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Jury: Officers used woman as human shield

Wachsmuth awarded $30,001 in civil suit

A federal jury has awarded $30,001 to a Powell woman, finding the Powell Police Department used her a human shield in violation of her constitutional rights during a search of her home for drugs two years ago.

The jury also found that two officers who deployed a flashbang in the home’s master bedroom did so in a potentially unsafe manner.

However, the eight-member panel also determined that, contrary to Tricia Wachsmuth’s claims, officers knocked and announced their presence and waited a reasonable amount of time before ramming open her front door, and that the department’s plan to enter the home was constitutional.

Of the award, $30,000 was to cover the costs of psychological treatment for Wachsmuth while $1 was to compensate her for pain and mental anguish.

The jury’s verdict, reached on Friday, came after three weeks of trial proceedings, testimony and deliberations in Wachsmuth’s civil rights lawsuit against Powell police in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming in Cheyenne.

District Court Judge Alan Johnson, who presided over the case, has also awarded a to-be-determined amount of attorney’s fees and costs to Wachsmuth.

If the award amount is not appealed and stands, it would be paid for by the state of Wyoming’s self-insurance pool, which covers peace officers in the state.

Police had seized two mature marijuana plants in the Feb. 24, 2009 search of Tricia and her husband Bret’s home on East North Street after being tipped off by a confidential informant; evidence showed another eight seedlings had been growing two days prior to the search. Drug paraphernalia and six firearms — including five in the master bedroom — also were seized. Police broke open the door and deployed a flashbang when executing the search warrant, and officers had Wachsmuth lead them into the basement. Tricia Wachsmuth filed suit last March, alleging the department used excessive force.

The suit had named the city of Powell, Police Chief Tim Feathers and 11 officers who participated in the raid as defendants. Sgt. Mike Chretien, who planned and the raid and told Wachsmuth to go into the basement, and Sgt. Roy Eckerdt were the only officers found to be liable for violating Wachsmuth’s civil rights. The city, Feathers and the nine other officers were cleared for their roles in the search.

The jury was made up of five men and three women, hailing from Albany and Laramie counties in southeast Wyoming — specifically Laramie and Cheyenne.

The panel found Sgt. Mike Chretien forced Wachsmuth “with guns down the stairs where she was employed as a human shield.” Chretien testified he told Wachsmuth to go first down the stairs as an attempt to call her bluff and determine if there was anyone else in the home. Chretien said he was expecting her to respond verbally, not actually walk down the stairs.

Two officers testified they had concerns with Wachsmuth going first, but were too surprised to stop her. Chretien said that when Wachsmuth appeared willing to go downstairs, he was felt comfortable there was no threat, but he and all the other officers also testified that it happened very quickly.

In a Monday interview with the Tribune, juror Harry Kittleman of Cheyenne noted the officers had been told that when the basement door was unlocked, that meant there was someone downstairs, where the marijuana was growing. The basement door had been found unlocked.

“They (the officers) should have been going down to clear it, not forcing her (Wachsmuth) down there,” Kittleman said.

Sgt. Roy Eckerdt, who was nearby, was found liable in the use of Wachsmuth as a shield, because as a supervisor, the jury felt he should have stopped Chretien.

“I do believe their (the plaintiff’s) rights were violated, but not on purpose,” said juror Chris McDaniel of Cheyenne immediately after the verdict’s announcement. McDaniel said the wording of the jury instructions forced him to find in favor of the plaintiffs.

“I don’t think they (the plaintiff) should have got a fricking dime,” he said.

The jury’s verdict appeared to accept the police officers’ testimony above Wachsmuth’s.

“I don’t think Tricia’s testimony was credible at all. I fought this to no end,” said McDaniel.

“We didn’t put much credibility into what she (Wachsmuth) said,” said Kittleman.

Though Wachsmuth testified the officers pointed their guns at her as she descended the stairs, Kittleman said he did not believe the officers did so, saying they had no reason to.

The officers had testified they had not pointed guns at Wachsmuth as she went down the stairs.

