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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 4.23.2009



Shocking Taser Trial


Brutality on tape, but jury convicts

by Alan Pittman

Ian Van Ornum and Carly Barnicle before the Tasering last year. Photo Cali Bagby
EPD Sgt. Bill Solesbee chose to arrest rather than ticket Van Ornum. Courtesy KVAL

At 1:15 pm on a sunny Friday afternoon last May 30, Ian Van Ornum, a quiet-spoken UO freshman from Minnesota with long red hair, was at the Broadway and Willamette plaza for an anti-pesticide rally.

In just over a minute, police who decided to arrest rather than ticket him for a jaywalking misdemeanor would painfully twist the thin young man’s arms behind his back and pull his hair to throw him face first into the concrete sidewalk causing a concussion. Then police would shoot him in the back twice with 50,000 volts from a Taser while he lay face down with his arms pinned under his side or held behind his back, according to trial testimony and police video. 

EPD officers and a criminal prosecutor said the use of force was a justified response to the misdemeanors of slowing traffic (disorderly conduct) and resisting arrest. Protesters and Van Ornum’s attorneys say it was unjustified excessive force.

A criminal trial ended last week with Van Ornum convicted of the misdemeanor charges. Sentencing is scheduled for Friday, April 24. 

Prosecutor Bob Lane told the jury the charges of excessive force were “irrelevant” to the criminal trial. “There might be an argument to be made that not everything the defendant did justified being Tased,” Lane said. But the prosecutor said the brutality complaint was a matter not for the criminal trial but for the city of Eugene’s police auditor and/or a civil lawsuit.

The three-day trial provided under-oath evidence, police documents and incriminating videos that will play a key role in coming proceedings and provide a public view into just what really happened that shocking day in May.

 

Peaceful protest

The rally “everybody agrees is peaceful,” said prosecutor Lane. 

“It was actually kind of a sleepy event,” testified Lisa Arkin, director of the Oregon Toxics Alliance. Arkin said the noon rally included speakers and a large banner. The purpose was to thank the Lane County Board of Commissioners for reforming its roadside spraying. She said “maybe 12 people” showed up.

Van Ornum said he and a few others dressed in white hazardous materials jumpsuits at the rally and carried around a water sprayer with a crude skull and crossbones drawn on it. 

Van Ornum and his co-organizer Carly Barnicle and other protestors testified the water sprayer was a cartoonish street theater prop used to attract attention to the protest, not to threaten people. Van Ornum said he gave people a “spiel” about roadside spraying and asked people jokingly “do you want to continue to be poisoned?” 

Art teacher Sharon Dursi testified that she had brought five students downtown for a field trip to a gallery. She said one protester asked the group, “would you like to be sprayed with toxic chemicals.” She said she responded, “I’d rather not” and some of her students “got upset.”

“A few bikers rode by and asked to be sprayed” with the water, Barnicle testified. 

Van Ornum said one driver gave him the finger, but most were positive. “There was a lot of thumbs up.”

Lane repeatedly described the rally as peaceful and police didn’t charge anyone with menacing or threatening passers by. There was no evidence presented that any citizen called police to complain during the rally. “There’s nothing about the rally that provoked a police response,” Lane said.

 

Homeland Security

The rally did provoke a response from Tom Keedy, a federal officer with the Federal Protective Service of the Department of Homeland Security. Observing the rally from his parked SUV, Keedy called Eugene Police Sergeant Bill Solesbee, the patrol watch commander, at 1:02 pm. 

“I recollect him saying that there were some protesters he was concerned about because they were the same protesters that had stormed the federal building a couple of months ago,” Solesbee testified.

Actually, none of that was true. Keedy admitted he was mistaken that they were the same “Pitchfork Rebellion” protesters he was concerned about. News reports also show the federal building was not “stormed” in March, but the destination for an OSPIRG organized anti-logging march that resulted in no arrests or citations.

On May 30 Keedy said he saw protesters spraying but because it was an anti-pesticide rally, “I assumed it was innocuous.” But he said he was concerned others might see it as threatening. 

He said he called Solesbee back at 1:11 pm to tell him he was leaving and also about his concerns with the spraying. 

 

Slowing traffic?

