Monday, February 23, 2015

SWAT Raids for Mundanes, Taxi Rides for the Elite

Scenes from the American Soyuz: More than 120 "door-kicks" take place each day.

Summoned from his slumber by the insistent pounding on his front door, Mark Casterline opened his bedroom window to ask what was wanted. By way of reply a blinding spotlight was trained on him. An instant later his front door was kicked in to admit more than a dozen armed men, who dragged him naked from his bed.

“They intended to kill me,” Casterline said during an interview in the kitchen of his home outside of Ontario, Oregon. “I was sound asleep when the SWAT team showed up and had no idea why they were in my house. They came thundering in and I hear clicking noises as they pointed their guns at me. They were going to take me out.”

The 3:00 AM raid by the Malheur County Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team was carried out without a warrant of any kind. Several years after the event, the shattered front door still bears the impression of the jackboot that was used to kick it in. The rationale for deploying a paramilitary team to Casterline's property was a claim made by an antagonistic neighbor, identified in a subsequent lawsuit as Phil Youngblood, that Casterline was either “drunk or high,” and that he posed a threat to any officer who checked in on him.

Apparently, leaving him unmolested wasn’t an option, nor was conducting a conventional “welfare check” if there was some legitimate concern over his condition.

A “welfare check” consists of a single officer, dressed in conventional attire, politely knocking on the door and making a non-confrontational inquiry about the resident’s well-being. In this case -- as in a subsequent raid conducted a short distance away in Letha, Idaho – the “welfare check” mutated into a military-style assault because of the target’s history with law enforcement.

Casterline had a “history” with law enforcement. To be specific, he had been abused and injured by police roughly twenty years earlier in a case of mistaken identity. He was also known to be a gun owner. Thus the possibility that he harbored lingering – and entirely understandable – resentment over his mistreatment was deemed a potential threat to that most precious of all things, “officer safety.”

On the evening before the raid, according to the lawsuit, Youngblood called the police to report – falsely, as it turned out – that he had seen Casterline driving while intoxicated. A Malheur County Sheriff’s Deputy found the truck in a ditch on Casterline’s property, and reported that there was “nothing unusual” on the scene.

Shortly thereafter, Oregon State Trooper Ryan Moorehead conducted a follow-up visit with Youngblood, who told them that he shouldn’t “approach him by himself.” As the Trooper was assuring Youngblood “that I would request a backup officer … we heard a loud gunshot,” Moorehead wrote in his official report. He also recorded that at the time Casterline’s house was “obscured by vegetation, so we could not see in combination with the dark.”

Moorehead provided a conflicting account in a probable cause affidavit, claiming that “as I approached [Casterline’s] home a single shot was fired and officers set up a perimeter.” Moorehead characterized that gunshot as “an intimidating gesture.” In a separate report, however, OSP Sergeant Mark Duncan acknowledged that “It is unknown whether [Casterline] was shooting at police or not.”

Furthermore, there wasn’t any evidence that Casterline had been shooting at anybody.

The sound of gunfire was hardly a novelty in the neighborhood, since Youngblood operated a private shooting reserve used by personnel at the Snake River Correctional Institution, which is located a few miles away.

Troopers Moorehead and Duncan were unable to confirm who fired the gunshot, in what direction it was fired, or the intent of the person who fired it. 

Rather than addressing those matters, the officers simply ticked the required boxes on their “Threat Matrix,” and the Special Response Team began planning an assault on Casterline's home.

During the next four hours, as the tactical team was assembled from officers in both Ontario and neighboring Vale, no effort was made to obtain a search warrant. Given that the team was responding to a supposed threat against law enforcement officers, there is ample justification for Mark's belief that the stormtroopers intended to kill him, rather than take him into custody. One of the raiders commented that they had expected Mark to commit “suicide-by-cop,” and asked the naked, terrified man if he “knew how close [he] came to being shot.”

It should be recalled that Casterline’s only “threatening” action thus far was to open a window and ask the officers what they wanted.

A total of seventeen people – including Robert Norris, who at the time was the Malheur County District Attorney – surged into Mark's home, compounding the home invasion with an illegal search. The invaders seized four firearms and filed a variety of charges against the victim, all of which were dismissed in a subsequent suppression hearing because the search was patently illegal.