Of Wachsmuth’s account that the officers never knocked and announced their presence, “I don’t think anyone believes that, even her attorney,” said Kittleman.

The officers all testified that they knocked and announced their presence and waited before breaching the door.

By all accounts, Wachsmuth was only a few feet away from the front door when officers arrived.

“It certainly would not take her long to get to the door or say something,” said Kittleman. Noting a handgun was found on the living room bookshelf, “it wouldn’t take too long to get to that, either,” Kittleman said.

The jury also found that Sgt. Alan Kent — who broke out the master bedroom window — and Officer Matt McCaslin — who dropped the flashbang through the window — failed to “into the master bedroom before deploying the flashbang device in a manner that the device would not risk injury.”

Kittleman said the jury agreed to find it was potentially unsafe at the insistence of one juror, who wasn’t going to agree on the award amount otherwise. Personally, Kittleman said he believed the deployment of the flash was “probably safe,” citing the officers’ rationale that anyone in the room likely would have woken up or made noise with the dog barking, door knocking and being rammed, and glass breaking.

Kent and McCaslin testified they looked into the room, but couldn’t see exactly where the flashbang was going to land; they were not found to have violated Wachsmuth’s civil rights.

The jury also found the department’s plan — to breach the door and deploy distractions including a flashbang if the door wasn’t opened — was not unconstitutional.

“For the information they (police) had, I think they did the proper thing,” Kittleman said. Police say they had been told by an informant the Wachsmuths were growing 10 to 20 plants, had loaded firearms strategically placed around the house, were paranoid, peeped out the window looking for police, had been told police were coming and were possibly mentally unstable.

While the plaintiff’s attorney Jeff Gosman repeatedly noted the Wachsmuths had no criminal history, Kittleman, siding with the officers’ testimony, said a lack of a criminal history was not too significant to him “because at some point that (a criminal history) starts. There’s always a first time.”

Kittleman said the jury decided to award just $1 for pain and suffering because the Wachsmuths “needed some responsibility there” for growing marijuana. Wachsmuth had asked for $500,000.

“If it wasn’t for them breaking the law, the police wouldn’t have been in there,” Kittleman said.

The Wachsmuths both completed sentences of probation after pleading guilty to marijuana-related misdemeanors.

The jury had initially planned to award $20,000 to Wachsmuth, but increased the sum up based at the insistence of the one juror. The figure, Kittleman said, was an estimate of how much Wachsmuth’s mental health treatments cost over the past two years and for three years in the future.

Gosman had asked for $9,000 of medical costs a year for 10 years. Wachsmuth has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Kittleman said he questioned if the raid was the cause, noting her psychiatrist wasn’t positive.

“She obviously has some mental issues but she had some coming into that (night of the search),” Kittleman said.

Two jurors declined comment to the Tribune shortly after the verdict. A Facebook message left for another juror had not been returned as of press time.

The sides each have 30 days to appeal.

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10 comments

  • posted by Bill

    March 10, 2011 11:01 am

    Dear I'm thinking about a career change,

    Perhaps you should apply to be a Powell Police Officer!! Then you can make the $30,000 you desire and you get to break the law with impunity!! The Wachsmuth's broke the law and were punished for what they did. The Powell PD broke the law and...and...and...

  • posted by Im thinking about a career change...

    March 10, 2011 1:01 am

    Crime doesn't pay? That's not what I just read. I'm going to go break the law and then claim I have” Post Dramatic Stress Disorder" so I can get my $30,000.00. Why should anyone fallow the law with benefits like that!

  • posted by Mr. 4570

    March 09, 2011 9:24 pm

    I am disappointed that the Powell Tribune has not answered your questions. I preface this comment by challenging you to access the court records before you dismiss these assertions as nothing more than my opinion. In the absence of the jury, the JUDGE even called out the police for lying on the stand. The reporter was there for all of this, yet these facts are mysteriously absent from the newspaper stories. I don’t blame him. The way the Powell Police behave then he’s probably afraid of what they will do to him if he tells the truth. Here are a few examples of how the police lied, committed perjury during the trial, conspired to cover all this up, etc.

