Last year on a clear February day, Rey Collazo walked up to his LaVergne restaurant and noticed a $5 bill taped to the door. Thinking that somebody was merely paying him back for a meal or drink, Collazo opened for business and absentmindedly placed the bill in a folder filled with paperwork. A couple of months later, however, when reviewing some of those documents, Rey and a friend saw the bill up close. Written in red ink were the words ”nigger lover“ vertically scrawled to the left of the likeness of Abraham Lincoln.
”I started getting nervous,“ says Collazo, who was born in Puerto Rico. ”I started shaking.“
It might have all begun on April 30, 1998. That day, Collazo saw LaVergne Police Officer Tim Stone stop a black motorist and arrest him in a vacant parking lot across the street from Collazo’s Mexican restaurant on Murfreesboro Road, less than a mile south of the Davidson County line. Collazo says that even after Stone handcuffed the man, the officer hit him on the head two or three times. Collazo yelled to Stone to lay off the man and later complained about the arrest to city administrator Don Pickard. The city of LaVergne investigated Stone and cleared him, in part because the suspect himself said that he wasn’t hurt.
But that wouldn’t end the story. Because he complained about Stone’s handling of that arrest, Collazo says he was subjected to a lengthy period of often bizarre police harassment that included everything from being pulled over for ”erratic“ driving to being cited and later arrested in front of his 7-year-old old son for letting his pet chow dog run loose.
Collazo has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of LeVergne and Officer Tim Stone for an unspecified amount of damages. A court date hasn’t yet been set.
Collazo is no stranger to the courts. Among his many targets are former employers. The City of LaVergne suggests that Collazo has been planning all along to bait the police into wrongdoing, so he could file a lawsuit.
As far as the $5 bill, it was taped to Collazo’s restaurant while his attorney, John Herbison, was preparing the lawsuit. Collazo hired handwriting expert Marty Pearce to review both the bill and 15 known samples of Officer Stone’s writing from his personnel file. Pearce concluded that, ”with a reasonable amount of scientific certainty,“ Stone wrote the message on the $5 bill.
In a brief interview with the Scene, Stone denies that accusation. ”I don’t use that word in my vocabulary,“ he says of the racial slur scrawled on the bill. ”That’s wrong. That’s totally wrong.“
The City of LaVergne is taking his word. Asked whether the Police Department plans to hire its own handwriting expert to determine if Stone wrote the slur, Pickard, the city administrator, says, ”We have no reason to think he did it.“
Pickard claims the handwriting analysis that has already been conducted was ”totally unfair and unprofessional,“ but he himself hasn’t seen the $5 bill.
The City of LaVergne is putting a lot of faith in Stone, who has worked for the department for more than two years. He has acknowledged that he was fired from two low-paying jobs, including a position at K-Mart, before he became a police officer. He was rejected for at least one other police job in another city.
Jimmy Sanford used to work for the LaVergne Police Department before he was dismissed in 1998. He later filed a wrongful termination suit against the city and was awarded an out-of-court settlement. Sanford told the Scene that once when he was arresting an older woman for drunken driving, Stone, who was on the scene, thought the woman was trying to resist and ”tackled and knocked her into a ditch.“ Stone denies that incident ever happened.
In May 1998, Stone and another officer arrived at Collazo’s house to investigate a neighbor’s complaint that Collazo was letting his dog run loose. The officers gave Collazo a citation, then they left. But in a deposition for his lawsuit, Collazo says Stone later reappeared and threatened him.
” åYou’ll see, I will get you. You haven’t seen nothing yet,’ “ Collazo recalled Stone saying.
Collazo says he told Stone to ”get the hell off my property.“ Stone complied, but as he was heading off he raised his fist and said, ”White power,“ according to Collazo’s deposition.
Stone’s recollection of the incident is drastically different. He says that after the other officer left to take another call, he returned to talk to Collazo about other problems Collazo was having with his neighbor. At that point, however, Collazo began taunting him, according to Stone’s deposition.
” åYou want to beat me. You want to club me like you did that black guy,’ “ Stone recalled Collazo as saying. ” åI’m the one who called the NAACP on your ass.’ “
As if tensions weren’t already inflamed, LaVergne Police arrested Collazo at his restaurant after the city received yet another complaint from the same neighbor that his dog was running loose. For Collazo, this might have been the final straw.
According to Collazo’s deposition, Stone and LaVergne Police Officer Ed McKenna came to Collazo’s restaurant saying they had a warrant for his arrest.
When Collazo asked to see the warrant, however, all they gave him was an affidavit of complaint. When Collazo said they didn’t have the right to arrest him without a warrant, Stone stepped in and said, ” åWell, whatever Mr. Collazo. You know it all. We’re here to take you in,’ “ Collazo recalls.
With Collazo’s 7-year-old son watching, the officers then handcuffed Collazo and sent him to the LaVergne City Jail’s detention room. After about 45 minutes, Collazo says his wife suggested to Officer McKenna that she might call the NAACP or The Tennessean. At that point, the police let Collazo go free.
In his own deposition, Police Chief Howard Morris couldn’t recall the ”full custodial arrest“ of any other citizen for an infraction of a city ordinance.
In a statement in the lawsuit, Mike Anderson, a former officer, suggests that Stone instigated the matter. ” åGo over and get Ray and stir something up,’ Anderson quotes Stone as saying. In his own deposition, McKenna says he doesn’t remember Stone saying that.
The City of LaVergne’s version of events is, again, different than Collazo’s. City officials claim that McKenna planned to serve the warrant and leave, but that Collazo became unruly. ”As soon as they entered the restaurant Collazo became belligerent and hostile,“ says Greg Oakley, attorney for the defense.
Collazo was later cleared in city court of charges that he let his dog run loose. But even that didn’t go off without a hitch. Collazo sat in the courtroom looking at a 20-year-old copy of Playboy magazine featuring pictures of a nude woman who was later an employee at the Police Department. That angered Police Chief Howard Morris, who ordered Collazo to put away the magazine.
Morris and others contend that Collazo was brandishing this particular Playboy in an attempt to bait the city into a lawsuit.
Indeed, city representatives have suggested that Collazo is litigious and that his plan all along has been to rile them up so that he could sue.
Collazo filed a lawsuit against Shoney’s for wrongful termination in 1991. According to his deposition, he was awarded an out-of-court settlement.
In another matter, Collazo says he was given a cash settlement before he even threatened to sue during a dispute with a local convenience store employee. He also filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Hardee’s, a former employer, but later withdrew it.
Others have suggested that Collazo is blowing all these incidents out of proportion.
”My opinion is that this is more a case of paranoia than anything else,“ city administrator Don Pickard says.
”It’s not paranoia,“ Collazo replies. ”It’s the facts. I’ve been threatened and harassed just because I complained how an African-American was treated by a cop“
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