Excessive Force

Citizen complaints and a brutal arrest heat up the sheriff's race in Park County.

Accounts of what happened next vary greatly. According to Sharp's report, Gates became "extremely uncooperative" after the deputy approached him. He was combative, profane and exhibiting signs of intoxication or drug use, the deputy wrote. Other deputies who soon arrived on the scene also reported that Gates was loud, belligerent and smelled of alcohol. He refused to take a breathalyzer or blood test, insisting that it be administered by Sheriff Wegener or a state trooper.

Gates disputes many details in the official version. Sharp started out "pushy," he says, accusing him of trying to rob the feed store or the gun store next to it, which is partly owned by Sharp's wife. "He grabbed me out of my car," Gates says. "He searched me, handcuffed me and threw me to the ground. I never resisted physically; I told him I had certain rights. I was trying not to get beat up. It was, 'Yes sir, no sir.'"

Although the feed-store owner showed up and declined to press charges, Sharp decided to place Gates under arrest for a suspected DUI. The situation quickly escalated; after Gates was placed in the back of the patrol car, he slipped his cuffed hands from behind his back and began to rap on the window. He was removed and recuffed, face down to the ground. As he was putting the prisoner back in his car, Sharp reported, Gates kicked the door, slamming it into the deputy's knee.

Rough night: John Gates after his arrest by Park County deputies.
Rough night: John Gates after his arrest by Park County deputies.

According to Sharp's report, Gates continued to act up on the ride to jail, throwing himself headfirst into the Plexiglas divider separating the front and rear seats of the patrol car. Shortly before ten o'clock, Sharp radioed that he was heading back to the Bailey substation for medical assistance because Gates was bleeding profusely: "This party just smashed his face against the window of the car."

That's not the way it was, Gates insists. During the ride, Sharp was taunting him, he says, telling him he was going to get "fucked up the ass" in jail. Gates swore at him. Sharp then pulled into a high school parking lot, Gates says, opened the door and struck him in the forehead with some object. After that, he drove back to Bailey, slamming on the brakes twice so that Gates pitched forward into the divider, smearing his blood across the Plexiglas -- a technique known in cop parlance as a "screen test."

By the time medical personnel examined Gates back at the substation, he was behaving extremely erratically -- belligerent one moment, calm the next. He kicked out a window of Sharp's car, repeatedly accused Sharp of striking him in the head, and refused to ride any further with him. He was placed in leg restraints and taken to jail without incident by another deputy. At the jail, Gates's continuing "lack of cooperation" landed him in a restraint chair for nearly an hour. According to one of his jailers, his phone call to his parents was abruptly terminated for his own good, "because no purpose was being served by it at all, except he seemed to be becoming more and more agitated."

But at trial, many of the deputies' key assertions began to wither under scrutiny. A surveillance videotape from the liquor store showed Gates's dog wandering through the place around the time Sharp arrived on the scene; Sharp had claimed the dog was in the car the whole time, contradicting Gates's "suspicious" story about what he was doing in the parking lot. Some passersby who observed the early stages of the arrest said that Gates appeared calm and cooperative at first. The nurse who cleaned Gates's wounds testified that she smelled no alcohol on him.

As for the head injury, times taken from dispatch tapes did not match up with the sequence of events as Sharp recounted them. A medical examiner hired by the defense testified that it would have been impossible for Gates to have caused the deep horizontal laceration on his forehead by hurling himself into the partition; such a wound was far more likely to have occurred as a result of being struck by a dense object, such as a gun butt. And such a blow to the head could account for Gates's subsequent erratic behavior at the substation and the jail, the defense argued.

After four days of testimony, the jury took only ninety minutes to find Gates not guilty of DUI, obstructing an officer, resisting arrest or criminal mischief. But Park County Deputy District Attorney Dave Thorson, who prosecuted the case, was not so easily persuaded. "The verdict was what it was," Thorson says now. "I respect the jury system. It didn't change my opinion as far as whether he's guilty or innocent."

Sheriff Wegener did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the Gates case. Sharp says the verdict is indicative of the "brilliant incompetence" of the district attorney's office. Many of the key points of the defense -- the discrepancy in dispatch times, for example -- could have been explained if the prosecution had been better prepared, he says, and many key witnesses were never called.

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