For Greg Dyksma, the story of his son’s death began with a trip home from the dentist.
It was around 8:45 a.m. on Aug. 31, 2015. He and his daughter made early appointments so they could share the ride and get to work on time. They were returning to the Dyksmas’ home off Double Churches Road when they saw the Harris County coroner’s car out front, with a Columbus police escort.
That’s when Dyksma knew Nicholas was dead.
At that moment, everyone else in the family was home. The only one missing was 18-year-old Nick, who was supposed to have spent the night with a friend.
“My daughter was with me. My wife was in the house,” Dyksma recalled. “I knew, because why else would they be at my house?”
The police officer drove away, and Harris County Coroner Joe Weldon gave Dyksma the bad news: Nicholas got into a chase with police and died during his arrest.
“He said that my son was involved in a chase, and he was Tased and killed. That’s what he thought at first,” Dyksma said. “He asked a lot of questions.”
One was about drug abuse. Dyksma acknowledged Nick had used drugs.
“He said they would wait on toxicology to come back before they made a full determination, which I understood,” Dyksma said of the cause of death.
Dyksma had questions, too, that morning — one in particular: “I asked him where my son was.”
That’s when he learned his son’s body also was gone — to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab in Atlanta, for an autopsy. The GBI already had collected the remains from Columbus’ St. Francis Hospital.
Greg saw Nick’s body three days later, at the funeral home, before the cremated ashes were buried in Parkhill Cemetery.
He didn’t recognize his own son.
“My wife and I walked into the funeral home and we saw him lying in the casket … and I thought, ‘My God, they made a mistake. That’s not my son.’ They had put so much makeup on him that he wasn’t recognizable at all.”
Asked why so much makeup was applied, the mortician told Dyksma that Nick’s face was badly bruised and cut, “so I asked him to remove all the makeup and take pictures,” Dyksma said. “I have never seen them. I don’t want to see them.”
For months, this much is all Greg Dyksma knew for sure about his only son’s death.
“I was originally told that he hit a tree at 80 mph. Then the story changed to he hit a cop car at 10 mph. Then it changed to they pushed him off the road. So I heard all these stories, but nothing’s been confirmed.”
It has now.
The dash cam
The dash-camera video from a Harris County sheriff’s cruiser changed the narrative of Nicholas Tanner Dyksma’s death. Obtained by the Dyksmas’ attorneys, the footage was featured in a network TV news report on which the Dyksmas were interviewed.
It is evidence in a GBI probe now in District Attorney Julia Slater’s hands, who says the case is still under investigation.
It shows then-Deputy Thomas Pierson putting his knee on Nicholas Dyksma’s neck while the teen is face down on the ground, and that’s what killed him, the lawsuit alleges.
Pierson now is known for a scandal: He is slated for trial on charges he sexually stalked or assaulted women he pulled over for traffic violations. That’s why he’s no longer a deputy.
A grand jury last year indicted him on one count each of aggravated sodomy, sexual battery, false imprisonment and tampering with evidence; two counts each of stalking and sexual assault on a person in custody; and four counts of violating his oath as a public officer.
What has that to do with Nicholas Dyksma’s death?
Greg Dyksma questions whether Slater should be the prosecutor to decide on pursuing a criminal case against the deputies involved in his son’s death, because Sheriff Jolley’s son Cody is an investigator with the DA’s office.
If Slater has a conflict in deciding whether to prosecute Pierson in one case, she could have the same conflict in another.
During an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Greg Dyksma pointed to Pierson in particular when he explained why he decided to sue – knowing that his son broke the law, but had committed no capital crime:
“Somebody needs to be held accountable for what happened at the end,” he said of Nick’s arrest. “I’m not saying he should have got off scot-free, and been able to go and just do what he wants. What I’m saying is that what he did didn’t deserve the death sentence, and if that’s what the officers’ policies and procedures are, they need to fix that, because it could be your son, your daughter, your family member … ”
He held up Pierson’s photograph.
“ … your wife getting raped by this guy on the side of the road in Harris County,” he said. “What’s happening out there?”
So all Greg Dyksma knew, coming home from the dentist around 8:45 a.m. on Aug. 31, 2015, was that his son was dead.
“He was supposed to be staying at a friend’s house that night, and apparently they got into an argument; that’s the story I get,” he said. “And instead of coming home, he decided to sleep in his car at a gas station…. That’s where the whole thing started. He was at Circle K on the Airport Thruway.”
Around 1:45 a.m., a worker at the 2536 Airport Thruway business saw Nick asleep in his gray Toyota pickup, tapped on the window and couldn’t wake him. The worker called 911.
The responding patrol officer, Cpl. Roy Green, rapped on the truck until he woke Nick. Seeing a police officer, Nick drove away.
His father said Nick did not speed away: He just drove off, without speaking to the officer.
To ensure Nick wasn’t drunk or otherwise impaired, Green followed, caught up with him northbound on Veterans Parkway, and turned on the blue lights.
Nick sped off, and the chase began. Green radioed Harris County 911 the pursuit was coming, and broke off at the county line.