Solesbee said he dispatched himself to the protest at 1:12 pm in response to Keedy’s calls. At 1:14 pm he called for two downtown bike patrol officers to meet him there.

Driving to the scene in an unmarked SUV, Solesbee said he found traffic backed up two blocks north on Willamette. “It could have been seven to eight minutes, up to 15 minutes,” before he could drive through the back up to reach Willamette, the officer said in sworn testimony.

But police cell phone records and Taser gun time stamps obtained by the defense indicate such a delay is impossible. The records show that Van Ornum was Tasered by another officer while Solesbee was arresting him at 1:16 pm, four minutes after his dispatch time stamp of 1:12 pm. 

Solesbee said when he arrived he saw Van Ornum causing a backup by walking though the crosswalks and then doubling back.

“He was kind of misleading the traffic,” he said. 

Van Ornum said he was “doing squares,” spraying the flower pots at the four corners of the intersection. But he denied that he was causing any more delay than a normal pedestrian in a crosswalk. “When the cars were stopped, that’s when I crossed,” he said. “That’s what pedestrians do.” 

Solesbee was the only witness who said Van Ornum was committing disorderly conduct by slowing traffic. 

Protestors Barnicle, Arkin and Simeron Gillespie testified that Van Ornum was not blocking traffic. 

Jessica Arena biked by on her way to work and said Van Ornum wasn’t blocking traffic. “It was moving quite smoothly as usual,” she testified.  

 

“Smart butt”

Solesbee said he stopped in the intersection and called Van Ornum over and told him to stay out of the street or he would be arrested. 

“The anger was apparent right off the bat,” said Van Ornum of the police sergeant’s demeanor. 

Van Ornum said he told the officer he couldn’t be arrested because he was 17. Van Ornum, who was really 18, said it was a “smart butt” thing to say that he regrets. 

Solesbee said Van Ornum held up the spray nozzle and said “something similar” to “would you want to be sprayed in the face with poison?” 

Van Ornum said he said his “spiel” about continuing to be poisoned with pesticides. “It was not just do you want to be sprayed with poison.”

Solesbee said he was “not really” concerned the sprayer actually had poison. The officer noted that if he had been concerned he would not have let him point it or would have rolled up his window, but did not. 

 

Grabbed

Solesbee said he drove away and decided to arrest Van Ornum for the misdemeanor of slowing traffic. The officer circled the block, parking on the sidewalk and walking up behind Van Ornum while two bike police officers approached him from in front. 

Solesbee said Van Ornum was still in the street, delaying traffic. But Van Ornum and protestor Art Farley said he was resting against a flower pot in the plaza.  Van Ornum said he had  obeyed the officer’s order to get out of the street. 

Solesbee said he took one of Van Ornum’s arms and officer Judd Warden took the other to lead him across the street to where he could be arrested away from the other protesters. 

Van Ornum said Solesbee grabbed him without warning and immediately painfully yanked and twisted his arm, forcing him across the street.

Bike officer Tim Haywood said Solesbee used an arm bar hold on Van Ornum. 

The twisting arm bar is described by the U.S. Department of Justice as a “pain compliance” hold.  

“I did not resist, I reacted to the pain,” Van Ornum said. “The amount of pain that was being applied was ridiculous.” 

Attorney Don Dickman, driving by in his car, said he saw police grab Van Ornum “in a very forceful abrupt manner.”

“I was a little astounded, I didn’t see anything that looked like a violation of any law,” Dickman said. “I didn’t see anything in the way of resistance.” 

“I just saw a kid out there ignoring the cops and the cops getting very angry,” Dickman said. “I was very concerned for Mr. Van Ornum’s safety.”

“He was exclaiming in pain” and asking why he was being arrested, said protester Gillespie. 

“He seemed really confused and shocked,” said Farley of Van Ornum. Farley said he didn’t hear police say anything before they grabbed him “almost instantaneously” and “wrenched” his arm behind his back.

“It happened really fast,” said passerby Arena. She said she didn’t hear police say anything before they “very aggressively” put his arm behind his back. “I hadn’t seen him do anything that warranted such aggressive behavior.”

“Ian was not resisting, he didn’t even have a chance to resist before they grabbed him,” said protester Barnicle.

