everyone affected by these events,” spokesman Charles Crowson told the Lakeland Ledger. “The status of the associates involved continues to be reviewed. We’ll continue working with law enforcement officials, as we have from the beginning, while conducting our own review.”
Information in the employees’ criminal arrest affidavits reveals details not initially released in early reports, including that witnesses saw one employee punch the man multiple times with a closed fist and with the help of the other two, forcibly pin him down on the ground.
At one point, Nunez said Wisham shouted “I can’t breathe!” before falling slack.
The pursuit started when Nunez, a customer service manager, heard the store’s security alarm activate and saw another store employee confront Wisham, she told police. When he ran, she ran, too, chasing him through the parking lot and in the direction of a retention pond south of the store. It appeared Wisham was about to fall, Nunez told police, and when she “nudged” him he toppled. According to her arrest affidavit, Nunez told police she held Wisham down by placing pressure on his mid back while Tomko placed pressure near his head and Higgins secured the man’s feet.
Wisham yelled for the three to let him go, Nunez said, and then added that he couldn’t breathe.
What was missing from Nunez’s account, according to reports, was what witness Rebecca Baggett told police she saw happen that night: a woman jump on the back of a man, knock him to the ground, then punch him multiple times.
The man, later identified as Wisham, was holding his hands over his head, Baggett told police.
And that version differs from Tomko’s retelling, who amended his story in the hours after the attempted theft during a police interview. Tomko, an asset protection officer, said he chased after Wisham alongside his female colleague. Tomko said Nunez caught up to Wisham first, according to the affidavit, and Wisham began to fight with the woman. At first, Tomko said he when he approached the two and identified himself as security, Wisham started “swinging at him.”
“The defendant later changed his account of the incident and stated that when he approached Nunez and the victim, both of them were already on the ground,” the affidavit said.
Fearing Wisham had a gun, Tomko told police he grabbed the man’s arms to prevent him from reaching his pockets. They pinned him face down, Tomko said, and he laid atop Wisham at an angle for at least 10 minutes until Lakeland police arrived on scene.
Wisham’s colleagues and witnesses told police he held the Wisham’s upper back and neck while the man was face down. Baggett, the witness, said she saw Tomko put a knee in Wisham’s back.
The third Walmart employee charged with manslaughter, Nathan Higgins, was sitting in his truck in the store parking lot, taking a break from his graveyard shift as a support manager to eat his lunch and watch a video, when the attempted theft occurred. On his way back inside Higgins ran into his assistant manager, who asked him to help his colleagues detain Wisham.
He grabbed the back of the man’s ankles, Higgins told police, and pressed them toward the ground for about a minute before releasing when Wisham shouted for them to let go. The assistant manager, Erica Emerling, told police Higgins pushed Wisham’s ankles toward the man’s back at a bent angle.
By all accounts, Wisham struggled for several minutes, then stopped.
Higgins’ bail was set far lower than Tomko and Nunez, reported the Lakeland Ledger, and his lawyer, James “Rusty” Franklin, said in an interview with the newspaper that his client played a minor role in the incident.
“He (Higgins) was commanded by his supervisor to go intervene,” Franklin told the newspaper. “All he did was grab the guy’s ankles. It’s a tragedy, no question about it.”