'My head was just swimming in terror': Edmonton man haunted by 'nightmare' police arrest

Joe DiGiuseppe was only two minutes away from home when his life changed forever. 

The 58-year-old was pulled over by six Edmonton police officers on a Friday afternoon in October 2015 during a high-risk vehicle stop. At the time, officers thought they were taking down a man with a gun. 

But it was a case of mistaken identity. 

The ordeal began when someone called 911, reporting a man parked in a white Dodge Dakota in front of a west Edmonton bank. The caller said the white man with short brown hair was around 40 years old and appeared to be holding a silver revolver with a wooden handle. 

DiGiuseppe’s vehicle loosely matched the description. But nothing else did. He said he was never in front of the bank. 

“I was pulled over because of basically the colour of the vehicle,” DiGiuseppe told CBC News. “I happened to be a male in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Thirteen minutes after police received the 911 call, an officer spotted DiGiuseppe pulling out of a parking lot near the bank and began to follow him. Soon two more police cars joined in. 

“I had a pretty good idea they were following me and I didn’t know why,” DiGiuseppe said. 

The high-risk traffic stop was executed after a 35-minute pursuit, when enough officers were in place along with a canine unit and the police helicopter hovering overhead.  

Joe DiGiuseppe describes how being arrested in a case of mistaken identity changed his life, leaving him with PTSD, unable to work. 2:18

DiGiuseppe pulled off to the side of the road.  

“They asked me to throw my keys out and step out of the car with my hands up and walk towards the officers,”  DiGiuseppe said. 

What he saw next terrified him. Six officers taking cover with two rifles and four service revolvers pointed at him.

“By that time, my head was just swimming in terror,”  DiGiuseppe tearfully admitted. 

The police dog was barking furiously. He said officers warned him he would get bit if he didn’t follow directions. 

“I was somewhere trapped between fight, flight and freeze,” DiGiuseppe said. “I knew if I ran, the dog would eat me or I’d get shot in the back. If I fought, it was the same thing. Six against one. I didn’t do any of that.” 

‘No warning force would be used’

The officers were on high alert, believing DiGiuseppe was armed. The situation escalated further when he reached into his jacket pocket as he was standing at the back of his truck. He pulled out a cell phone.  

As shown on the Air1 video, DiGiuseppe seemed to be fixated on his phone as he walked toward the police car. 

Last week at a Law Enforcement Review Board hearing, DiGiuseppe’s lawyer described what happened next. 

“They aggressively grab him and push him onto the hood of the vehicle,” Kate Engel said. “There is a struggle. He’s taken to the ground by a number of officers.”

DiGiuseppe is appealing a decision made by the Edmonton police chief not to lay disciplinary charges against the officers involved in the arrest.

“He was not resisting or being aggressive,” Engel told the three-person board. “There was no warning that force would be used.” 

DiGiuseppe said he briefly lost consciousness and sustained a concussion when his head hit the ground. He was kicked three or four times by one of the officers and sustained four breaks to three ribs. He was handcuffed and put in the back of a police cruiser. 

Photos show injuries sustained by DiGiuseppe during the arrest, including wrist marks from handcuffs. (Joe DiGiuseppe )

“None of that pain started to come in until I was sitting in the back of the car for five or 10 minutes,” he said. “I think I was in shock.” 

DiGiuseppe said he’s been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and has been unable to resume his work as a carpenter since the day of his arrest. 

“I’m too distracted by this case,” DiGiuseppe said. 

Through it all, his wife has been by his side. But it hasn’t been easy for either of them. 

“Seeing him so broken hurt me,” Audrey DiGiuseppe said. “I want him back. I want our life back.”

‘I’m standing up for people’s rights’

Two years ago, DiGiuseppe and his wife Audrey filed a $325,000 lawsuit against police, alleging mistreatment by the arresting officers. None of the allegations have been proven in court.

In a statement of defence filed by the officers, all allegations made by the DiGiuseppe’s are denied. 

“At all material times, they discharged their duties in good faith, reasonably and in a fair, thorough and professional manner,” the court document states. 

They argue reasonable force was used to bring DiGiuseppe under control because he refused to follow directions and was resisting arrest, alleging he was “acting in a belligerent and aggressive manner.” 

DiGiuseppe admits he has become consumed by what happened to him four years ago at the hands of the Edmonton police. (Craig Ryan/CBC )

DiGiuseppe denies those allegations. He said he’s never been arrested before and thinks if this could happen to him, it could happen to anyone. 

“I’m standing up for people’s rights,” DiGiuseppe said. “They think they have the power and the rights to do that to people? Maybe if they were actually catching a criminal, I could see that.” 

Police searched his vehicle and did not find a gun. They let DiGiuseppe out of the back of the cruiser, took off the handcuffs, then told him the sergeant on scene wanted to have a word with him. 

“And he said, ‘It’s very unfortunate what happened to you here today'”, Giuseppe recalled.

“I was taken aback by that because what happened to me was a nightmare that had nothing to do with me. 

“Unfortunate. That’s what happens when you step on a nail.”

The Law Enforcement Review Board has reserved its decision on whether to send the case to a disciplinary hearing.

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