Shortly after midnight, Harris County deputies deployed spike strips to blow the Toyota’s tires and stopped the pickup at the 8 mile marker on U.S. 27, after the chase reached speeds up to 85 mph.
The dash camera’s time stamp shows the pickup race by a deputy’s southbound car near Holland Road at 2:11 a.m., right before the truck’s tires blow. The officer turns around and drives up on the disabled pickup, which has run off the left side of the highway.
Four deputies converge on it, shout orders at the driver, then break out the driver’s side window. The truck’s tires spin, propelling it farther off the road as the deputies back off until it stops.
Then they move in again. “Tommy, get out of the way!” one yells at Pierson before smashing the passenger’s side window. They open the passenger’s door and drag the driver out. Three deputies put him face-down and handcuff him.
At 2:13, with Nicholas Dyksma face-down as he’s handcuffed, it appears Pierson puts his knee on the back of the teen’s neck. The deputy adjusts his weight, then stands up and steps away.
Said Greg Dyksma: “They cuffed him, pulled him back off the road a little bit, then after they handcuffed him, Pierson put his knee back on his neck for a while, which is I think when they actually killed him, because he couldn’t breathe.”
The father has seen the video only once, during his interview on the national news. His wife has never seen it.
At 2:14, Pierson shines a flashlight in the teen’s face as another deputy holds the suspect down. Then Pierson and other officers start searching the pickup and checking its registration.
“Hey! The tag is expired,” one tells the others.
At 2:15 a.m., they notice Nick Dyksma is limp and unconscious. Having checked the truck tag, they know his name, and call to him as they try to wake him.
Here’s what they say on the recording:
“Hey Nicholas! Open your eyes, Nick!”
“Is he alive?”
“Hey Nicholas! Wake up!”
“Wake up, Nicholas!”
“Anybody got any ammonia?”
“Come on, Nicholas! Wake up! Wake up, sir! Nicholas!”
At 2:17, they think they see him respond.
“Come on, breathe. You got it, breathe. Wake up. He just took a breath.”
One on his hand-held radio asks 911 to tell the ambulance to “step it up.”
“He’s not responding,” another says.
At 2:19, they wave ammonia under Nick’s nose, and get no response. A minute later, one asks, “Is he still breathing?”
They check his pulse. “We’re not getting any pulse on him,” one says.
The dash camera recording marked that at 2:20 a.m. A minute later, a deputy says he detects a faint pulse, but within a minute after that, they determine the teen’s not breathing.
“It seems like the subject quit breathing on us,” one says on the radio.
At 2:23, the deputies move Nicholas Dyksma to flat ground and start compressing his chest. The ambulance arrives two minutes later, and leaves the scene at 2:38 a.m.
The report of Nicholas Dyksma’s Sept. 1, 2015, autopsy says he had “acute methamphetamine intoxication” when deputies put him in the prone position and added compression to his back and neck with his wrists handcuffed behind him.
“At various times while he was prone, there was compression applied to his neck and torso,” the report says. He had punctures from the Taser barbs and scrapes on his face, chest, arms and legs.
“The remainder of the autopsy was negative for significant injury,” it says.
The blood toxicology showed methamphetamine and its metabolite amphetamine.
“Based on information available at this time the manner of death is certified as homicide. The manner homicide is described, simply, as death at the hands of another, and does not express legal implications,” the report says, listing this as the cause of death:
“Sudden death during an altercation with law enforcement, after deployment of an electroconductive device, with prone positioning, compression of the neck and torso, and acute methamphetamine intoxication.”
The report says Nicholas Dyksma was 5-foot-6 and weighed 134 pounds.
His father emphasized his son’s stature, asking why deputies still pressed the teen down when he stopped struggling:
“Now he’s not resisting at all, so why the continued violence on this kid? Why does it need to keep going? He’s not going anywhere. You’ve got four big guys around him.”
“Preliminarily, after interviewing all the deputies on the scene, and after looking at the footage of the vehicle cameras that we have, it appears that all our policies were followed,” Sheriff Jolley on camera told local ABC affiliate WTVM.
Dyksma’s lawyer said that’s the comment that got Jolley included in the lawsuit, the amendment to which reads:
“After a careful review of the video, Sheriff Jolley made a public statement to the news media that the deputies involved … were following his policies when they engaged in the actions shown on the video…. Sheriff Jolley’s conduct in approving their conduct without criticism and failing to discipline or retrain them further supports the conclusion that the deputies acted in accordance with his policy.”
Besides Jolley and Pierson, the lawsuit names Sgt. Joe Harmon, Deputy Heath Dawson, and Deputy William Sturdevant.
“Defendants knew or should have known that the continuous application of pressure to his torso could cause Nicholas Dyksma to asphyxiate and die, but they did so anyway and did not stop until he was dead or near death,” the suit says.
It further accuses the deputies failing to render aid: “It was not until the ambulance arrived some ten minutes later that Defendants made any attempt to perform CPR on Nicholas, and by then it was too late to revive him.”
