Derek J. Hale, Marine veteran of two combat tours in Iraq and (much more importantly) a young husband and father, died in a completely unnecessary police raid that grew out of a cynical public relations campaign.
At least that's the view of Stephen Neuberger, one of several attorneys representing Hale's widow and parents in a lawsuit against the Delaware police officials responsible for the November 6 execution-style killing of Derek in Wilmington.
“Over the past several years, we've represented a lot of police officers, including some from SWAT teams, so it's not as if we're anti-police, even though we consider the State Police [DSP] hierarchy to be corrupt," Neuberger told me.
"We've gone to court on behalf of whistleblowers and officers who have filed civil rights complaints of various kinds. Of the ten lawsuits we've filed, we've either won or successfully settled nine of them. Most of the cases have involved the Delaware State Police, and the DSP's hierarchy has received a lot of negative publicity. I suspect that might be what's behind the raid in which Derek was killed.”
When veteran officer Thomas MacLeish became head of the DSP about two years ago, an early priority was to improve the public perception of the department.
“My view is that Colonel Tom wanted to conduct some big, high-profile investigation that would dispel the negative publicity and generate public support for the DSP,” says Neuberger, who is, admittedly, not a completely unbiased observer. “So they decided to go after the big, bad biker gang” -- the Pagan Motorcycle Club, which Derek joined shortly after getting out of the Marine Corps.
The DSP had been investigating the state chapter of the Pagans for about 18 months before the raid in which Derek was shot to death. Within a few days of the shooting, the DSP arrested 32 Pagans on drug and weapons charges. The 160-count indictment -- the details of which remain secret -- alleged a vast criminal conspiracy that includes drug trafficking, racketeering, and "gang activity."
In late March, two Pagans named in the indictment were offered plea bargains; one of them was offered a year's probation for "maintaining a dwelling for drugs," the other given six months' probation for a misdemeanor charge of third-degree conspiracy. Three others named in the indictment have been placed in "diversion programs" for first-time narcotics offenders.
"What this tells me is that the prosecution's conspiracy case is falling apart," Neuberger told me. "They threw the indictment together after Derek was killed, hoping to justify the raid -- to show the public that there was this huge criminal conspiracy the police were trying to crack. But so far all we see are a few small first-time offenders and a couple of commonplace drug charges."
Michael W. Modica, an attorney representing several of the indicted Pagans, offers a similar assessment.
"I don't think there's any dispute that they rushed the indictment," he told the Wilmington News-Journal. "My sense is, and this is shared by a lot of people, that they rushed the indictment to divert attention from the death of Mr. Hale, and to show that there was legitimate criminal activity going on."
That there was at least some criminal activity going on at the periphery of the Pagan OMC is demonstrated by the plea bargains. But the decision to join a group of that sort can be prompted by motivations other than criminal intent.
The lawsuit (.pdf) filed by the Rutherford Institute on behalf of Hale's survivors emphasizes that Derek joined the Pagans in search of the same kind of "camaraderie" he had experienced as a Marine. I think there are better ways to find it than joining an Outlaw Motorcycle Club -- but then I'm not a 25-year-old recently discharged combat veteran, so I'm not really qualified to second-guess Derek's decisions. Derek's record was clean and he had been given a concealed carry permit by the State of Virginia, where he lived with his wife Elaine and stepchildren Taylor and Garrett.
Shortly before the police arrived, Sandra and her children, who were moving out of the house, had removed several boxes of possessions. It is possible that the police suspected that they were removing evidence of some sort, and that Derek was acting as a lookout -- rather than simply keeping an eye on a friend's house in a rough neighborhood. Even if such suspicions were accurate, eyewitness accounts demonstrate that the raid was carried out in a criminally irresponsible fashion.
“These guys were not in a standard police uniform,” Neuberger says, citing witness statements. “They were dressed in black and didn't have badges. They didn't identify themselves as police.”
A pack of 8-12 officers surrounded Hale, who had been sitting on the front porch. Sandra and her children -- an 11-year-old and a 6-year-old -- were standing behind him. As the police approached, Derek stood up. He was ordered to remove his hands from the pockets of his hooded sweatshirt, but before he could do so he was hit by a Taser shock – the first of three he received in quick succession.
Repeatedly ordered to remove his hands, Derek protested that he couldn't – which is to be expected, since a Taser hit induces temporary paralysis. He also begged the police to get the kids out of the line of fire, which they didn't. After the second Taser blast, Derek slumped to his side and vomited into a flower bed.
"According to the witnesses, there was a police officer standing in that flower bed when Derek threw up," Neuberger told me. "He was close enough to reach over and handcuff Derek, as were several others. None of them made any effort to do so."
The use of the Taser in such circumstances was unnecessary and forbidden by the Wilmington Police Department's official guidelines, Neuberger observes.
"The manual makes it clear that the Taser is not to be used on a non-resisting suspect," he points out. "Derek wasn't resisting arrest, or resisting in any way. In fact, at this point there had been no attempt to arrest him -- the police hadn't even identified themselves."
After Derek was hit by the Taser for the third time, one of the officers within arm's reach of Derek -- identified in the suit as Wilmington Police Lt. William Browne -- shot Derek three times in the chest with .40-caliber rounds, killing him.
No parent should ever have to bury a child: Derek Hale's mother Connie at the scene of his murder in Wilmington, Delaware.
Following the March 23 press conference announcing the lawsuit (among those in attendance were some of Derek's Pagan buddies), Neuberger, along with Derek's widow Elaine and mother Connie, visited the crime scene. All of them were amazed at the tiny, cramped space in which the shooting took place.
"I'm fairly tall -- I used to play basketball back in the day -- and I could reach from the sidewalk to where Derek was sitting," Neuberger declares. "I can't see how it would have been difficult for 8-12 police officers to seize and arrest Derek without shots being fired, if they had cause to arrest him."
As for Elaine and Derek's stepchildren (he also had a young daughter named Dakota, who lives in North Carolina), "They're just wrecked," Neuberger reports. The same is true of Sandra and her kids, "who saw the whole thing take place right in front of them -- her daughter was right behind Derek."
For Derek's loved ones it didn't help matters at all that the Delaware State Police, in the interests of post-killing spin control, lied to the public about Derek's purported role in the alleged criminal conspiracy, and induced Virginia State Police to conduct a search of the Hale home. This was done as yet another exercise in spin-control growing out of an investigation that may have been little more than a glorified publicity stunt.
Just days before he was killed, Derek and Elaine celebrated their first wedding anniversary in their home in Manassas. Derek's lifeless body now rests in the Quantico National Cemetery, where it was interred with military honors last November.
Sgt. Hale in Iraq with a Marine buddy. (Hale family photo courtesy of Stephen Neuberger.)
And this brings up yet another question: What, if anything, has the Marine Corps done to promote an objective investigation of the unnecessary death of Sergeant Derek J. Hale?
If you want to help ... I've previously mentioned that a legal defense fund has been set up to help pay the incidental costs of the Derek Hale lawsuit (the attorneys have waived their fees):
The Derek Hale Defense Fund
c/o Dr. David Crowe
Cape Girardeau, MO 63701
According to Derek's obituary, a separate memorial fund has been established to help Derek's family:
Derek Hale Memorial
c/o Beverly at Alliance Bank
P.O. Box 1458
Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702.
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