New Times / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 24, Issue 52
Judge for yourselfA video appears to contradict a police officer's version of an emotionally charged incident
BY ROBERT A. MCDONALD
An 82-year-old man allegedly snatched a six-month-old baby from her mother’s arms late in the evening of Feb. 2 and fled with the child in his car. The mother called 911, flagged someone down, and chased the man to his home. The police converged there, forced open the garage door, and found him clutching the infant in his car. After a reportedly intense struggle, officers wrenched the baby from the suspect, dragged the man from the car, arrested him, and hauled him to the county jail. The daily newspaper and several television stations reported those details, using the alleged abductor’s mug shot to illustrate the lurid story.
What actually occurred may be far different from those accounts, as video taken in the garage appears to show. That video was recorded by a camera embedded in a Taser an officer aimed and fired at the elderly suspect—video that appears to directly contradict that officer’s version of the event.
This much is known from police reports not in dispute:
The mother, Jennifer Kim, had been staying at the home of the arrested man, Peter Hewitt. Hewitt and Kim got into an argument before returning to his house. The baby had actually been securely strapped into her infant seat and was not snatched from Kim’s arms as the media reported. Hewitt drove off in a huff, taking the baby to his home where Kim and the child had been living. Kim had a key to the house.
Hewitt faced life behind bars
The district attorney charged Hewitt with felony kidnapping, endangering a child, and resisting arrest. Had he been convicted of those charges, Hewitt likely would have spent the rest of his life in prison. Four months later, however, all of those charges were dropped. Hewitt pleaded no contest to a far less serious offence—disturbing the peace—and was sentenced to a year of probation.
The description of the altercation with police came from an incident report filed by Grover Beach Senior Police Officer Sonny Lopez. That report, filed immediately after the episode, painted Hewitt as uncooperative and violent.
When he unholstered and armed his Taser, Lopez automatically turned on the video camera embedded in the sidearm, which recorded the scene in Hewitt’s garage. But the description Lopez wrote seems to differ substantially from the Taser video and also from a report written by Arroyo Grande Police Officer Vince Johnson, who was also at the scene.
“I ordered Peter to release the baby but he would not comply,” Lopez said in his report. “Officer Johnson then made his way to Peter and attempted to extract the baby from Peter’s hands. I could see that Peter was not releasing his grip on the baby. The Officer Johnson had to forcefully pull the baby away from Peter’s hands and take him away from the area.”
He added, “Another Arroyo Grande Officer Chris Marshall came to the passenger side and attempted to extract Peter from the passenger seat. From my angle at the driver[’]s seat I could see that Peter was not complying and using his size and arm muscles to attempt to pull away from Officer Johnson. I then saw that as Peter got out of the vehicle the small walking area next to the vehicle caused Officer Johnson to step back or begin to lose his footing. At this time Officer Johnson began to pull Peter’s body back to the right, towards the rear of the vehicle. It was at this time that I discharged my Taser into the back of Peter … ”
The 47-second video shows Hewitt sitting with a baby in the passenger seat of his car. A voice says, “Give him the kid,” which Hewitt immediately does; a police officer takes the child from him. There appears to be no struggle. Hewitt raises his hands. The voice says, “Peter get out of the car,” and Hewitt reaches over, removes the key from the ignition, and says, “All right.” Hewitt appears to exit the car by himself. As Hewitt moves to the rear of the car behind the passenger door, Lopez fires the Taser into an open door, through the car, out a door on the other side, and into Hewitt’s back.
Johnson’s description seems to match the video: “Officer Lopez and I entered the garage and could clearly see Hewitt holding the infant in front of him. Officer Lopez went to the driver’s side of the vehicle and I went to the passenger side. I reached out and took the infant from Hewitt and walked to the rear of the vehicle where I handed the infant to Officer Marshall. Once Officer Marshall left the garage with the infant, I focused my attention on Hewitt and asked him to exit the vehicle. I reached out and took a hold of Hewitt’s right wrist and pulled him to the rear of the vehicle. As I was directing Hewitt out of the passenger side door way, Officer Lopez employed his X26 Taser.”
