"Nickel Rides," "Houdini Suicides," and the American Torture State

by William Norman Grigg
May. 04, 2015

Like iron filings rearranging themselves in the presence of a magnetic field, reflexive apologists for the police quickly adapt to every official explanation for egregious misconduct.

Knowing that official insinuation suffices when facts are withheld, the Baltimore PD leaked the suggestion that Gray killed himself by banging his head on the walls of the vehicle. This account was supposedly provided by another arrestee during a jailhouse interview with a police detective.

The alleged witness –who had a compelling motive to tell a story his captors would like -- didn’t actually see what happened. The detective’s report claims that the witness heard the sound of Gray frantically striking his head against the inner walls of the vehicle, as if driven by some perverse instinct to break his own neck.

When coupled with the unsourced claim that Gray had a pre-existing neck injury (he received a settlement in a case involving suspected lead poisoning), the officially promoted narrative indicted Gray as the culprit in his own homicide. This desperate act, we are told, has been exploited by the Revolutionary Left in its unending campaign to demonize the police.

“Freddie broke his own neck,” sneered a Baltimore Police Officer named Avi Tasher in a post on his now-deleted Facebook page (which was archived for posterity by Photography Is Not A Crime). “Police never harmed him or denied him medical attention. He was faking injury to delay his arrest then snapped his own spinal cord in the wagon by smashing his head into the wall repeatedly. Even the other prisoner gave a statement to that effect.” In a separate post, Tasher protested that media coverage of Gray’s death – specifically by CNN – had fomented a “race riot” in Baltimore.

Gray had an extensive arrest record, most of which dealt with trivial offenses that wouldn’t be considered crimes in a rational society. The police who arrested him were not acting on a complaint, nor did they witness him in the act of committing a crime; Gray fled in order to avoid contact with the police, which is the reaction of every sensible person who has that option.

After being taken into custody, Gray was not only handcuffed behind the back, but thrown face-down into the police van “head first, ankles bound, arms bound,” according to an eyewitness. En route to the station, and before the unnamed “witness” was picked up, the police stopped to place more restraints on Gray. At that point, according to a video record, the victim was conscious and speaking. When the vehicle arrived at the station a half-hour later, he was unresponsive.

Someone shackled as Gray was would not be able to beat his head against the wall. Since he was not secured by a seat belt he would likewise be unable to protect himself against potentially fatal blunt force impacts against unyielding surfaces as part of a widely practiced punitive ritual called a “nickel ride,” a “rough ride,” or a “wild ride.” In many jurisdictions, including Baltimore and Philadelphia, police are known to subject shackled prisoners to a series of sudden stops, turns, and accelerations. The practice is well-known, and quietly condoned by the same police administrators who publicly condemn it.

Dozens of people have suffered significant injuries – including permanent paralysis – from this variety of police torture. There is no record of a police officer facing criminal charges, or significant administrative discipline, for inflicting a “rough ride” on an arrestee.

Invoking what might be called "Dumb and Dumber" logic -- that is, assuming that we shouldn't definitively rule out something that enjoys an infinitesimal chance of being true -- we could say that it is possible that Gray's fatal injury was self-inflicted. It must be understood that a severed spine is precisely the kind of trauma a “rough ride” is designed to inflict.

Yet Punitive Populists and Law-and-Order Leninists readily embraced the staggeringly implausible claim that Gray, who was arrested without cause, taken into custody without resistance, and trussed in the fashion of a game fowl being prepared for the oven, somehow managed to kill himself by hurling his head against a bolt embedded in the wall of the police van.

Freddie Gray was hardly the first young black man who supposedly displayed the flexibility of Reed Richards in killing himself while in police custody.

According to police in Jonesboro, Arkansas, 21-year-old Chavis Carter shot himself in the head while handcuffed in the back seat of a police vehicle during a July 2012 arrest. Two body searches conducted on the still-living Carter failed to turn up the gun that was supposedly used in the suicide. Officers Keith Baggett and Ronald Marsh, who had taken Carter into custody, were placed on paid vacation and quickly cleared by an internal investigation. A lawsuit filed against the City of Jonesboro and its police department was deflected by the predictable claim of “qualified immunity.”

Carter was apparently the first of several “Houdini suicides” committed by young men in police custody.

Roughly two years later, 22-year-old Victor White III, according to the official account offered by the New Iberia, Louisiana Police Department, replicated Carter’s feat by shooting himself in the head while in the back of a patrol car.

The original police account claimed that Carter, who somehow managed to find a gun that eluded the rigorous body search by his conscientious captors, fatally shot himself in the back. However, the coroner’s report, which wasn’t released until the fall, concluded that the fatal wound was inflicted from the front.