But Solesbee said Van Ornum was trying to pull away. “He was resistant from the get go.” 

Federal officer Keedy also said Van Ornum was “trying to pull away.”

Bike Officer Tim Haywood said Van Ornum was moving his wrists apart preventing them from being handcuffed.  He said he was “surprised” he and Solesbee weren’t able to push his hands together and handcuff him. “I’m a fairly big guy,” he said. 

Van Ornum said it didn’t appear handcuffing him was the police officers’ priority. “There’s two very strong officers on a pretty scrawny kid,” he said. “It seemed to me that the force they were applying to me and the pain they were inflicting was more important to them.”

Van Ornum and protester Gillespie said one officer told him to get on the ground while another told him not to move. “It was confusing,” Van Ornum said. He said it was difficult to get on the ground with both hands held behind him.

Solesbee said he repeatedly yelled at the protester to stop resisting but he did not. “I grabbed a hold of his hair, forced him down on the ground with all my body weight,” Solesbee said. 

Van Ornum said it was “very painful” and he heard his hair ripping. Van Ornum said he was forced “headfirst into the ground” with both hands behind his back, striking his head. “I’m pretty sure I was unconscious for a few seconds,” he said. 

“I saw them slam his head into the concrete,” said Barnicle, describing Van Ornum bleeding from the hairline. 

Doctors later diagnosed a concussion.

 

Taser

Warden said he had turned to face an angry, yelling crowd of about 50 moving toward the arrest. 

Haywood put the “very angry” advancing crowd at about 20. Passerby Arena said their were only about 10 people.

Warden said two protesters took a swing at him. The two later plead guilty to attempted assault. Farley said he wrongly “pushed” Warden after seeing what was happening to Van Ornum. “I was overwhelmed with emotion.” 

Farley said Warden hit him on the shoulder and “threw me into a wall.” 

Warden and Haywood said they were “scared” by the crowd. But the two officers did not draw their semiautomatic pistols on the unarmed demonstrators. Haywood said when he brandished his Taser the crowd stepped back. 

Warden said he fumbled with his Taser safety before turning to Van Ornum. The protester was still resisting Solesbee and moving his arms, according to Warden. He said he gave a warning and then fired the Taser into the young man’s back while he lay face down on the ground. 

Solesbee said Van Ornum was “screaming” while being shocked. 

“I’d never felt any pain that even compared to it in any way,” said Van Ornum. “The heart was beating to the point I thought it was either going to explode or stop beating entirely.”

Warden said he was still resisting after the first shock so he shocked him again. 

In sworn testimony Warden said it was not possible that Van Ornum had one arm behind his back when he was Tasered the first time. He also swore it was not possible that before the second shock he was laying face down with both hands behind his back in officer Solesbee’s grasp. “No, I’d say not.”

But video shot by Solesbee’s own taser gun contradicted the officer’s sworn testimony. Played in step motion, the video showed Warden first Tasered Van Ornum as he lay with one arm held behind his back and the other apparently pinned under his side. 

Van Ornum then writhed for the five second shock. “It appears that he’s in pain,” said Warden watching the video.

Eleven seconds after the first shock ended, the video showed Van Ornum face down on the ground holding his hands behind his back complying with police orders. “It looks like both his hands are behind his back,” Warden admitted. 

A second later, Van Ornum began to writhe as Warden delivered a second 50,000 volts.

Warden said the Tasering happened quickly and he was “stressed” by the angry crowd at the time. He said he followed department policy to use the Taser when “reasonably necessary” to avoid injury. 

Solesbee and Warden said they feared they could be injured by Van Ornum flailing the cuff like a weapon on one hand. But with the video showing Van Ornum face down with his hands behind him, it does not appear such dangerous flailing would be possible. 

Officers can choose to talk to someone and issue a ticket for misdemeanors such jaywalking rather than handcuffing and arresting someone. It’s routine with traffic tickets. 

Solesbee said with the threatening crowd just giving Van Ornum a ticket wasn’t safe. But Solesbee and the other officers as well as the protesters, prosecutor and defense lawyers all agreed on one thing: The crowd was “peaceful” and only became agitated after the officers grabbed Van Ornum.