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March 23, 2010 4:03 am

Powell woman sues police

Written by Tribune Staff

Suit claims civil rights were violated during '09 drug search

A Powell woman has filed a federal lawsuit against the Powell Police Department and the city of Powell alleging her civil rights were violated in a 2009 drug search of her home.

In the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Casper earlier this month, plaintiff Tricia Wachsmuth of Powell alleges police officers used excessive force when executing a search warrant, acted recklessly, caused unnecessary damage to her home, used her as a human shield and caused her severe emotional distress.

The suit names defendants as the city of Powell, Police Chief Tim Feathers and a dozen Powell police officers.

Attorneys representing the city of Powell had not responded to messages left by the Tribune as of press time Monday.

Wachsmuth is seeking damages up to $1 million, said Jeffrey Gosman, the Casper lawyer who is representing her. The suit doesn't specify a dollar amount, but that is the maximum she could receive.

According to the complaint, the raid resulted in the recovery of two marijuana plants, a small amount of marijuana, drug paraphernalia and prescription medication belonging to the plaintiff's husband, Bret Wachsmuth, under a valid prescription.

An informant who had been arrested for possession of methamphetamine told police that Tricia Wachsmuth and her husband, Bret Wachsmuth, had marijuana plants in the basement of their home.

An affidavit of probable cause filed in circuit court on Feb. 25, 2009, states that the informant also told officers that Bret Wachsmuth sometimes carried a small pistol and kept several guns in the house, including loaded handguns.

The informant told Bret Wachsmuth that he was going to turn him into the police, according to the affidavit.

Neither Bret nor Tricia Wachsmuth had prior criminal or violent histories, according to the suit.

Last August, Tricia Wachsmuth was offered a deferred prosecution for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Under the conditional guilty plea, the charge was dismissed upon her completion of six months of probation and payment of $180.

Also in August, Bret Wachsmuth reached a plea agreement where he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of cultivating marijuana. He served six months probation and paid $480, according to court records.

The complaint details the night of Feb. 24, 2009, when Wachsmuth said a SWAT team stormed her East North Street home.

Surveillance of the home was conducted earlier that day, and a child was believed to be on the premises, according to the suit.

A dozen officers, the SWAT team, were assembled and planned to storm the house in two different teams while a third team deployed a noise flash distraction or “flashbang” device, according to the complaint.

In a statement recounting her experience, Wachsmuth said she was home alone watching television in her living room around 9:15 p.m. that night. Her dog started acting in an unusual manner, and Wachsmuth thought she saw someone outside.

“When I looked closer, there was suddenly a very loud explosion in my house. My front door was busted open, and I smelled smoke inside the house. Men carrying machine guns came running into my home,” she said.

The complaint alleges that Wachsmuth was not allowed a reasonable period of time to open the door in response.

While officers entered the front door, the complaint states that two other policemen broke a bedroom window and deployed a flashbang device, which started a fire on a mattress, destroying it, and causing other damage.

Officers asked Wachsmuth several times whether anyone else was in the home, and she said she was home alone. They held her at gunpoint and searched the main floor, and she did not resist, according to the complaint.

She was then ordered to lead the officers into the basement, and they followed her with weapons pointed at her back, using her as a shield, the complaint alleges.

“My hands were still in the air, and he was still holding his machine gun on me,” Wachsmuth states. “All the other officers were in a line facing me, standing next to the basement door as I was being followed to the basement door by the officer with the machine gun.”

In her statement, she recounts fearing for her life and wondering, “Why am I going down first? Why are they behind me?”

She says that, at one time, she stopped and was ordered to “Get going,” by an officer as he grabbed her shoulder and pushed her forward down the stairs.

After they reached the basement, Wachsmuth was handcuffed and led back upstairs.

In their search, officers found one semi-automatic pistol in the hallway, two loaded revolvers in the master bedroom and one loaded semi-automatic pistol in another bedroom. In the basement, they found two marijuana plats, several fluorescent lights that were not being used, numerous grow logs, marijuana-growing guidebooks, seeds and other drug paraphernalia, according to the probable cause affidavit.

The complaint alleges that the Wachsmuths' guns were damaged by police officers, and Wachsmuth seeks reimbursement.

After her arrest, Wachsmuth claims that, as she was looking at her home from the police car, officers were taking pictures. “One officer was posing for the camera by standing on one leg, holding his hands in the air with his fingers making the ‘rock and roll' sign,” Wachsmuth states.

“The actions of the defendants in executing a misdemeanor search warrant with a SWAT team, where neither suspect had a prior criminal history or history of violence, deployment of a flashbang device, violation of the knock and announce rules, and use of the plaintiff as a human shield were outrageous …” the complaint states.

Gosman, Wachsmuth's attorney, said the complaint isn't about a dollar figure as much as it is about holding the police force accountable for their actions. Gosman added he has heard that the Powell Police Department has “some cowboys who are having too much fun and need to be reined in.”