St. Louis police officer caught in disability maze

Saturday, June 16, 2012 | 7:02 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Standing in puddles from the irrigation of marijuana plants, Officer Phil Menendez used a knife to sever what he thought was an unplugged cord during a 2006 drug raid. Electricity surged through his body, nearly killing him.

Menendez tried for three years to return to the work he loved but was plagued by depression, nausea, tingling sensations, fatigue and other symptoms, according to medical records. In 2009, a department psychiatrist diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder and declared him unfit for duty.

At first, he fought to keep his job, trying to convince himself that what he felt wasn't real. When that didn't work, he said, he reluctantly applied for a disability pension and figured on a new, lower-stress career in the painting business.

What he didn't figure on was rejection by trustees of the St. Louis Police Retirement System, an agency separate from the Police Department.

Its doctor filed a report saying that Menendez can work as an officer and claiming he acted negligently on the raid and also had been hired with pre-existing mental problems.

So Menendez is caught in pension purgatory. The Police Department won't let him work, and the pension board won't let him retire on disability.

"Am I cured? No. Could I go back? No," Menendez told the pension trustees in 2011. "And believe me, every day, every second I think, 'Can I go back?' I know I could go back, but then I end up where my body quits on me again, and I end up in the dark place where I can't continue."

Menendez said his injury is misunderstood. "Just because I wasn't shot or stabbed or have any physical injuries to show for it, they don't think it's real," he said.

The pension board isn't commenting, citing the lawsuit. Closing arguments in the bench trial were earlier this month. It is unclear when St. Louis Circuit Judge Bryan L. Hettenbach will rule.

In 1991, Menendez, then 18, left his family's painting business to work as a police dispatcher. In 1993, he became an officer. He earned multiple awards from the department and the U.S. attorney's office. In 2006, he became the first-ever Investigator of the Year for the Professional Investigators Council of Greater St. Louis.

On Aug. 9, 2006, he was helping dismantle an indoor marijuana farm in the basement of a house on Hortus Court. Instead of ripping a cord that went through a wall, he cut it. Another officer confirmed that it appeared to be unplugged, according to court documents and a police report.

Menendez said the current latched his body onto a nearby generator like a magnet, jolting him with 120 volts for up to 15 seconds before throwing him against a wall.

He felt numb, dazed and tingly but still booked the suspect, he recalled. His sergeant recommended he drink Gatorade to replenish electrolytes.

The next day, Menendez said, he felt nauseated and had tightening in his chest. Doctors found he had secreted so much creatinine that he almost needed kidney dialysis, and his blood pressure was high: 150 over 110, according to medical records he provided to the Post-Dispatch.

"They told me I was lucky to be alive," he said.

His body began recoiling from stressful situations. Menendez chased a suspect in 2007 and ended up vomiting and going by ambulance to Barnes-Jewish Hospital for impaired vision, thumping temples, dizziness, shortness of breath and a metallic taste in his mouth. His blood pressure was 150 over 110 again.

Paul Packman, a department psychiatrist who began seeing Menendez in 2008, said he could return to duty with treatment for PTSD and major depression, according to court documents.

But while responding to calls, Menendez said, his chest would tighten and he would flash back to the shock. Co-workers' tragedies sent him into depression and aggravated his symptoms, according to Packman's testimony to pension trustees. By late 2009, Packman said he was no longer comfortable leaving the officer on duty.

At first, Menendez said, he consulted attorneys to try to get his job back. Ultimately, fear of putting fellow officers in danger led him to the reality that his career had been cut short. "I wanted them to have to drag me out of roll call at 65," he said.

In November 2009, Menendez applied for disability at 75 percent of his salary, which would allow him to do other work. Pension trustees sent Menendez to three doctors.

One physician, a sports medicine specialist, said Menendez was capable of police work. Another said he was not because of "conversion disorder," in which neurological symptoms cannot be medically explained, according to court documents.

The third doctor, Wayne Stillings, said Menendez had mental problems prior to 2006, noting the officer's father was an alcoholic. Menendez said his father was a Vietnam War veteran and sober 35 years before dying last year.

John Bouhasin, an attorney for Menendez, noted that the department had subjected his client to pre-employment psychological testing in 1993 and more in 1995 after he was involved in a shooting. Both indicated no mental illnesses.

Ultimately, the pension trustees voted 6-2 to deny Menendez the disability.

He appealed. A hearing officer determined in late 2011 "that he is totally and permanently incapacitated" but denied a pension based on pre-existing mental disease, citing a family history of schizophrenia.

Menendez said his mother's half-sister had suffered from the disorder.

His subsequent lawsuit against the pension board claims it lacks sufficient evidence for the denial. He also is suing owners of the property where he was nearly electrocuted.

Menendez wonders whether other issues are influencing the board. In 2006, he was among a group of officers disciplined for using World Series tickets they seized as evidence from scalpers outside Cardinals games. In addition, his wife, Officer Karen Menendez, is in the midst of a sexual harassment lawsuit she filed against a lieutenant before her husband even began the pension proceedings.

If Menendez loses his pension case, he wants to return to duty, which would require approval by the chief and the Board of Police Commissioners.

It would be extremely rare for the board to act against the advice of its physicians, said Lt. Renee Kriesmann, its chief of staff. Chief Dan Isom was not available for comment. Spokesman David Marzullo said the chief would not agree without an about-face by the department's medical director.


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