White’s hands were never tested for residue, and the wound displayed none of the “stippling” associated with gunshots delivered at close range. Despite a welter of contradictions and evidence suggestive of a criminal homicide, Dr. Carl Ditch ratified the claim that White killed himself.

In November 2014, while White’s family was examining the freshly released coroner’s report regarding the death of their son, 17-year-old Jesus Heurta of Durham, North Carolina joined the ranks of handcuffed suspects who somehow managed to kill themselves in the back seat of police vehicles. Despite a careful and methodical search of the suspect, who was handcuffed from the back, Huerta retrieved a concealed handgun and shot himself in the face as the vehicle was approaching police headquarters – or so the police would later insist.

“The evidence and information collected thus far indicate that Mr. Huerta had a handgun concealed on his person,” announced Captain L.J. Clayton, who presided over what was no doubt a comprehensive and disinterested internal investigation. Officer Samuel Duncan, who arrested the teenager following a family dispute, “did not discover this handgun during his search of Mr. Huerta. Mr. Huerta shot himself with that handgun.”

These findings were presented during a press conference from which the victim’s family was excluded.

Duncan, a rookie officer who had just finished his probationary period, reported that Huerta was the first person he had arrested and placed in his patrol vehicle that evening. The vehicle had been searched prior to Duncan’s shift. Duncan didn’t find any weapons during his pat-down search of Huerta. Another teen who was arrested at the same time testified that Huerta was not armed at the time of the police encounter.

Shortly before arriving at the station, Duncan claims, he heard a gunshot and leapt from the car out of fear that he might have been targeted. The unpiloted vehicle remained in gear and eventually collided with a tree. Huerta was found with a bullet wound to the front of his face. A well-worn .45-caliber handgun -- the same caliber used by the Durham Police -- was reportedly discovered at his side.

Huerta was a small, wiry teenager. The gun he purportedly used to kill himself is a HiPoint .45, which is bulky and difficult to conceal. Retrieving a gun of that size, let alone using it to carry out a self-inflicted headshot, would have entailed flexibility worthy of a Cirque du Soleil performer, and highly visible exertion of the kind that should have been obvious even to the kind of intellectually stunted individual who typically chooses a law enforcement career.

As so often happens in cases of this kind, the patrol vehicle was equipped with a video camera that wasn’t turned on to record the critical event. The most recent record in a federal firearms database placed the handgun at a Georgia pawnshop in 1991. This nicely fits the description of a “drop gun” or a “throw-away weapon” – stolen or confiscated guns used by police to cover up murders, manufacture pretexts for arrests, or to conceal other criminal misconduct.

Responding to a timidly skeptical reporter who asked how a handcuffed man could shoot himself in the face, Deputy Chief Anthony Marsh displayed a staged photo of a shackled man contorting himself into a position in which this might be possible.

“Not only can it be done, it has been done in other jurisdictions,” Marsh insisted. Since this facially ludicrous story had become validated through repetition, and canonized by the State-aligned media, it was now simply incontestable that a handcuffed suspect who shows up at the police station with a fatal bullet wound is a victim of suicide, rather than police homicide.

This kind of thing is obvious to precisely the same kind of people – from police state catamites like Sean Hannity, to others who should be more sensible -- who want to pretend that Freddie Gray managed to sever his own spinal cord.

There is an interesting, and very troubling, resonance between these stories of domestic police torture and the official treatment of the June 2006 “suicides” of three detainees at Alpha Block of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

Saudi captives Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani, and Yemeni detainee Sala Ahmen Al-Salami had been held at Gitmo for several years without charges. They had participated in hunger strikes to protest their illegal detention and the mistreatment they had received.

After their lifeless bodies were found hanging in their cells, Camp Commandant Harry Harris described the deaths as “suicides” carried out as “an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” By killing themselves, the prisoners had actually victimized those who imprisoned them – or so we were instructed to believe. The official account was verified by the NCIS, which means that it is to be embraced as the unqualified and unassailable truth, notwithstanding the fact that it is a demonstrable lie.

“According to the NCIS documents, each prisoner had fashioned a noose from torn sheets and T-shirts and tied it to the top of his cell’s eight-foot-high steel-mesh wall,” observes international human rights attorney Scott Horton. “Each prisoner was able somehow to bind his own hands, and, in at least one case, his own feet, then stuff more rags deep down his own throat. We are then asked to believe that each prisoner, even as he was choking on those rags, climbed up on his washbasin, slipped his head through the noose, tightened it, and leapt from the washbasin to hang until he asphyxiated. The NCIS report also proposes that the three prisoners, who were held in non-adjoining cells, carried out each of these actions almost simultaneously.”

Simone Weil famously defined power as a mysterious influence that “turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse into him.”

Out of fear or worship of power, others are eager to retail even the most obvious lies used to sustain it. People of that description are quite commonplace in torture states of the kind America has become.
William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.

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