Jan 15, 2015

Assistant Cody police chief accused of excessive force in civil rights lawsuit

Cody’s assistant police chief stands accused of violating a man’s civil rights while searching him for possible explosives four years ago.

In a federal suit filed in September, Juan Paul Flores alleged Assistant Police Chief George Menig “maliciously and without justification or warning, used excessive force ... while Flores was in handcuffs and under arrest.”

Menig had stripped Flores’ clothing and used a Taser after the then-unknown man claimed to have explosives and didn’t cooperate with police; Flores’ civil complaint says those actions were unnecessary and further alleges Menig lifted Flores off the ground by his handcuffs several times during the Sept. 13, 2010, search.

Flores, now 61 and living in North Dakota, says he suffered “severe and permanent injuries and damages” and is seeking an unspecified amount of compensation.

In a response filed in November through his attorneys at the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office, Menig denied violating Flores’ rights and generally rejected the facts as laid out by Flores’ attorney. Menig’s response also says any injuries to Flores were caused by his own actions or existed before the incident.

A federal magistrate judge tentatively scheduled the case for an Oct. 19 trial during a hearing held last week.

Flores had run up to a Park County Sheriff’s deputy’s patrol car near the jail early that 2010 morning to say that he was a member of the Taliban and that he intended to “blow things up.” He repeatedly refused to give his name to police, though at various points he said he was “Johnny Cash” or “Pablo Escobar” and had come into the country from Mexico.

The man — with a long straggly beard, long hair, blue jeans, tan shoes, an oversized white T-shirt, baseball cap and a mostly empty bottle of vodka — also said he was willing to die for the Taliban and planned to blow himself up using nitroglycerin he had swallowed, Cody Police Officer Tom Caudle wrote in his later report. He reportedly told sheriff’s deputy Rayna Wortham that he was from Afghanistan and “wanted ‘us’ to leave them alone.”

He repeatedly refused to give his name to police, though at various points he said he was “Johnny Cash” or “Pablo Escobar” and had come into the country from Mexico.

When Cody Police Officer Josh VanAuken named some Afghanistan provinces and asked which one the man was from, he said he didn’t know, but claimed to have been in the country in 1985 and 1986. VanAuken told the man it was the Mujahideen and not the Taliban who were in Afghanistan at that time.

“The man appeared to have no idea what I was talking about,” VanAuken wrote.

Officers shut off their portable radios and moved back their patrol cars as a precaution for an explosive device, while one officer positioned his vehicle as a kind of barricade. Caudle had handcuffed the man and forced him to sit down. The officer searched the areas around the man’s shirt and waist and found nothing; VanAuken searched the man’s legs, the reports say.

Menig, who had been off-duty, was summoned to the scene shortly before 1 a.m. and was told the man was claiming to have nitroglycerin hidden inside his mouth. The handcuffed man refused to open his mouth.

“At this point, I stripped the male of his clothing to inspect for the presence of components (explosive material and/or a detonator) of an improvised explosive device (IED). Negative results,” Menig wrote in his report.

Cody Police Chief Perry Rockvam (left) and Assistant Cody Police Chief George Menig (right) are shown in this July 2014 photo posted to the department's official Facebook page.
When the man continued to refuse to open his mouth, Menig wrote that he put his Taser up against the man’s torso and applied what’s called a “drive stun” for about three seconds. (A “drive stun” is effectively a less-intense use of a Taser that doesn’t involve any probes being fired; it’s intended to hurt, but not immobilize, a person.) When Menig threatened to apply the Taser a second time, and activated (but did not apply) the device close to the man’s torso, he finally opened his mouth, the report says.

Menig found nothing inside.

After some resistance, the man was formally arrested and taken to the nearby Park County jail. There, he refused to give his name and claimed to be a Taliban member who wanted to kill other people, Caudle wrote. It was only the following morning, around 10:30 a.m., that Flores told officers his real identity and that he was not a member of the Taliban.

Deputy Wortham’s report says Flores also expressed suicidal wishes, including that he just wanted to die and only wanted to blow himself up. Public court records indicate that sometime after his arrest, Flores was involuntarily committed to a mental health care facility as an individual deemed to pose a threat to himself or others as a result of mental illness.

Flores’ suit, filed by Jackson attorney John Robinson of the firm Jamieson & Robinson, alleges that Menig’s search was unnecessary and excessive.

“At the time Menig arrived, Flores was arrested, handcuffed, had been searched and posed no harm or danger to any officer or person,” Robinson alleges in a portion of the complaint.

Menig’s response says his actions were legal and reasonable in light of his training and the given circumstances.

“Each and every action taken by defendant Menig with respect to the plaintiff (Flores) were undertaken in good faith and were based upon good cause, consistent with the laws of the United States, and Wyoming statutes,” says one of the defenses asserted on Menig’s behalf by Senior Assistant Attorney General Misha Westby.

After the lawsuit’s September filing, Cody Police Chief Perry Rockvam issued a statement denying some of the allegations and saying the city of Cody was looking forward “to complete and accurate facts about the incident coming out in the judicial process.”

The city is not a defendant in the suit.

Juan Paul Flores is shown in this undated booking photo taken from the Park County Sheriff's website.

The interaction between Menig and Flores was recorded by a surveillance camera mounted on the side of the Cody Law Enforcement Center and copies of the video still exist. However, in response to a public records request, Park County Sheriff Scott Steward said his department no longer has the video in its possession; the original footage was lost years ago when a hard drive crashed, he said.

Flores was initially charged with making terroristic threats, a felony, in connection with the incident but that count was dismissed in mid-November 2010 as part of a deal with the Park County Attorney’s Office. Flores instead pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of interference with a peace officer.

Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters, accepting the plea agreement, credited Flores for the 63 days he’d spent in custody and ordered him to pay $190 and serve a year of unsupervised probation. Another 297 days of jail time was suspended, along with the $300 fine that normally accompanies convictions for interference.

Flores left $90 unpaid before dropping out of contact with the court and, as a result, a warrant for his arrest was issued in April 2011. Sheriff’s records show the warrant remains active — meaning that, in theory, Flores could be arrested and brought back to Park County if and when he returns to Wyoming.


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