A police stenographer employed by the Argus Observer dutifully retailed the official line that the SWAT raid had come at the end of a “four-hour standoff” during which Mark had refused to come to the door or answer the phone. All of this, predictably, was untrue: The first legitimate effort the police made to “contact” Mark came when one of the raiders used his jackboot to kick in the front door.

“Once they charge you with something you don't know what the outcome will be, even if you're innocent,” Mark commented in 2007, shortly after being acquitted on a DUI charge arising from the raid. “Once they stick a hook in you, you don't know if you'll get off it.”

That assessment was the sober product of Casterline’s long and thoroughly disagreeable experience with the racket that has appropriated the title “justice system.”

Mark is a stocky 57-year-old man who suffers from chronic pain – which he treats with medical cannabis -- and often walks with the assistance of a cane. Some of his injuries reflect decades of work as a farmer and mechanic, or mishaps such as a nearly fatal motorcycle wreck that occurred several years ago. 

Some of the wounds – such as a permanently damaged elbow, and a hernia that often makes it difficult for him to sleep – are battlescars from decades of unprovoked conflict with local police.

“For some reason, the police here in Ontario thought I was a Hell's Angel or something, and they keyed on me after I moved here about thirty-three years ago,” Mark told me.

Shortly after his arrival, Mark was enjoying a dinner date at a long-gone Ontario nightclub called Moore's Alley when “two cops grabbed me from behind and ripped me out of my chair,” he recalls. “They didn't tell me what was going on; they just beat me up in front of my girlfriend and hauled me off to the jail in Nyssa.”

Casterline’s hernia was inflicted by either a club or a flashlight wielded by one of the officers who attacked him. The assault was a product of mistaken identity – and it resulted in no punishment, of course, because the assailants were protected by “qualified immunity.” The charges were quickly dropped, but Mark – according to his account -- became a preferred target for law enforcement harassment.

“They’ve dragged me in more times than I care to remember,” Mark recalls. “I’m not a criminal, but for some reason they decided to treat me like one.”

Eventually, Malheur County paid Casterline a token amount to settle his lawsuit “with prejudice.” Several of the deputies involved in the raid went on to distinguish themselves in similar dubious ventures.

Deputy Robert Speelman, who led the SWAT team that evening and whose boot mark still adorns the front door to Casterline’s house, coordinated the MCSO’s years-long campaign of official harassment against the family of local cattleman Sweeny Gillette, thereby precipitating a $9.3 million dollar lawsuit

Deputy Brad Williams, who was one of the first through the door in that raid, headed the MCSO’s campaign against the 45th Parallel medical marijuana co-op, which extracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in “forfeited” cash and property – including a huge volume of confiscated marijuana for which no adequate accounting has ever been provided. 

Deputies Brian Belnap and Casey Walker were also kitted out in paramilitary drag during the raid on Mark Casterline’s house. They played an interesting role in a recent incident that started out in similar fashion – but ended much differently.

On January 31, the MCSO responded to a complaint that an apparently intoxicated driver was “yelling and revving his car engine.” Belnap and Deputy Walker arrived at the scene and found that the drunken driver was Matt Hawley, Superintendent of the Vale School District and – much more importantly – coach of its undefeated state champion high school football team.
Hawley was visibly drunk and emitted “an overwhelming odor of an alcoholic beverage,” wrote Deputy Walker in his report (which consistently referred to the subject by the familiar first name “Matt,” rather than the formal “Mr. Hawley”). Behind the driver’s seat of the car could be seen “a bottle of what appeared to be hard alcohol.” He was “dishonest” and “not cooperative” when asked “about his drinking and … where he began to drink.”

According to Hawley, he was visiting the home of a long-time girlfriend. He had sent the woman more than 30 text messages in the hours leading up to the incident. Deputy Belnap explainedthat the woman “didn’t respond as she [was] trying to avoid him.” In fact, the harried woman had “headed to Boise so she wouldn’t have to be around Matt.”

“I asked Matt how he would feel if his students found out about the incident,” reported Deputy Walker (who has starred in anti-drunk driving skits presented to local high school students). “Matt stated that his students will never know about this. I explained to Matt that he could get back on the road and at his level of intoxication he could crash[,] hurting or killing someone and then everyone would know.”

Rather than arresting Hawley, or writing him a citation, the deputies called Sergeant Dave Kesey, who “gave Matt a ride to his residence in Vale.”

