“Bear! There are guys with guns outside!” shouted Marcella Cruz to her husband as she looked out the kitchen window of their farmhouse in Letha, Idaho.
Timidly opening the kitchen door, Marcella – a small, slender, middle-aged woman – spied a large man carrying a gun and wearing a tactical vest.
“Don’t go back into the house,” the stranger ordered Marcella as the woman instinctively retreated into the safety of her home.
At roughly the same time, another intruder armed with an assault rifle pounded on the front door.
“Come out!” he demanded.
As Marcella tried to shut the kitchen door, the first intruder – who outweighed her by at least 100 pounds – grabbed her by the left wrist and started to pull the terrified woman from the house.
“Why are you dragging me out of my home?” asked the terrified woman. “Why would you be pulling me out of my home?”
“Open the door,” insisted the assailant, using his weight advantage and leverage to extract the woman, who had braced herself against one side of the door while clinging desperately to the other with her right hand. As she lost her grip, the left side of Marcella’s body scraped painfully against the door frame before she was thrown to the ground.
One of the invaders finally identified himself.
“Bear! Step out – Sheriff’s office!” bellowed the Berserker packing an assault weapon.
“What’s the matter?” asked Michael Gibbons – known as “Bear” to his friends -- as the exasperated farmer opened the front door. “What is the problem?”
“Who else is in the house?” demanded one of the invaders.
“Nobody,” replied Bear.
“You guys having a fight this morning?” inquired the armed man, his finger still poised on the trigger.
“We had an argument,” Bear replied, his voice tinged with incredulity. “What’s going on?”
“We’ll let you know in a sec,” the armed man replied in a dismissive tone. “For right now, go to your knees for me. Face away from me.”
With those words, the armed stranger -- who had not established any legal justification for invading the couple’s property -- ordered Bear to assume the coup de grace position.
At this point, Bear – who had just seen his wife assaulted at gunpoint -- had every reason to think that he might be murdered, and no legitimate reason to believe that the marauders were actual peace officers. After all, anybody can buy weapons and body armor, and official-looking insignia.
The raiding party was composed of Gem County Sheriff’s Deputies, but their behavior was that of a home invasion gang, rather than a group of peace officers.
“What is this about?” Bear demanded from his knees as a deputy handcuffed him.
“We’re going to tell you – now’s the time to shut up!” sneered the goon with the assault rifle.
A more honest answer would have been, “Now’s the time to invent a justification for the raid.”
After being handcuffed behind his back, Bear was ordered to get up.
“Why is this happening?” Bear demanded to know.
“I said get up!” answered one of his captors, who, with the help of another, hoisted the tiny man off the ground – and then promptly dropped him on his tailbone. Bear suffered a severe back injury that has left him incapacitated.
Sheriff Chuck Rolland.
With Bear in handcuffs and Marcella being detained, a small group of officers, led by Sheriff Chuck Rolland, conducted a warrantless search of the home on the pretext of “clearing” it.
As the video record of the search illustrates, the officers were not looking for a concealed threat to their safety. They made little effort to clear the corners or to inspect potential hiding spots. However, they were very interested in finding evidence of marijuana use – lifting and sniffing ashtrays and going through personal effects. After going upstairs they found what they believed to be a “grow room.”
“We’ll have to get a warrant for this,” one of them remarked.
“We found your grow room,” Lt. Timony told Bear after the officers emerged from the home a few minutes later.
“You found our tomato plants!” Bear responded, pointing out that the supposedly suspicious “grow room” was actually an aquaponics system of the kind he had described to an indifferent Emmett City Council just a few months earlier.
Although Bear admitted that he does occasionally use marijuana to treat lingering chronic injuries – the most serious of which he received, ironically, as a police officer when he was stabbed by a shoplifter in 1982 – he hadn’t smoked any that morning.
Sheriff Rolland and a deputy in Bear and Marcella's kitchen.
Marcella had let him sleep in that morning, and Bear had gotten up just a short time before the police materialized on his property. In that brief period, however, he and Marcella had one short, inconsequential verbal spat of the kind every couple occasionally experiences.
The argument was overheard by a neighbor who -- displaying a sense of civic responsibility more appropriate to East Germany than western Idaho – called the police.
Bear and Marcella have lived in Letha, an unincorporated town near Emmett, Idaho, for about two years. They are organic farmers, like most of their neighbors. Unlike at least one of their neighbors, the couple is determined to mind their own business.
On the morning of August 16, a neighbor who identified herself as “April” overheard the couple’s argument and called 911 to report that she thought Bear was “beating” his wife.
Because the neighborhood is located near the county line, the cell phone call was originally directed to the dispatcher for the Payette County Sheriff’s Office, who relayed the information to her counterpart in Gem County.
In making the handoff, however, both dispatchers clearly understood one critical fact: There was no indication that weapons were involved in the alleged domestic dispute, or even to be found in the household. This meant that the proper response to the report, according to established policy, was a low-key “welfare check.”
Why, then, did the Gem County Sheriff’s Office choose to mount a SWAT-style raid against Bear and Marcella? The short answer is that the couple was the victim of “political profiling”: They were identified as a threat to “officer safety” on account of their perceived political opinions.
