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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Examiner: Man died from oxygen deprivation

The Washington State Patrol continues to investigate the June death of a 34-year-old man who fought with Spokane County sheriff’s deputies until they subdued him with a chokehold outside of an Oz Fitness gym.

In a report finalized by the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office in August, tests showed Will Berger died of hypoxic encephalopathy, or oxygen deprivation to the brain. The office ruled the death a homicide.

Deputies first shocked Berger with a Taser several times before wrestling him to the ground with what the sheriff’s office calls a “lateral vascular neck restraint” – a hold designed to restrict blood flow to the brain until a person passes out, usually within 30 seconds.

Berger became agitated and violent at the South Hill gym, according to reports. At one point he ran into oncoming traffic and hit a patrol car with his fists.

Karen Unger, a friend of the Berger family who is working as their lawyer, said Thursday they were awaiting the results of the investigation before deciding whether to sue the Sheriff’s Office. The family’s investigation disputes claims made by witnesses that Berger presented a danger to gym visitors.

“I never heard that from anybody,” Unger said.

Deputies Shawn Audie and Steve Paynter, who confronted Berger when they arrived on scene, have returned to work, according to Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. He said he put the deputies back on patrol because he had not seen anything to indicate they acted inappropriately. He declined further comment until the WSP investigation is finished.

Audie placed Berger in the chokehold. Berger stopped breathing at the scene. Paramedics resuscitated him, though Berger was taken off life support at the hospital and died the next day, according to family members.

State Trooper Jeff Sevigney said earlier this week investigators continue gathering witness statements and forensic evidence. He expected the findings to be forwarded to Spokane County prosecutors in a few weeks.

A family obituary posted online said Berger was a graduate of Eastern Washington and Washington State universities, earning a graduate degree in criminal justice while in Pullman. He served as a volunteer sheriff’s deputy in Whitman County after his graduation in 2007 before traveling to South Korea and teaching English for several years. Berger signed papers to close on a house in Spokane the day he died, according to the family.

The obituary asks for donations to the “Will B. Fund,” established by the family “for the purpose of changing the policy and practices of law enforcement entities.”