Powell woman makes case in police suit

Posted 2/17/11

Tricia Wachsmuth sued the department in March 2009 in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming, alleging police used excessive force, caused unnecessary damage to her home and used her as a human shield in the search. Police deny those allegations and …

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Powell woman makes case in police suit


Opposing attorneys and the woman suing the city of Powell and 11 Powell police officers for alleged civil rights violations laid out their cases for an eight-member federal jury in Cheyenne on Tuesday.

On Feb. 24, 2009, Powell police officers executed a search warrant for a marijuana grow operation at the East North Street home of Bret and Tricia Wachsmuth. During that search, they used a battering ram to knock down the door and deployed a flashbang in the master bedroom.

Tricia Wachsmuth sued the department in March 2009 in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming, alleging police used excessive force, caused unnecessary damage to her home and used her as a human shield in the search. Police deny those allegations and argue the decision to use a “dynamic entry” was reasonable given the circumstances.

A civil trial before Judge Alan Johnson began Monday with the seating of a five-man, three-woman jury.

In his opening arguments on Tuesday, Wachsmuth’s attorney, Jeff Gosman of Casper, said police passed over more appropriate, less severe options in choosing to perform a dynamic entry at the home.

“The police had a mission ... and that mission was to bust a door down,” said Gosman.

However, Tom Thompson, a Rawlins attorney representing the city and Powell Police Chief Tim Feathers in their official capacities, said the department planned to breach the door only if no one answered it.

“If that door would have opened, there would have been no dynamic entry,” Thompson said in his opening.

Casey Parker, an assistant attorney general representing the officers in their individual capacities, said police had information the Wachsmuths had weapons strategically placed throughout the house, possibly were receiving prescription medications through the mail, had armor-piercing ammunition and possibly were mentally unstable, in addition to growing marijuana.

Though police allege as many as 10 other plants had been growing not long before the raid, only two marijuana plants were seized. Several guns also were found. The Wachsmuths each pleaded guilty to marijuana-related misdemeanors and received fines and probation.

Parker said a police-practices expert retained by the defense will testify the officers “did have reason to be concerned for their safety that night.”

The intent of the department in planning a dynamic entry, Parker said, was to be “better safe than sorry” — for both police and the home’s occupants.

Gosman, however, noted that the Wachsmuths had no criminal record or history of violence. He said both Wachsmuths were smoking marijuana to cope with mental problems — Bret’s bi-polar disorder and Tricia’s depression.

“There’s been an effort to exaggerate the facts of this case from day one,” Gosman said.

Both Wachsmuths, he said, have since stopped using marijuana.

The primary issue in the case is whether the officers, as required by case law, waited a reasonable amount of time before breaching the door.

Gosman said the officers didn’t wait before knocking down the door; Parker said they gave more than enough time for someone to answer.

Tricia Wachsmuth was alone at the home when police arrived. She testified on Tuesday that she was sitting on the couch — a few feet from the front door — when she saw men crouching on her front porch.

“And all of sudden, just all through out my whole house, just this huge bang ... A bunch of people came running through my house,” she said.

Wachsmuth said an officer took her phone while another pointed a gun at her head for about five minutes while the other officers searched the home.

“I could literally stare down the barrel of the gun,” Wachsmuth said.

Parker said police testimony would show officers actually lowered their weapons after identifying Wachsmuth.

Wachsmuth testified one of the officers told her to go first as police prepared to check the basement.

When she stopped on the stairs out of fright, Wachsmuth said a line of officers behind her all raised their weapons at her, and one pushed her away from the wall to keep going.

“I was so scared. I didn’t know if I was going to trip or get shot,” she said.

Parker said police had no intent to force her to go down the stairs first. She said Sgt. Mike Chretien will testify he told Wachsmuth to go down the stairs to call her bluff and determine if anyone was actually hiding in the basement.

It surprised the officers, she said, when Wachsmuth did not respond verbally but instead got up and walked to the basement steps.

“The officers will tell you they had no idea what she was doing,” Parker said.

Wachsmuth described the guns in the house as being for hunting, skeet shooting and protection. She testified Josh Bessler, the man who tipped off Powell police to the grow operation, had threatened to get even with the couple after they kicked him out of their home for having methamphetamine. As a result of those threats, Wachsmuth said, Bret placed a loaded .22 caliber gun on the living room bookshelf for her protection each time he left the home.

“Bret was afraid he (Bessler) would come in and shoot me, just to get even,” Wachsmuth testified.

Both Thompson and fellow police attorney Misha Westby asked Wachsmuth during cross examination why the front door had been unlocked that night if the couple was afraid of Bessler. Wachsmuth said it was unlocked because Bret — who was at his father’s house — didn’t have a key and “I didn’t think about it.”

Wachsmuth testified Tuesday that she was one to two weeks pregnant at the time of the search, but after skeptical questioning from Westby, changed her testimony on Wednesday to say she didn’t get pregnant until a couple weeks after the incident.

Judge Johnson interrupted Wachsmuth several times during Tuesday’s cross examination because he found her long, wide-ranging answers weren’t addressing Westby’s yes-or-no questions.

“We want responsive answers to the questions, not sermons,” Johnson said.

Wachsmuth choked up while describing the raid and twice took anti-anxiety pills during her Tuesday testimony.

Gosman said Wachsmuth suffers from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of the search.

She testified she had the first panic attack of her life when she returned to her home following the raid.

“It felt like I was going to die,” she said of that attack.

After that experience, Wachsmuth said she never again went back to the residence. The couple later sold it.

During cross examination, Westby suggested being caught growing marijuana by police was traumatic in itself.

“Would it be fair to say to be caught by police in the act of committing a crime is a traumatic experience?” asked Westby.

“The traumatic experience is what they did to me,” Wachsmuth countered.

In her opening argument, Parker said testimony would show Wachsmuth’s psychological problems existed prior to the raid.

For example, Parker said Wachsmuth had complained of being depressed and having trouble sleeping the day prior to the search.

“She (Wachsmuth) has a history of personal tragedy — the stuff that we would pray we wouldn’t have to endure in a lifetime, especially at a young age,” Parker said.

When she was 16, Wachsmuth’s father died of cancer and her older brother hanged himself. Another brother later suffered brain damage in a car crash and her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Wachsmuth said she experimented with several hard drugs after her brother killed himself, but she didn’t like them.

“I liked marijuana because it calmed me down,” she said. “It helped with my depression.”

Gosman repeatedly said there was no evidence the Wachsmuths were doing anything other than raising marijuana for personal use.

Wachsmuth said her struggles with self-abuse explain why police found a ripped-open teddy bear in a box addressed to her mother.

Bessler had told police Wachsmuth’s mother was mailing prescription drugs inside stuffed animals to the couple. But Wachsmuth testified that, some time ago, she discovered cutting open stuffed animals was a satisfying way to relieve the stress she’d previously expressed by cutting herself.

Preferring her daughter cut stuffed animals instead of herself, Wachsmuth’s mother — who lives out of state — made a deal that she would sew up the cut animals and mail them back, Tricia Wachsmuth said.

The ripped teddy bear seized by police was being sent to her mother to be re-sewn, Wachsmuth said.

In civil cases, the plaintiff presents their case first. The trial is expected to last through next week.

Editor's note: This version of the story clarifies Casey Parker's name.