“Are you familiar with these guys?” asked a deputy identified in the 911 recordings as “Officer 57.”
“Negative,” answered another deputy designated “Officer 56.”
“I am, and it’s affirmative, there is [sic] weapons,” continued Officer 57. “He is – or at least was – anti-law enforcement. We’ve had issues with him. He’s a Constitutionalist.”
Idaho is one of the few states in the Union where most people would consider the term “Constitutionalist” to be a plaudit rather than a pejorative.
That epithet – which Officer 57 spat out in audible disgust – was the reason why Bear would soon find himself on his knees with his back to a deputy whose finger was caressing the trigger of an assault rifle.
The illegal search of the couple’s home yielded no evidence of drug dealing, so the raiding party had to be satisfied with writing a misdemeanor citation for possession of drug paraphernalia. Before they left, however, Detective Rich Perecz couldn’t resist the opportunity to upbraid the victims for displaying insufficient docility.
“Perecz knelt down next to me, showed me his badge and said, `What is this?’” Bear related to me during an interview in his living room. “I said, `It’s your badge.’ He said, `Can you tell me why your wife wouldn’t come out of the house when I told her to?’ Those guys didn’t identify themselves as the Sheriff’s Office until after they had dragged Marcella out of our house. All we knew was what she said when she saw them coming through our corn field – they were men with guns.”
Perecz briefly attempted to preserve the pretense that an act of domestic violence had occurred at the couple’s home.
“He asked me, `Why are your wife’s knuckles all scraped up?’” Bear recounts. “He was trying to get me to admit that I had beat my wife. He apparently knows nothing about living and working on a farm. Of course Marcella’s hands get scraped from time to time; we work for a living, after all.”
The official police report notes that Marcella Cruz showed “no evidence of battery” at the end of the incident. (Interestingly, Marcella was not identified as a “victim” in that report.) Photographs taken two days later showed that her left arm and side were disfigured with large bruises that had been inflicted by Detective Perecz when the officer yanked her out of her kitchen doorway.
If Marcella’s husband had been responsible for those bruises, he would be facing felony domestic violence charges. Under Idaho law (Chapter 9, 18-903 and 18-905[b]), Perecz’s actions constitute aggravated assault.
In an e-mail, I asked Perecz this question:
"By physically seizing a small, unarmed, terrified woman who was not a criminal suspect, and injuring her in the process, didn’t you commit an act that can be fairly characterized as criminal battery, as defined in Idaho law?"
Despite repeated requests, Perecz has declined to answer that question, or provide any other information about the incident.
In his official report, Lt. Dave Timony states that the officers were advised that Bear and Marcella were "possibly armed and may be extremely confrontational to authority."
By way of e-mail, I asked Lt. Timony to elaborate on that claim:
“What was the basis of that characterization? Is it the policy of your department to compile political or ideological `profiles’ of people who have had encounters with law enforcement in Gem County? Has your department undergone training/indoctrination regarding supposed threats posed by people characterized as `constitutionalists’?”
Like Detective Perecz, Lt. Timony has refused to reply to my inquiries.
It is true that Bear and Marcella had previously had unpleasant dealings with the Gem County Sheriff’s Office – and with Detective Perecz, in particular.
More than a year ago, Marcella contacted the Sheriff’s Office to report that a man calling himself “Greg Hall,” who had lived with them for an extended period, had stolen money and jewelry from them. Marcella provided me with copies of e-mail messages in which she and Detective Perecz had discussed the theft – including the suspect’s specific location, which at the time was just across the Snake River in Ontario, Oregon.
“He told me that he couldn’t help us, because the suspect had fled the jurisdiction,” Marcella related to me. “But it’s not as if he couldn’t pick up a telephone and inform the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, or the Ontario Police. The bogus `domestic violence’ report that led to the raid on our home was originally received by Payette County and relayed to Gem County. It’s not as if these people can’t talk to each other.”
It’s worth pointing out as well that inter-state law enforcement cooperation in the Treasure Valley – an area encompassing towns on both sides of the Idaho/Oregon border – is quite commonplace. This is especially true of narcotics enforcement, which is a far more profitable racket than legitimate efforts to protect persons and property from criminal violence.
“Now that you know we didn’t have a fight, why don’t you pack up and go away?” asked Bear following the illegal search of his home.
“Oh, we can’t do that,” one of the deputies insisted. “We’re here now, and we have probable cause.”
What they had – or, at least, thought they had -- was an opportunity to seize Bear and Marcella’s home and farm through “civil asset forfeiture.” That tantalizing prospect evaporated when it became clear that the couple was cultivating organic tomatoes, rather than marijuana.
“The Gem County Sheriff’s Office wasn’t at all interested in helping us when we were victims of a crime,” Marcella summarizes. “But they were ready and eager to attack our home when they were given an excuse.”
The malicious imagination of a hostile neighbor transmuted a brief and trivial marital argument into evidence of “domestic violence.” The vicious opportunism of the Gem County Sheriff’s Office magnified the incident into a pretext for a paramilitary raid that resulted in an act of felonious battery against Marcella.
In a country where gratuitous SWAT raids frequently result in state-sanctioned murder, this is a potentially fatal combination – especially when the subject of the raid is designated a “Constitutionalist” and thus regarded as an Enemy of the State.
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