Mentally disabled man dies of injuries after attempt to pilfer steaks

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wwltv.com

Posted on May 14, 2013 at 10:32 PM

Updated Wednesday, May 15 at 9:52 AM

Mike Perlstein / Eyewitness News
Email: mperlstein@wwltv.com | Twitter: @mperlstein

CHALMETTE, La. - Norbert Gallego was a simple man who lived a simple life.

Illiterate and mentally disabled, possessing the mental capacity of a 12-year-old, Gallego lived off of modest social security benefits. He once worked as a horse-walker at the racetrack, but that was many years ago, family and friends said.

"He was listed as disabled, but he meant well,” longtime friend Kenny Lachne said. “He held a good conversation with you. He'd give you the last dollar he's got in his pocket."

But Norby, as friends and family called him, also drank and used drugs. And from time to time he was arrested for petty crimes.

A shoplifting arrest on June 9, 2012 sparked a fatal sequence of events.

In a scene captured by store surveillance video, Gallego was trying to steal four rib eye steaks from the Breaux Mart grocery store in Chalmette.

The video shows Gallego being tackled, then held down by two store employees for several minutes. When sheriff's deputies came to arrest him, he complained of chest pains. Instead of riding in a police car, he was taken by ambulance to Tulane Medical Center.

He never left the hospital.

"Every day, as I think of it, I cry. I cry for my brother,” his sister Nadine Gallego said through tears. "My brother did not deserve this. He did not deserve to die that way."

Nadine Gallego was one of the six siblings who rushed to their brother's bedside. And what they saw shocked them: their comatose brother, bruised, unresponsive, multiple tubes sticking out of his body.

Norbert Gallego lingered in a coma for about a month before the family decided to pull the plug.

With Gallego's death, what had been a minor case for the St. Bernard sheriff's office was turned over to a team of detectives. Commander of Operations John Doran said the team checked every angle of the case.

"Our investigation was very thorough,” Doran said. “It was investigated. Everything that needed to be done, was done, as is our protocol."

Doran said the detectives gathered all the necessary facts and created a minute-by-minute timeline. They reviewed the video multiple times.

The probe was nearly complete when the detectives found themselves waiting on one final piece of evidence: the autopsy and a final cause-of-death determination by St. Bernard Coroner Dr. Bryan Bertucci.

When Bertucci's ruling came down, the family was stunned. He attributed Gallego’s death to "natural causes.”

"That's a lie,” said Norbert’s younger brother Jack Gallego. “How are you going to die of natural causes from going to a grocery, getting beat up, to (being) in a coma? That ain't natural causes."

Bertucci defended his findings.

He pointed out that Gallego was already in precarious health suffering from severe heart disease. As a hospital patient, Gallego developed pneumonia and sepsis, then kidney failure, Bertucci said. It was a cascade of medical problems that quickly snowballed past the point of no return.

Bertucci did, however, admit that Gallego's cause of death was a close call.

"It wasn't an easy case,” Bertucci said. “It's not as straightforward as people may think. He had a bad heart and a host of other problems. It's not just one thing. My determination is that he died of natural causes. Was it complicated by this altercation? Yes. Did it contribute to his death? Probably. But in my opinion, that's not what killed him.”

But the autopsy report, written by Orleans Parish pathologist Dr. Cynthia Gardner, stated that the heart attack was caused by “blunt force trauma injuries.”

Among the injuries listed by Gardner are fractured ribs, internal bleeding of the small and large intestines, contusions and abrasions.

The findings made Gallego’s siblings furious, revealing serious internal injuries that were only hinted at by their brother’s outward appearance.

“They continued to beat my brother. And he did not deserve to be beaten like that. No one did," Nadine Gallego said.

Jack Gallego added, "He wasn't fighting back no way. That ain't a reason to beat him to death him to death anyway, behind a steak.”

The coroner's ruling left the sheriff's office without any probable cause for arrest.

“Based on the fact that Dr. Bertucci determined that Norbert Gallego died of natural causes, this matter is closed,” the police report states.

Doran said a ruling of homicide by Bertucci would have led to a different police outcome.

"We were prepared to do whatever we had to do with regard to moving forward with charges or a grand jury or whatever it might have been,” Doran said. “But everything was pending that autopsy result."

The coroner’s ruling, however, did not completely close the door on a criminal case. The sheriff's office sent its investigation to St. Bernard Parish District Attorney Jack Rowley, who recused his office and referred the matter to the state Attorney General. Rowley did not return calls for comment about his recusal.

The criminal case was closed once and for all when the Attorney General’s office decided against charges.

"The prosecutor was the Attorney General for the state of Louisiana. His senior assistant made a determination that there was not enough evidence to charge anyone with a crime," said Breaux Mart attorney Vinny Mosca.

Even without a criminal case, there were civil claims of liability made by Gallego’s family. The siblings pursued those claims through an attorney and a settlement was reached quickly, even before a lawsuit could be drafted.

Mosca said the local grocery chain did pay about $500,000 to Gallego's six siblings to settle any and all civil claims.

“I think this settlement was made because Breaux Mart wanted to resolve this matter as quickly as possible,” Mosca said.

By avoiding a lawsuit, Breaux Mart and its insurance company made sure that no jury ever got to see the video footage of Gallego’s altercation.

Had the matter gone to court, Mosca said the store's argument would have been simple.

"We look at it as a settlement for a shoplifter who came into the store, committed a crime and was detained. As for as the death is concerned, that's attributable to his heart," Mosca said.

And so talk of Gallego’s death is quietly fading away, except among Norby's family and friends, where anger is gradually giving way to sadness. The siblings continue to share memories of their brother’s hard but happy life, but those memories are forever be stained by his troubling death.

Norbert Gallego was 51 years old.

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