    1. Roy Eckerdt positively asserted 5 times in his deposition that he saw pictures on Bret’s brothers myspace page of Bret and his brother wearing riot gear and holding machine guns. He cited this as a major reason for the officers to use a dynamic entry and the fact that Bret was dangerous. Those pictures never existed and when confronted with this fact, as well as the actual photos on the myspace page, Roy Eckerdt said in testimony he never saw those pictures. What he said under oath in his deposition and what he said under oath in the trial were totally different. Lie. Perjury.

    2. The attorneys for the Powell PD attempted to prevent their own official police reports from being entered as evidence. The reports were in direct contrast to what the officers later testified under oath so they knew they were lying all along. The reports said nothing of Tricia going down the stairs. A pretty important detail, don’t you think? The reports were admitted but the Powell PD claimed they only use reports for processing a crime and the detail of her going down the stairs was not important. Right, they knew they used her as a human shield (jury even found that they did despite the lies) but they conveniently left that part out of the report. Cover-up. Conspiracy to hide Evidence. Perjury.

    3. The Powell PD took the 2 plants from the house that were only a few inches tall and then fed and grew them at the PD. The Powell PD tried to admit pictures of two huge plants that they grew that conveniently lacked a time and date stamp, which is standard practice in handling evidence. How is it legal for law enforcement to grow the plants after they have been seized and then lie to the jury and say they were this large when they were confiscated? Concocted evidence and perjury.

    4. Officer Chapman said in deposition that when Tricia was on her way down the stairs the officers passed her at the top of the stairs. In testimony he said that actually they did follow her all the way down the stairs because they were too narrow to get by her. Perjury. Lie. Cover-up.

    5. The Powell PD adamantly stated in testimony that they never move evidence in a crime scene, which of course you would expect. However, in several pictures they admitted as evidence of the scene included numerous staged shots where they placed additional guns in the pictures to mislead the jury into believing there were more guns in the house. They “staged” pictures of the crime scene. What the hell is that? This is the kind of crazy stuff you see on some TV show before the cops are taken down for corruption. Lie. Purjury. Fabrication of Evidence.

    6. The defense repeatedly stated in testimony that there were 10-20 plants in the house yet in the affidavit for search warrant it was stated that there were only 6 plants. Lie. Concocting evidence.

    7. The defense stated in testimony that they knew that the informant tipped Bret off before the raid yet there was no mention in that of reports or the search warrant or the affidavit for search warrant. Lie. Cover-up. Perjury.

    8. As late as December 2010, long after the criminal case against the plaintiffs was over, it was stated in opening arguments that the defense sent evidence to the crime lab in an attempt to show the existence of controlled substances. One of these was a straw they claimed had “residue” on it yet it was found to only have vanilla on it. The other was an empty pill bottle that was found to contain only legally prescribed prescriptions for Bret. The chief sent an email saying the officers “have to find a way to make this a felony.” Fabrication of Evidence.

    9. In their official police reports and their official response to the lawsuit the defense stated that the officers who threw the flashbang could see in the window, looked in the window, and confirmed it was safe to deploy the flashbang before deploying the flashbang. Only during depositions did they realize they were caught in this lie and admitted that the flashbang was blindly thrown into the room. Plus, they admitted that Chretian, McCaslin, and Kent knew that this happened and did nothing to amend their reports or the response to the lawsuit. Another reason the police tried to keep their own reports out of evidence. Lie. Cover-up. Perjury.

    10. It was stated in court that Officer Brown contacted Lieutenant Patterson and attempted to intimidate him regarding his upcoming deposition. Witness tampering.

    Is this enough? Should we not expect our police officers to at least tell the truth under oath? I do not know how many examples you need but there are many more – only 10 are mentioned here. On top of this, despite maintaining their belief that they did nothing wrong , The Powell Police were found guilty in federal court of using Tricia as a human shield and blindly throwing a flashbang into the window.

