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Family sues Fort Worth bar over fatal wreck involving police officer

Relatives of a Fort Worth woman killed in a December wreck involving an off-duty Fort Worth police officer filed suit Thursday against the Fort Worth bar where officer Jesus Cisneros was drinking.

At a news conference in Dallas on Thursday morning, lawyer Jeff Rasansky said the family of Sonia Baker decided to sue the Pour House to hold such establishments accountable for over-serving patrons and "placing profits ahead of safety."

The lawsuit was filed under the state's Dram Shop Act, which allows those who sell alcohol to an obviously intoxicated person to be held liable for resulting damages.

"Obviously, there is absolutely no amount of money that could replace the loss of life that this family has suffered," Rasansky told reporters as he sat next to Baker's mother, Stella Lopez.

"This is not about the money. ... It is sending a message to these bars and establishments like this to ensure that this does not happen again," he said.

The suit, filed in the 236th District Court in Tarrant County, names as defendants the Pour House, an assumed name of Aventura Hospitality, LLC, bar owner Eric Tschetter and Pueri Inc., another related business entity.

It alleges that servers at the bar continued to serve Cisneros to the point of him becoming "dangerously inebriated," then allowed him "to stagger out of the bar and drive away from The Pour House in the city vehicle."

"As a result of over-serving to and allowing Cisneros to leave in this smashed condition, Cisneros took the City's unmarked vehicle and, as he sped down Columbus Trail, tragically stole and ended Mrs. Baker's life," the lawsuit states.

Tschetter said Thursday that he could not comment about the lawsuit and referred questions to his attorney, Greg Winslett of Dallas. Winslett did not return repeated phone messages left by the Star-Telegram.

The wreck

Cisneros, 37, was charged last month with intoxication manslaughter in the case and remains free on bail.

An internal investigation by the Police Department found the narcotics officers had visited three bars while on-duty, drinking up to three beers as part of an unauthorized undercover bar detail, according to Civil Service records obtained by the Star-Telegram last month.

After completing the bar detail, Cisneros, then off-duty, drove to the Pour House at 2725 W. Seventh St. in his unmarked city vehicle, where he met other officers at a birthday celebration. There, Cisneros drank about four more beers and four shots of alcohol, the records state.

About 2:25 a.m. the next morning, Cisneros was driving the city vehicle when he crashed the Toyota Highlander into Baker's Chrysler PT Cruiser as she attempted to turn onto Columbus Trail in front of him.

Baker, who had been driving to a fast-food restaurant to pick up breakfast for her family before heading to work, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Cisneros was taken to a hospital, where blood tests revealed that he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.17, more than twice the legal limit.

At the time of the collision, Cisneros was driving more than twice the posted speed limit, officials have said.

Following the wreck, Fort Worth police also launched an internal investigation into whether other officers violated policy while celebrating with Cisneros the night of the crash or working security at the bar.

Lt. Paul Henderson said the investigation's findings were forwarded to Police Chief Jeff Halstead on Thursday. Halstead has until June 7 to render a decision on those findings and administer any discipline, he said.

Rasansky called it "shocking" that other officers did not prevent Cisneros from driving that night.

Carolyn Beck, spokeswoman for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, said an investigation by the state agency into whether Cisneros was illegally over served at the Pour House is on-going.

Family

At Thursday's news conference, Lopez wore a white T-shirt printed with her daughter's picture under the words "In loving memory". Nearby, several photographs of Baker, her husband and their two sons lay by two pictures of crushed vehicles: the Highlander that Cisneros had been driving and Baker's PT Cruiser.

Baker's husband, Mario, was not part of the news conference, having broken down before reporters' arrival, Lopez said.

Lopez said Baker's death has been devastating for her family, especially Baker's two young sons: Amarion, 5, and Tayshawn, 4.

Amarion refused to talk and began binge eating after his mother's death, believing that his mother's absence meant that she had run away, Lopez said. He had watched her leave their home that early December morning. She said that only recently has the boy started eating normally again, talking and smiling.

"We had explained to him that she loved him, and there was no way she would run away from them," Lopez said, crying as she talked about her two grandsons. "We had to tell him that mommy's with Jesus now."

She said she believes that the bar, like Cisneros, should be held accountable for her daughter's death.

"They can't over-serve people just to make a profit," Lopez said. "That's not right. It's not right to Sonia."

Civil service record

Cisneros resigned from the department Dec. 21.

Despite his quitting, Halstead took the unusual step last month of also indefinitely suspending Cisneros, which is tantamount to firing. Police officials said it was done so that the allegations would be included in his civil service record.

Richard Carter, a lawyer with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, sent a letter to the Civil Service Commission on Monday, questioning the legality of whether the chief could fire someone who no longer worked for the department.

In the letter, Carter asked that the indefinite suspension letter be removed from Cisneros' civil service file and records. If not, the lawyer asked that the commission conduct an investigation into whether a department can take such action or, as a third alternative, place Carter's letter in Cisneros' civil service file as well.

Juanita Jimenez, secretary of the Civil Service Commission, said the matter will be discussed in an upcoming Civil Service Commission meeting.

DEANNA BOYD, 817-390-7655

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