Trial Begins as Six Accuse Covington Police of Excessive Force
"There's a party between Seventh and Eighth on Greenup and it's 11:30 and we're gonna go to bed... I don't know where it's coming from. I don't really want to call the cops, honey, but it's 11:30 and we gotta work tomorrow."
That call to Covington Police Dispatch in the final hours of Friday, July 17, 2009 triggered what "can best be described as two minutes of chaos", according to attorney Jeff Mando.
He represents two of five Covington Police officers being sued in federal court for allegedly using excessive force to break up a party at 707 Greenup Street that was celebrating the home's recent honors following its restoration.
Six plaintiffs claim that the officers aggressively entered the backyard where the party was taking place and physically abused attendees.
The officers' defense attorneys argue that the plaintiffs were drinking, playing loud music, and were the aggressors in the chaos.
The trial began Monday at the United States Courthouse in Covington.
Chris Roach, attorney for the so-called Covington Six, told the jury of eight (four men and four women) that Officers Joshua Bornhorn and Michael Lusardi were first to arrive and began searching coolers for alcohol and demanding to know the ages of the six people left at the party.
Plaintiff Anthony Gonzalez, Roach said, told the officers that he was twenty-six years old and that everyone was of age.
"The officers told him to shut up and to go inside," Roach claimed. "As he turned, he said, you don't have to be an ass about it."
"That's when this barbecue becomes a nightmare."
Bornhorn is accused of throwing Gonzalez to the ground, handcuffing him, punching him in the stomach, and kicking him in the face. Homeowner Shai Elias started to snap photos of the incident with his cell phone before he was tackled to the ground and knocked briefly unconscious by other officers called in for back-up, the suit claims. Those pictures disappeared from the phone, Roach argued.
Eias's girlfriend Theresa Princapata was pushed to the ground while guests Michael Martin, Jr. was handcuffed, Lisa Lewis took a right hand to the face, and Betsy Miller suffered injuries to her nose, chin, and a tooth.
Those are the claims by the Covington Six and why they are seeking punitive and compensatory damages from Officer Bornhorn, Lusardi, Justin Wietholter, Scott Dames, and Rob Fulton.
The plaintiffs telling of events paints a picture of a pleasant evening in Licking Riverside interrupted by aggressive police officers overreacting to a loud music complaint.
As told by the officers' attorneys, that story is far different.
Upon responding to the loud noise complaint, attorney Mando argued, Officers Bornhorn and Lusardi were faced with aggression, resistance, and violence.
"Officers only used that amount of force that was necessary to secure their arrests and nothing more," Mando said. No weapons or sprays were used and there were no serious injuries, Mando argued.
Working their regular beat that night, Bornhorn and Lusardi responded to the scene where they overheard "blaring" music and saw people who looked "young" drinking alcohol, and homeowner Elias "dancing in the yard to a Michael Jackson song".
All they were going to do was ask that the music be turned down and to confirm that the party-goers were of age, Mando said. "But that didn't happen."
Instead of the less aggressive "You don't have to be an ass about it" remark that Roach claimed Gonzalez said to the officers, Mando quoted the then-26-year old as saying, "Why the fuck are you here?"
"Are you the homeowner?," Lusardi asked.
"No," Gonzalez said.
"Then I don't need to explain anything to you."
"Fuck you then."
Gonzalez was then asked to step aside, according to Mando's characterization of events.
"Fuck you," Gonzalez said again.
Bornhorn had had enough, Mando said, and placed the man under arrest for either alcohol intoxication or disorderly conduct. Gonzalez physically resisted and Theresa Princapata tried to help Gonzalez in preventing the arrest. The other guests started screaming and the scene quickly escalated.
Elias grabbed Lusardi in an effort to pull the officer off Gonzalez and other guests started striking the officers, Mando said.
Lusardi hit his panic button.
"(Beep, beep, beep) Send cars!," Lusardi shouted into his radio, as re-played in Judge David Bunning's courtroom Monday.
"Officer needs assistance, Seventh & Greenup, officer needs assistance," the dispatcher announced.
"The tone in his voice told them this was a serious situation," Mando said. Other officers quickly arrived.
Meanwhile, according to the defense, Gonzalez kicked Lusardi in the chest and when a dog that lives on the property looked like it may get involved, Daren Sims, who had been on a civilian ride-along with Lusardi and who trains dogs, attempted gain control of the animal but was also kicked by Gonzalez.
Bornhorn then kicks Gonzalez in the face.
"That was the only contact between a foot and Gonzalez's face," Mando said, attempting to discount plaintiffs' claims that Gonzalez was punched and kicked "repeatedly".
Evetually, all of the Covington Six are handcuffed and taken to jail. "No plaintiff asked for immediate medical assistance. Gonzalez had an eye injury. There were no injuries on anyone else," Mando said.
Roach, the plaintiff's attorney, showed an image of some bruising suffered by Princapata on one of her arms. The defense showed images of the plaintiffs in the back of police cruisers without injuries, except for Gonzalez.
Attorney Phil Taliaffero, who is representing Officers Dames and Fulton who were the first back-up officers to arrive, said that Gonzalez remained aggressive even while in the police cruiser. Gonzalez reportedly shouted racial epithets at Daren Sims, the dog trainer, who is African-American.
"He said he was going to kill (him) when he got out, he was a dead man, a disgrace to the black race, (and shouted) blackie, blackie blackie," Taliaferro said of Gonzalez.
Attorney Bob Lotz, who represents Officer Wietholter, rounds out the defense team. The plaintiffs are represented by the Eric Deters Law Firm.
The two minutes of chaos that eventually led to convictions of resisting arrest for Elias and fourth degree assault for Gonzalez, will likely take three or four days to sort out at trial.
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News