In what his family calls “a cold-blooded murder,” and the State’s Attorney General calls “a justifiable homocide,” 34-year-old John Fellin of West Hazleton, PA, was shot five times and killed on February 28 by a member of a special drug task force that had entered his home to search for marijuana. Fellin died in front of his live-in girlfriend, Patty Smith, and one of his three children, two-and-one-half-year-old daughter Vanessa. Fellin’s family has instituted a wrongful death suit for 50 million dollars in the killing.
Fellin was a suspected marijuana dealer who had pled guilty to marijuana distribution charges in 1984 but had not been arrested since. According to police records of the search-gone-bad, Fellin was suspected of once again distributing marijuana, and had been under surveillance for several months prior to the killing. A search of the premises following his death turned up approximately one pound of marijuana, a triple beam scale, and some baggies. No other illegal substances were found.
Despite the use of an outdated search warrant and conflicting versions of the shooting, the officers involved were hastily cleared of all charges by an investigation launched by state Attorney General Ernie Preate Jr. The official version of the incident—released by Luzerne County District Attorney Peter Paul Olszewski on March 18—claims that the eight member drug team knocked at the door to Fellin’s home at 4:10 PM on February 28 and announced themselves. They then entered the rural West Hazleton home and began to move through the house, shouting that they were police officers and that “everyone should stay down.” When no one responded, the lead officer climbed the stairs to the second floor. According to the report “As agent(James) Kolojejchick, armed with a shotgun, reached the top of the stairs, Fellin charged at him from a nearby bedroom...(and) shouted, ‘Fuck you guys. You’re not going to take me...’ Reaching Agent Kolojejchick, Fellin began attempting to wrestle the shotgun away from him. Fellin was able to get his finger on the trigger and fired one round into the ceiling.
“As they continued struggling, Fellin was able to twist the shotgun so that it was pointing directly at three law enforcement officers standing below him on an enclosed stairwell. At this point in time, Agent Kolojejchick was losing control of the weapon and was in danger of being pushed backward down the steps. At that point Agent (Kieth) Charles, acting in self defense and to protect his fellow officers, shot and killed Fellin...Everyone involved in this incident regrets that it resulted in the suspect’s death, but the fact is that Mr. Fellin brought about his own death by choosing to attack a police officer.”
According to the suit filed by attorney Michael Lynn on behalf of the Fellin family, however, the police officers never announced themselves and “entered the residence with a patently invalid search warrant.” When they charged up the stairs, Fellin, who had been sleeping at the time, stepped into the hallway to see what was going on. He put up his hands to show the police he was unarmed and was immediately and without provocation shot by Officer Charles, who fired six rounds from a 9mm automatic, hitting Fellin five times in the chest, arm and pelvis.
In addition to the differences of whether the police announced themselves and whether Fellin did or did not attempt to wrestle the gun from the agent, a number of other key issues in the case remain unresolved. Chief among them is the matter of the warrant used to enter the Fellin home.
The official report admits that the warrant used to enter the Fellin home was outdated but contends that “the warrant contained more than enough probable cause to justify the search.” In fact, the search warrant was good only for the night of February 27—the night before the raid occurred—from 7-10PM. Special Agent Charles, whose name appears on the warrant, has claimed that he requested a warrant which would have been good through the 28th and that Wilkes-Barre District Judge Martin Kane simply drew it up badly. Judge Kane has repeatedly stated that the warrant was issued for the time and date specified by Agent Charles.
The date notwithstanding, the basis for the warrant appears weak at best, and possibly illegal. According to the DA’s office, undercover police had made two $10 marijuana buys from Fellin in July, 199l. The time limit on securing a warrant after such buys is 90 days; in real time that would mean the police would have had to secure a warrant before the end of October, ‘91. Moreover, Fellin and his girlfriend Smith had moved from the house where the buys had supposedly taken place and no buys had occurred at their new address. But the police got lucky: they were called to the Fellin house by neighbors complaining of petty disturbances on several occasions, and on one of those searched Fellin’s garbage and discovered “vegetative matter” which may have been marijuana. It was on the strength of this new “information” that they were granted their warrant.
Also unanswered is the question of how Fellin, who was 5’6” and weighed 140 pounds, managed to outwrestle Kolojejchick, who is 6’6” and weighs an estimated 260 pounds, for possession of his shotgun. The DA’s office has not yet released any information to suggest Fellin’s fingerprints were on the shotgun. Additionally, George Hudock, the Luzerne county coroner who did the autopsy, told HT that he did not find any marks on either Fellin’s hands or body which would indicate a marked struggle at the moment of death. According to Hudock he was not asked—and did not perform—tests to discover whether there was any gun grease or metal alloy particles on Fellin’s hands. Police admit the tests were conducted but as we got to press have not yet released the test findings.
