City officers tied to kidnapping case turn themselves in

Three policemen accused of abandoning West Baltimore teen in Howard County park last May

May 05, 2010|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Three Baltimore police officers have turned themselves in after being indicted Tuesday by a city grand jury on charges that they kidnapped two West Baltimore teens last year, leaving one in a Howard County state park without shoes, socks or his cell phone.

The officers were waiting to see a District Court commissioner Wednesday morning, who would set an initial bail amount, officials said.

The indictment came exactly a year after Michael Brian Johnson Jr. said he was picked up by the three officers and abandoned in Patapsco State Park. The incident prompted a call from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for criminal charges against the police, and the teen and his family filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the officers in March.

Officers Tyrone S. Francis, 29, Gregory Hellen, 30, and Milton G. Smith III, 32, were charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment, second-degree assault and misconduct in office, among other charges.

They will be suspended without pay, said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. The officers, who had been members of the Violent Crimes Impact Section, which patrols high-crime areas, were reassigned after the incident and had been performing administrative duties.

A. Dwight Pettit, an attorney representing Johnson and his family in the $100 million civil suit, praised the city state's attorney's office for pursuing criminal charges by bringing the case before a grand jury. "There are so very few indictments of excessive force and misconduct by police officers," Pettit said. "We need more legal enforcement to let police know that there are repercussions for their actions."

Roland Patterson, an attorney with the NAACP, said the ordeal had been "catastrophic" to Johnson, akin to "taking a fish out of the water and leaving it on the beach."

Guglielmi said Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III was disturbed by the allegations and "will not tolerate any behavior that undermines the integrity of the agency."

Robert F. Cherry, the president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police chapter, said the union will shoulder the officers' criminal defense costs. He called the allegations "trumped-up charges" and said "the facts will show the officers were doing their jobs."

In the lawsuit, Johnson said he was in front of his cousin's house in the 1600 block of N. Gilmor St. at about 6:30 p.m. in May 2009, when a city police van pulled up and an officer instructed the group of teens to "keep it moving." The teens left the area and walked to a playground before returning to the cousin's home and sitting on the steps.

The police van pulled around the corner and one of the officers motioned for Johnson to come to the driver's-side window. He said one of the officers instructed him not to look at him "the wrong way," or he would physically harm him.

Johnson said he responded, "Man, you ain't gonna do nothing," and turned to walk away.

That's when, he claims in the lawsuit, he was forced into an unmarked van by officers identified only by badges around their necks who hit him with a night stick and threw his cell phone out the window. The officers said he needed to "show them respect" as they drove him down Interstate 95.

"I will keep driving until you say stop," the driver said to another officer. They finally stopped in the 8300 block of Baltimore National Pike, in Patapsco Valley State Park in Ellicott City.

There, he said, he was told to take off his shoes and socks and pushed out of the van. Johnson called 911 from a gas station pay phone, giving an account of the incident to Howard County police. Howard officers returned him to his home.

Johnson said that his friend, Sean Quinn Woodland, had been picked up in West Baltimore that night by the same officers, and taken to East Baltimore.

The state's attorney's office police misconduct unit and the police department's internal affairs division collaborated on the investigation, officials said.

Civil rights leaders have said incidents of people being transported throughout the city involuntarily in an effort to intimidate them are more common than reported.

The allegations recalled a controversy involving the department's flex squad in 2004, when an officer was accused of dropping a teenage boy in rival gang territory in Southwest Baltimore, where he was assaulted. The teen later returned and shot someone in retaliation. Police concluded the drop-off was not intentional and the officer was given "written counseling."

NAACP President Marvin "Doc" Cheatham said the Johnson case demonstrates the need for more transparency in the city Police Department.

"It's clear we need more extensive and better dialogue with the Police Department and their leadership," Cheatham said. "The majority of officers are good, but far too many are not doing the right thing and that is causing a wedge with the community."

Francis, the son of a retired city homicide detective, has been on the force since 2003. Smith and Hellen joined in 2000.

The lawsuit was the second filed in the past year against Francis. Last May, a woman and her daughter alleged Francis and three other officers beat her after she protested the arrest of her boyfriend. Latasha Calvert said she suffered head injuries, a fractured elbow and torn ligaments in her left knee as a result of the beating. The officers have denied the claims.

Hellen was the target of a lawsuit filed in 2008, which online court records show was settled in late March. Details were not immediately available.

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