Lopez’s X26 Taser shot two high-velocity, needle-like projectiles trailing fine wires at Hewitt. The missiles hit his clothes or belt and were deflected to the ground. Hewitt didn’t know he’d been targeted. Had the probes lodged in him, he would have been shocked by a peak 1,200-volt charge.
The Lexipol Manual, a guide to police policy widely used by California law-enforcement agencies, including the Grover Beach Police Department, stipulates a Taser may be used to “subdue or control a violent or physically resisting subject, or a potentially violent or physically resisting subject if the subject has verbally or physically demonstrated an intension to resist, and the officer has given the subject a verbal warning of the intended use of the Taser followed by a reasonable opportunity to voluntarily comply; and other available options reasonably appear ineffective or would present a greater danger to the officer, the subject or others.” It also states, “Although not absolutely prohibited, officers should give additional consideration to the unique circumstances involved applying the Taser to any of the following individuals: pregnant females, elderly individuals or juveniles …”
The elderly are especially vulnerable to jolts from Tasers: The kick from one killed an 87-year-old woman, who was suffering from heart disease, in Oregon on July 8.
The Grover Beach police transported Hewitt to the county jail, where he was held for several days. He was arraigned two weeks after the incident.
The charges filed by the district attorney’s office claimed Hewitt “did willfully, unlawfully, forcibly and by instilling fear, steal, take, hold, detain and arrest” the baby. They also accused him of “willfully and unlawfully, under circumstances likely to cause great bodily harm and death, injure, cause, and permit a child, to suffer and to be inflicted with unjustifiable physical pain and suffering …”
Hewitt said he met the baby and her mother at his church, Nipomo Community Presbyterian Church, where Kim had come seeking help. A recent widower with seven grown children, Hewitt said he helped the two, driving Kim to appointments and babysitting on numerous occasions. In late January, Hewitt said Kim had convinced him to let her and the baby stay with him.
This is Hewitt’s account of the incident that ended in his garage: Hewitt went to a square-dancing class, and Kim and the baby went with him. On the way home, Kim told Hewitt she wanted to go to a restaurant, but he said he was tired and there was food at home. He said she needed contact-lens solution, so he drove to Vons market. She said she wanted to go to Rite-Aid instead, and he said she needed to buy whatever she needed at Vons.
An argument ensued, and Hewitt took the keys—she had been driving—and got in the driver’s seat. He later told friends he felt tired and told her to get in the car. She refused, and he drove off with the baby still in the car seat, leaving Kim to walk home. Kim’s account to police—she could not be located to comment for this article—differs. Kim said Hewitt pushed her out of the car.
Hewitt said he realized he’d been followed when he arrived home, pursued by Kim and a bystander whose phone she had used to call the police. Hewitt said he didn’t recognize the man who accompanied her and because he was followed by the stranger, locked the garage door. The police broke it down.
He said he handed over the baby when the police asked and never resisted arrest. He said he was glad they were there because he didn’t know who was following him. Though he said he understands the police were reacting to what they believed was a kidnapping, he thought their reaction was “kind of overkill.”
“You don’t need to use a Taser to subdue an 82-year-old-man,” Hewitt said. “Not when there are six policemen there.”
Grover Beach Police Chief James Copsey said he remembers seeing the Taser video and doesn’t recall any discrepancy between it and Lopez’s report. He cautioned against taking a Taser video at face value.
“It gives a totally different perspective, completely different from what the officer sees,” Copsey said. “You also don’t see what happens before and after what’s on the tape. There was a lot more to it.”
Copsey said it’s easy in hindsight to judge a police officer when you have far more information than he had. He said the police weren’t aware at the time of the incident that Kim and Hewitt knew each other.
“There was a huge amount of emotion with this,” Copsey said. “He reacted to what he’s been told, what the mother told us. It’s kind of hard for an officer, and it’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback when you don’t have to deal with what he was going through.”
Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.