  • posted by bob

    March 09, 2011 3:16 pm

    dont you think it is amazing that (doesnt deserve capitols)feathers was off duty the night this went down....sounds to me this guy is putting the whole sting on his fellow employees..as is the administrator and down the line...boy, what a place to work for and be associated with....I sure hope they have a heck of a benefit package when they are discarded because they are taking orders from above, just to save their jobs. There are some good cops in this town, but only an investigator on the upper side...The rest are nothing but clones to the feather...I wish a few of you sargeants well(especially the LIARS), and hope to see your places up for sale....

  • posted by Mickey

    March 09, 2011 6:35 am

    Did anyone lose there jobs for the Civil Rights violations or do the police run Wyoming.

    I hope the FBI looks into this.

  • posted by Dan

    March 08, 2011 9:29 pm

    I am a police officer in Wyoming and I want to thank CJ Baker for the articles he has written about this case. As an officer, I want someone like Mr. Baker to write about us this way from now on. It gives me warm fuzzy feelings and makes me feel good about myself and my profession.

    I doesn't matter that the Powell Police Officers have shamed all of us, not only in Wyoming but throughout the country. These officers use a woman as a human shield and it's ok, they lobbed a flash bang into a house blindly and that's ok too! Now we can do whatever we want with no consequences!! Sure a few cops in Powell were found guilty of using a woman as a human shield. Who cares!!!! Life is good for us now because we can totally ignore the 4th amendment. Maybe next the Powell PD should start rounding up all the guns owned by the citizens of Powell. If the 4th amendment doesn't matter then the 2nd amendment is a waste too!! Besides, if the Wachsmuth's were dangerous because they had legal guns and committed a misdemeanor offense the rest of you law breaking gun owners must be equally dangerous. Right? I am sure that none of you will have a problem with that. You do the crime, you do the time, unless you wear a badge for the City of Powell of course. They can commit all the crimes they want and as long as they do it to arrest a misdemeanor offender it's ok.

    CJ, maybe you should run for mayor. You would make a fine mayor! Seems the current Mayor does not have a problem with his Chief and Officers breaking the law and neither do you. Do your job as a journalist or don’t complain when the Powell PD comes to take away your 1st amendment rights.

    Its just so nice to know that no matter what we do as police officers CJ will somehow find a way to print a story to make us look good, Chief Feathers will cover it up and justify it, and the mayor and city council will look the other way. Best of all, BEST OF ALL, the people of Powell will bury their heads in the sand and hope this uncomfortable situation just goes away. Let the good times roll!!!

    PROVE ME WRONG!!!!!!

  • posted by Proud of our national recognition

    March 08, 2011 12:57 pm

    ,got any photos of the Human Shield???,PEOPLE of POWELL you are on the map YAHOO!!!First agency in the US TO HAVE A RULING FOR HUMAN SHIELD!!!Aren't you proud now!!!..objective reporting hahaha what a joke..Feathers will spin this as a win,,,,,,,the council has no intestinal guts to do what is needed.....SGTs will continue to be a liability,,,,NEGLIGENT RETENTION.... can you say more money down the road,,,,,hey is your City attorney and Manager Looking out for the long term or listening to the BIRDS OF A FEATHERS FLOCK TOGETHER!!

  • posted by jo blow

    March 08, 2011 12:07 pm

    How brave and fierce our valiant police force is! First they wait until there is only a lone female present, then they stormed the house with their untested battering ram and flashbang. I really sleep good at night knowing these gallant officers are on duty...

  • posted by clipstein

    March 08, 2011 10:48 am

    Lets look at it this way in spite of what you may read here..... They would not have awarded a thing if there was not truth here......So print whatever you want. this means the city is responsible for atttorneys, witness's, court costs.......who knows how much this cost the city........ but i would be looking at the mayor and crew, city manager, police chief all of whom let this go on..... how many times has this happened?????? how many times raided the wrong address????? and all of the above have allowed this to happen.

  • posted by TB

    March 08, 2011 10:32 am

    Looks like a few may be getting off easy.Watch for more fiascos like this in the future.

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