Their conduct was “willful and wanton and with reckless disregard” for Dyksma’s life, and they caused his death either by participating in the fatal compression or “by standing idly by” and not interceding, the suit says.
The federal civil rights lawsuit claims this constituted unreasonable seizure of his person in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Because they violated the Fourth Amendment, the sheriff and his deputies are entitled to no qualified immunity for performing official duties as agents of the state, the suit claims.
Asked by email why he filed suit against individuals instead of the county, Jones wrote:
“Under the federal civil rights act, you have to sue the individual officers – you can’t sue the county, but their insurance covers the officers.”
Harris County has insurance to defend against such lawsuits, and though the defendants are sued individually, the county will defend them, as they were acting on its behalf.
Sheriff Mike Jolley referred inquiries to county contract attorney John Taylor of the LaGrange firm Lewis, Taylor & Todd. Taylor said Terry Williams of Williams, Morris & Waymire in Buford, Ga., will handle the defense. Williams specializes in government lawsuits, including civil rights claims.
Williams so far has not responded to a request for comment.
The district attorney
Greg Dyksma said he’s pursuing the civil suit because he can’t count on any criminal prosecution.
“I don’t have any information from the DA saying that they’re going to do anything about it,” he said. “The GBI’s not going to do it. The DA has to do it, so if the DA’s not going to do anything, these guys all walk away.”
Asked about Dyksma’s suspicion she has a conflict in investigating Harris County sheriff’s deputies, Slater said it hasn’t stopped her from prosecuting Pierson’s criminal case.
Her staff still is reviewing the GBI report on Nick Dyksma’s death, she said. She has the option of presenting the evidence to a grand jury as is, presenting it with recommended criminal charges, or deciding it merits no further review.
Were she to declare a conflict of interest because Sheriff Jolley’s son is among her investigators, she would notify the state attorney general, who would assign the case to a prosecutor from another judicial circuit. Both Muscogee and Harris are in the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit that includes Marion, Talbot, Taylor and Chattahoochee.
“I would say at this point I don’t see any conflict of interest in this case,” Slater said.
Greg Dyksma said he doesn’t want to make excuses for his son. He just wants accountability for his son’s death.
“We haven’t asked for a dollar figure,” he said of the lawsuit. “All we’re asking for is a jury trial…. Let them decide what the fate should be of this case. I think that’s a fair way to do it.”
But if the deputies face no criminal charges, “that’s wrong to me,” he said. “I want accountability. I’m angry and I want accountability.”
His son should not have done meth. His son should not have run from the police. His son should not have broken the law, he said. But his son should not have died.
Nick had promise, and could have outgrown his troubled youth, he said.
“Nick was very artistic, very musical. Music, that was his thing. He was really talented. I go out of town for work quite a bit, so I would tell him, ‘Learn this song,’ and by the time I came back, he’d be up on the balcony and say, ‘Dad, Dad, check it out,’ and he’d play the song.”
He played the guitar, the bass and some keyboards, after learning to play the French horn in middle school, his father said.
He was never a tough kid: He was small, first of all, but he also was bald. He had a condition that causes childhood baldness, and had been bald since kindergarten. Because of that, he got bullied. He wasn’t big enough to fight back, so he always walked away, his father said.
He believes Nick’s drug use started in high school.
“I think it started when he got to Northside,” he said. “It was all out there. Anything you needed you could get.”
Nick wanted to drop out.
“I fought very hard to get him through high school. He wanted to quit…. As a father I said you can’t go the next step in life if you don’t have your high school diploma. We had a lot of arguments. We had a lot of fights.”
Nick made it, graduating that May.
“I was really pushing him to go into the military. He was set to go into the military, and he failed the drug test,” the father said.
It was a crushing disappointment. Greg Dyksma had thought his son would clear this last hurdle, having scored well on an Army entrance exam and chosen to pursue graphic design: “He was running with a recruiter. He was jogging. He was doing all the things he needed to do to get in.”
Noting methamphetamine usually keeps users awake, the father said he wasn’t surprised the Circle K worker couldn’t wake Nick that night:
“Now if you knew my son, this kid could sleep through anything. When he was a young teenager I took him to the Daytona 500 in Florida. He slept through half the race and all the fireworks, missed almost the whole thing,” he said.
“Whether it was drugs or not drugs, this kid could sleep and sleep hard.”
He thinks his son woke up in a Circle K parking lot, saw a police officer, and assumed the officer wanted him to leave. “He didn’t speed away sliding out of the parking lot going crazy, because that’s not what I was told,” he said.
But Nick didn’t pull over, later, on Veterans Parkway.
“That’s when apparently my son freaked out and just kept driving straight down Veterans and kept on going,” Greg Dyksma said. “He should have pulled over. I’m not saying that shouldn’t have happened. I’m not saying he shouldn’t have done drugs. I’m not saying any of that stuff, but what he did didn’t deserve was to be killed for it. That’s my biggest issue.”
The experience has changed not only his view of law enforcement, but of people in general, he said.
“I don’t trust people anymore. I just don’t. Especially the police,” he said. “The people I’m supposed to trust, I don’t.”