The deputies actually handled this matter appropriately – assuming that their actions would represent a uniform approach to incidents of this kind. No one had been injured, no property damage had been done, nobody filed a criminal complaint, and Hawley’s potential threat was neutralized by having someone drive him home. 

How it's normally done: Deputy Walker "arrests" a student.
All of those elements were present in the case of Mark Casterline – stipulating, for the purposes of this discussion, that the report of his intoxicated driving was accurate. One important difference is that Casterline was on his own property – not that of someone he could have been accused of stalking.

Hawley’s comrades in the school district did their respectable best to validate his insouciant statement that his students would “never know” about his behavior. Hawley was quietly placed on leave and temporarily replaced as superintendent by Dr. Stephen Phillips. When the Argus Observer inquired about Hawley’s absence, school board chairman insisted that he couldn’t comment on “an employee matter.”

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe defended the decision not to cite or arrest Hawley under circumstances that would certainly have led to that result but for the identity of the subject.

“It is not illegal to drink alcohol and drive,” insisted the sheriff. “It’s unlawful to drive under the influence.'"

This is a perfectly defensible distinction that would have been summarily rejected by Sheriff Wolfe and his deputies if the drooling, stupefied motorist hadn’t been one of the most celebrated members of Malheur County’s nomenklatura. 

In dealing with Mark Casterline – a man who allegedly got drunk on his own property -- the MCSO staged a SWAT raid; in dealing with Matt Hawley – who was behaving as an obstreperous, drunken stalker who had chased a woman from her property – the deputies offered taxi service, and the sheriff became party to a cover-up. That’s how they roll in Malheur County. But then again, that's how "they" roll anywhere the political class has a police force at its disposal.

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Dum spiro, pugno!


Unknown said...

Cops, like any group of people, vary in quality. Unfortunately, there are people that are willing to do the work for a small enough amount of money that the quality of individual tends to be lacking. Add to that the individuals that are drawn to such a job for the inherent power it gives them and things get much worse. Add in the "thin blue line" and it snowballs even worse.

All civilized societies need security but these services would be better provided by a private organization that has a profit motive. If elements of society were subject to being replaced when the customers aren't satisfied with their performance and would suffer for illegal actions everyone would be better served.

Of course our prohibition on plants or chemical substances and other truely victimless crimes is really at the heart of our current level of police problems. The only time someone should be punished for a crime in which a victim can't be named is when they were doing something that had true potential to have a victim (Driving While Impared, Neglegent Discharge Of A Firearm, etc.).

Anonymous said...

Let's see here, this hillbilly sheriff department has a list of victims that they have destroyed in their unlawful actions. Where is the OR attorney general or the DOJ? Being there is a complete and total blackout of avenues for such victims to turn to within the government system, is by no means a surprise. Look at whom the people within the government see as their enemies. Christians, Vets, Pro-life, people who support the United States of America's Constitution, people who oppose people from other countries breaking into their country unlawfully, people who support the Second Amendment, and my personal favorite, people who pay with cash to buy a cup of coffee.
The bottom line is, the government employees of America are at war with the citizens. The Tea Party folks are deeply hated by government employees. Because the Tea Party folks want lower taxes and have smaller and accountable government. The government employees feel deeply threatened, because they know they can't make it in the private sector. They know there is a shopping cart, sleeping bag and a cold cardboard box in an alley waiting for them if they should ever lose that fat government job. That is our America today, destroyed by government employees. And it's going to get real bad because parasites will fight to the death than lose the hoast.

BrianS said...

So how do we stop it?

William N. Grigg said...

In the specific case of Malheur County, the sheriff (a childhood friend of mine, as it turns out) needs to be voted out following a long and detailed campaign focusing on the accumulating scandals in his office. Sheriffs are, at least in theory, accountable to an electorate, unlike police chiefs.

More generally, pending the abolition of government law enforcement (may God hasten that day), we have to do away with the pernicious doctrine of qualified immunity -- or at least start a very public fight over the subject.

Anonymous said...

If the DOJ or FBI had the integrity and wished to uphold justice they would audit all the police reports of the MCSO since Wolfe came into office. I believe they would find many, many "situations" such as the recent school Superintendent which are totally overlooked. If it is n't overlooked by the MCSO then the "right person" just might get helped out by the DA. Isn't the old saying..."Depends on who you know and who you blow.".....??

Anonymous said...

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Martin Luther King