The four Metro police officers accused of beating and Tasering a local gay man after luring him from an online chat room to a Stewarts Ferry Pike apartment complex have been cleared of any wrongdoing, according to an investigation report released by the Metro Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA). Officers Steven Brady, Michael Dunn, Joel David Goodwin and Michael Dixon were exonerated on charges that they obstructed a suspect’s rights and abused him while arresting him in a violent confrontation last May. Meanwhile, a judge has dismissed charges against the suspect, and the suspect’s attorney says he never should have been arrested in the first place.
It all started when “Steve,” a gay computer programmer from Brentwood whose identity the Scene has agreed to withhold, was contacted by a confidential police informant trolling the website gay.com. The CI, whom the Metro Police code named “Sweet Shoes,” had been arrested by police on cocaine charges and agreed to cooperate with them in exchange for “assistance with his criminal charges,” according to the OPA report. Sweet Shoes “had worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration in the past,” the report says—presumably as an informant—and, according to the summary of an interview with Officer Dunn, told the cops that crystal meth was “rampant” in the “gay underworld.” So he guided them to the gay.com website.
Under the handle “stewartsferryfk”—and boasting an online profile full of nude photos and sleazy descriptions of drug-fueled sex— the CI invited Steve to bring some “amsterdam amyl” and meet him at the Stewarts Ferry Luxury Apartments for casual sex. Amsterdam amyl is the shorthand name for the chemical inhalant amyl nitrite, a muscle relaxant used by some men for increased sexual arousal. “woof…come on over,” typed the CI, sitting with Dunn in the apartment complex’s main office shortly before 9 p.m.
Just after 10 o’clock, Steve arrived at the designated apartment bearing the drugs, which he had described as Amsterdam amyls. When the door opened, he was greeted by Brady and Goodwin—neither of whom resembled his date’s online photo. They were wearing “raid gear,” the report notes, which consisted of a vest with the word “police” and a cloth badge sewn onto it, and greeted him enthusiastically: “Metro Police, come on in,” Goodwin said.
Noticing Goodwin’s shaved head and the boyish features of the other plain-clothes officers, Steve thought he was the victim of a hateful gay-bashing prank. Quietly—but quickly—he began to back up, saying something to the effect of, “I’ve got the wrong place.” Goodwin reached out and grabbed Steve by the arm, giving a “Stop, police” command; he tried to pull away. Goodwin tackled him, and he continued to resist. Dixon came to assist the two other officers and Brady kneed the suspect in the ribs, the report notes, “but they still could not get the suspect under control.”
Steve admits resisting. “Everything to me looked like this was just a bunch of good ol’ boys partying on a Friday night,” he told the Scene last year. “Nothing from their behavior led me to believe otherwise.” Steve told investigators that he thought the police paraphernalia was phony, and that he was being attacked by malicious rednecks.
That’s debatable. What’s clear, at least in hindsight, is that these sizeable men were police officers with the Hermitage crime suppression unit, and Sgt. Brady was carrying a Taser electric stun gun. He yelled “Taser! Taser!” alerting other officers to release the suspect, and promptly delivered 50,000 volts of electricity via two metal prongs fired into Steve’s back. After five seconds of “involuntary action,” as the OPA report euphemistically labels it, Steve continued to resist and get away. Brady administered a second five-second Taser burst, after which the suspect again tried to get away. Eventually, after a third Taser fire, Steve gave up and was taken into custody.
During the second Tasering, Steve says in the OPA report, “I could hear hysterical laughter from all sides. When that stopped, I was asked, ‘Did that tickle?’ ” He says one of the men had a video camera during his arrest, that he was kicked repeatedly and had his eyes gouged. When he was led inside, he says the man who had been holding the shoulder-style video camera took his picture with a still camera. “He also noted that everyone in the room was laughing as if this was all a joke,” the OPA report notes. “He observed that as officers, that they did not seem professional at all. This appeared to be a party to the officers, and in his opinion they appeared playful and excited at what happened.” In a September interview with the Scene, Steve claimed there were as many as eight men present at his arrest.
The OPA report says a police officer named Josh Walters took a photo of the sweaty, bedraggled arrestee—it accompanies the report—but that “no evidence exists that indicate [sic] a video was made of the arrest or processing” of the suspect. If someone shot a video that night, no one’s admitting it. And apparently the OPA doesn’t put much stock in Steve’s charge that the cops were having too good of a time conducting their gay chat room drug sting.
In a bizarre footnote—perhaps a tiny display of empathy—one of the arresting officers offered to pick up something at Dairy Queen for Steve. He thought they were mocking him and answered, somewhat sarcastically, “Get me a banana split.” The cops fished four dollars from his wallet and returned with Blizzards for themselves and a banana split for him. They recuffed him with his hands in front; he ate his ice cream treat while the cops watched Animal House and waited for the next suspect to arrive.
John Herbison, Steve’s outspoken attorney, reviewed an official summary of the OPA report provided to him by the Scene and says he’s not satisfied. “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to suggest that my client believed what he had to be a controlled substance,” Herbison says. “He hadn’t committed any crime, and there was no reason for the application of any force to him.”
If that sounds farfetched, it’s not. Bear with us while we try to explain.
Steve was charged with possessing a counterfeit controlled substance because he represented what he had as “Amsterdam amyls,” which the police thought at the time were illegal—admittedly, taking their informant’s word—although they later learned that it’s not illegal to possess amyl nitrite in Tennessee. The cops claim Steve said he had “good stuff [he] bought illegally from a guy in a bar in Atlanta,” when the informant asked if the poppers were the illegal kind from Amsterdam. According to this theory, if he represented what he had as illegal, that’s all that counts—even if it wasn’t illegal.
Of course, there are problems with this theory. First, the “bought illegally from a guy” syntax seems a little awkward and conviction-ready, the kind of language that only appears in police affidavits. And the police didn’t bother to record the cell-phone conversation in which Steve allegedly made the comment. Second, depending on how you read the counterfeit controlled substances statute, it may only apply to the manufacture or distribution of counterfeit materials for sale as a purported controlled substance. Steve wasn’t selling.
Meanwhile, a TBI lab report issued last summer threw everyone for a loop: Steve’s 24-milliliter vial contained isobutyl nitrite—a Schedule VII controlled substance—not amyl nitrite as everyone had thought. So he did in fact possess an illegal drug, but not “knowingly” as the law requires.
Already, the criminal prosecution—which District Attorney Torry Johnson last year said was made more difficult by a lack of front-end communication from the cops—has suffered a setback. In September, assistant district attorney Ben Ford attempted to amend the counterfeit controlled substance charge to a charge of possession of a Schedule VII drug. Herbison objected, and a judge dismissed the charges against his client. Steve hasn’t had new charges filed against him, although the DA’s office announced its intention to present evidence to the Davidson County Grand Jury.
Meanwhile, Herbison says Steve retains the option to file a civil suit against the officially exonerated officers for arresting him illegally, but he hasn’t made any decisions yet. “There was no need to arrest him that night. They had another 364 days to seek to obtain an arrest warrant,” he says. “They made an arrest with no probable cause.”