The testimony came this week in an ongoing trial of Wachsmuth’s civil rights lawsuit in the federal U.S. District Court of Wyoming in Cheyenne.
Wachsmuth says police used excessive force in seizing two marijuana plants from her and her husband’s home on East North Street. Among other complaints, Wachsmuth claims police didn’t give her the constitutionally-required opportunity to answer the door before they broke it open, unnecessarily deployed a flashbang, used SWAT-style tactics and used her as a human shield.
The city of Powell, Police Chief Tim Feathers and 11 of the 13 officers who were involved in the search are named as defendants in the suit.
Police say Wachsmuth was given enough time to answer the door; they deny using her as a shield, and they say the information they had — of illegal drug activity, numerous loaded firearms and a possibly mentally unstable resident— justified their tactics, such as the flashbang. While only two mature plants were seized, police say they were told by an informant to expect 10 to 20, and a grow log seized at the home indicates another eight or so young plants had been growing just days before the search.
Tricia was alone at the home at the time of the search. Bret was arrested later that evening at the home of his father, Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation agent Tom Wachsmuth.
Sgt. Mike Chretien, who planned the search operation, and three other members of the entry team, Sgt. Roy Eckerdt and officers Kirk Chapman and Mike Hall, testified Tuesday and Wednesday in the trial as Wachsmuth’s attorneys continue to present her case.
All of the officers flatly denied Wachsmuth’s claims that she was used as a human shield as they began searching the home’s basement.
“I think that if you suspect that there is a danger in an uncleared portion and you force someone to go in front of you, yes (you’re using someone as a human shield),” Chretien testified. “In this case we did not perceive there was any danger, and she went willingly.”
Officers searching the home found the basement door unlocked, which, according to the confidential informant, meant that someone was downstairs.
With that information in mind, Chretien asked Wachsmuth if anyone was in the basement.
“She hesitated, which was significant to me, and she said no,” Chretien said. When Chretien then asked if Bret was downstairs, Tricia promptly said no.
“I had two conflicting answers in my mind,” Chretien said. “The first one she had to think about, and the second one she didn’t ... I decided to call her bluff and told her ‘you wouldn’t mind going first,’ or words to that effect.”
Wachsmuth testified the wording was “Get her, she’s going first,” while the other officers who heard the exchange said recalled Chretien saying something like “you first” or “then you can go first.”
At that point, the officers say, Wachsmuth got up from the couch, walked to the basement stairs unimpeded by the officers, and began descending the stairs. All of the officers said they were surprised by her actions.
Chretien said he was expecting a verbal response. Miner and former Powell Police Officer Matt Danzer said they didn’t know what Wachsmuth was doing when she walked to the basement steps.
“She walked right past me and started down. I didn’t really have a chance to do anything,” said Danzer, who was standing near the basement door.
“This all unfolded in a very, very short period of time, and I quite frankly didn’t have time to get in front of her,” said Officer Chad Miner. Miner said he was standing between the kitchen — where the basement door was located — and the living room, where Wachsmuth had been sitting.
Chretien said because Wachsmuth was willing to go downstairs, he quickly concluded there was no threat hiding in the basement.
“If I thought there was a threat downstairs, I would not have allowed her to go,” Chretien testified, though he also said he was surprised and the events happened quickly.
After Wachsmuth reached the basement steps, Chretien said he began thinking “well, I really don’t want her going down the stairs by herself.”
While he was no longer concerned about there being a threat in the basement, “I didn’t want to give her an opportunity to become armed,” he said.
Chretien followed Wachsmuth, Danzer, and Chapman down the stairs.
Chapman said he did not hear Chretien tell Wachsmuth to lead them down the stairs. Had he, Chapman said he probably would have “kind of questioned what was going on.”
On Tuesday, Chapman agreed with Gosman that it was wrong to have Wachsmuth go first. He said he would have stopped her because the area had not been cleared, and even if there was no one in the basement, there could have been accessible weapons.
“I would have stopped her, but I didn’t see her until the door was open and she was going down the stairs,” he said.
On Wednesday, being cross-examined by police attorney Misha Westby, Chapman said he had misunderstood Gosman’s question. He clarified that he meant it was wrong for Wachsmuth to go into the basement alone. “With other officers, I believe that that’s fine,” he said, noting he and other officers followed Wachsmuth downstairs.
Hall said he also was “a little concerned” with Wachsmuth going first since the basement hadn’t been cleared.
“It’s not that it wasn’t right. I think maybe it’s not ideal,” Hall said.
Hall said Sgt. Chretien later apologized to him and a group of officers for sending Tricia Wachsmuth first.
Wachsmuth testified earlier that Danzer had told her to keep going down the stairs when she stopped out of fright, and then pushed her as officers trained their guns at her.
Danzer, Chapman, Chretien and Miner all testified that they never pointed their guns at Wachsmuth as she descended.
“I told her to keep going so we could finish getting downstairs,” Danzer said.
The officers testified the stairs, just less than three feet wide, were too narrow for them to fit by Wachsmuth. She and Bret’s brother Sean have testified the stairs were wide enough for two people to walk down.
At his deposition last year, Chapman testified he and Danzer passed Wachsmuth about halfway down the stairs. But on Wednesday, Chapman said after later reviewing a photo of the stairs, he realized the landing where he passed Wachsmuth was only one step from the bottom. Gosman suggested Chapman was changing his testimony.
Wachsmuth had claimed there were several times officers pointed their guns at her, but the officers denied doing so, or seeing other officers pointing guns during the search. The only time any weapon was pointed at Wachsmuth, the officers said, was during a very brief period after the initial entry.
In one specific instance, Wachsmuth said Sgt. Eckerdt pointed a gun at her head as she sat on the couch.
Eckerdt said the only time he pointed his gun at Wachsmuth was for a few seconds when he first entered the home.
“Once I identified Officer Chapman (standing nearby) and she was sitting on the couch and not a readily identifiable threat, it (the rifle) went back down,” he said. Eckerdt further said the gun would not have been pointed at her head, as officers are trained to hold their weapons low enough to keep a clear view of the suspect’s hands.
Other testimony on Tuesday and Wednesday morning included discussion of how long the officers waited before ramming the door open.
All six of the officers on the entry team have testified Chapman knocked loudly and loudly announced “Police, search warrant.” Wachsmuth says she never heard the officers knock or announce.
Chapman demonstrated his technique to the jury Wednesday morning using a courtroom door.
He testified the officers waited five to six seconds after knocking before ramming open the door.
Sgt. Eckerdt didn’t offer an estimate of how long the officers waited, but said it was enough time for an individual he saw inside the house — later identified as Wachsmuth — to answer the door.
“There was enough time and no indication that anyone was moving in that direction (of the door). That silhouette stayed in that same area,” Eckerdt said.
The officers all testified the dynamic entry into the home wouldn’t have happened if someone had opened the door.
“If the occupants had let us in, there would have been no need to break any windows or deploy the flashbang,” said Chretien.
Other portions of the officers’ testimonies on Tuesday and Wednesday will be discussed in coming issues of the Tribune as the trial progresses.
The plaintiff is expected to finish presenting its case this week, at which point the defense will begin its presentation.
The trial is expected to run into next week.