According to the Fellin family the police were “out to get” John Fellin ever since his 1984 bust. That arrest, in which police confiscated 10 pounds of marijuana and $54,000, was marred by Fellin receiving numerous injuries including a head wound from two of the arresting officers. Following his plea (for which he received 5 years probation), Fellin sued the West Hazleton police on charges of brutality and was offered $7,500 to drop the suit. Fellin refused, and in 1988 lost his suit in a jury trial. But according to Fellin’s brother Richard, “shortly before this incident John Fellin had filed new a law suit which would have revealed criminal activities by several state and local politicians and law enforcement personnel. This was cold-blooded murder. The police are afraid of lawsuits.”
Fellin family lawyer, Michael Lynn, told HT that “This is a travesty, not only for the Fellin family but for the whole system of justice in the US. Whether or not John was a small time marijuana dealer is not the point; nothing would explain those guys entering the home of a non-violent person so pumped up that they had to shoot an unarmed man five times. There have got to be better ways to subdue people than that.”
HIGH TIMES extends its condolences to the Fellin family, and will continue to follow the progress of this case.
UPDATE: JOHN FELLIN
Police Exonerated in Death of Suspected Pot Dealer
by Peter Gorman
Police officers in a multijurisdictional drug task force have been exonerated of wrongdoing—for a second time—in the shooting death of suspected pot dealer John Fellin. The unarmed Fellin was shot six times and killed on February 28, 1992 during a raid on his West Hazelton, PA home.
The latest exoneration came in a civil lawsuit filed by Fellin’s family which sought over $100,000 in punitive and compensatory damages from the police for denying Fellin’s civil rights in killing him. A second lawsuit, heard at the same time, was filed by Patty Smith, the woman Fellin lived with at the time of his death, alleging that the police had brutalized her during the raid. A jury of five men and three women deliberated for four hours before returning identical verdicts on March 17, clearing the defendants, state drug agents Keith Charles and James Kolojejchik, of acting irresponsibly and with unreasonable force.
Eight additional defendants, including six police officers involved in the raid and State Attorney General Ernie Preate, Jr., were cleared in early March. Task force members were initially cleared by an investigation launched by Preate Jr. shortly after the killing.
Fellin, 34 at the time of his death, was shot six times at near point-blank range by agent Kieth Charles while he allegedly struggled with the lead officer in the raid, Kolojejchik, for the officer’s short-barreled shotgun.
Fellin, unarmed and wearing only boxer shorts, had been sleeping when the heavily armed squad of eight officers entered his home with an expired search warrant shortly after 4 PM on Feb. 28, 1992. The warrant was secured after police found “vegetative matter” they suspected was marijuana in his trash. Justification for looking into Fellin’s trash was a complaint by a neighbor that Fellin did not pick up after his dog. It is assumed they were looking for dog shit in the garbage when they discovered the suspected marijuana.
With the expired search warrant, the task force entered the Fellin-Smith residence, terrifying Smith, who charged up the stairs to protect the couple’s two-year-old daughter Vanessa. Awakened by the commotion Fellin emerged from the bedroom and threw a bag of stuffed animals at the officers. Kolojejchik claims Fellin grabbed his shotgun—which was not on safety and was cocked—when he attempted to “butt stroke” him with it, and that it discharged into the ceiling during the ensuing struggle. At that point Charles fired several times, killing Fellin. Charles claimed he had to fire to protect the raiding officers.
Smith has disputed that story from the onset, claiming Fellin never touched the agent’s weapon. Forensic tests showed neither gun grease, metallic particles, nor gun powder residue on Fellin’s hands in amounts large enough to indicate that he had either struggled or fired a weapon prior to his death, according to Pennsylvania State Police lab and autopsy reports. No fingerprints were found on the gun either—although none were expected, due to the weapon’s textured surface.
Preate has consistently backed the officers’ use of assault force in the raid. Fellin had a history of unarmed police resistance—he was arrested along with his father 10 years prior to his death for possession of several pounds of marijuana, and was badly beaten after fighting the police and swearing they’d never take him alive. But he was also vocally opposed to guns. One pound of marijuana was discovered in the home after Fellin’s death.
According to Stanley Gochenour, an investigator working for the Fellin family attorney, both Charles, a former Marine, and Kolojejchik were trained by the military since joining Attorney General Preate’s “special operations” drug task force.
Prior to his death Fellin had begun to make noise that he had significant material documenting police corruption in West Hazleton, and several people close to the case cite that as the reason a simple search for suspected marijuana was carried out by such a heavily armed special drug unit. Preate’s office maintains that the raid was a standard operation, and that if Fellin had simply done as the officers asked he would not have been killed.
In trial testimony, former Philadelphia police officer Terence Gibbs—testifying as an expert witness for the Fellins—disagreed with Preate’s position, calling the use of force “unreasonable and excessive from the get go.”