By AMANDA LOVIZA VICKERY
Glasgow Daily Times
BOWLING GREEN —
The U.S. government hopes to show the truth in a federal deprivation of rights case against Barren County Sheriff Chris Eaton, deputy Aaron Bennett and Barren-Edmonson Drug Task Force detective Eric Guffey through the eyes of a child.
Besides the law enforcement officers who participated in the Feb. 24, 2010, arrest of Billy Randall Stinnett, the eyewitnesses to an alleged assault against a handcuffed suspect were all children, between the ages of about 12 to 16. The teenagers were gathered in a Calvary Baptist Church building preparing for Wednesday evening praise band and fellowship when they heard the sound of sirens getting closer, followed by the sound of Stinnett’s van crashing into an adjacent building. Not knowing what was happening, the youth gathered around two second-story windows, peering through blinds to see directly into an altercation between a man and a small group of what appeared to be law enforcement officers.
Three of those Calvary Baptist Church youth were the first witnesses to be called to the stand during trial in U.S. District Court in Bowling Green on Tuesday.
Sydney Robertson, who was 12 on Feb. 24, 2010, and is now 15, spoke softly of the incident, sometimes unsure of the details, but sure that she didn’t like what she saw. A man, now identified as Stinnett, ran around the corner of a building into a closed off area outside the window, Robertson said.
“He ended up on the ground, but I don’t know how,” Robertson said, with three or four officers hitting and kicking him. They appeared to be using a lot of force, she said, and the man’s hands were behind his back, but she didn’t know if he was handcuffed.
Robertson left the window while the assault continued, upset “‘Cause I didn’t like what I saw,” she said.
During cross examination, defense attorneys focused on what Robertson didn’t remember, and discrepancies in what she said in early statements to FBI and the grand jury compared to her court testimony. Tuesday, she told prosecutors she remembered the men doing the beating wearing law enforcement uniforms, Eaton defense attorney J. Guthrie True said, but in September 2010 she said she wasn’t sure if they were in uniform. As Guffey defense attorney Brian Butler walked Robertson through her March 2010 initial interview with FBI agent Mike Brown, Robertson did not remember most of her original answers to Brown’s questions.
While Robertson said she thought Stinnett was handcuffed during the altercation because she couldn’t see his hands, she couldn’t be certain when Bennett defense attorney Buddy Alexander questioned her. If she didn’t see Stinnett’s hands, Alexander said, Stinnett may not have been restrained at any point during the 30 seconds to a minute that Robertson was watching.
“So there were gaps, obviously, where you didn’t see what was happening,” Alexander said.
Robertson’s older sister, Makayla Dugard, was next to testify. Now 20, Dugard was 16 the day Stinnett was arrested. Dugard used her finger to pull the window blinds apart to peer down at the altercation outside the church window.
“There was a man in the corner and officers were yelling at him to get down on the ground and then they were huddled around him,” Dugard said.
Dugard clearly saw “the silver of the handcuffs” as officers backed away from Stinnett, she said, but then the officers converged back around Stinnett and kicked, hit and struck him with a baton while he was handcuffed, she said.
“You could see the pain on his face,” Dugard said.
Despite seeing the silver of the handcuffs, Dugard could not remember what Stinnett was wearing when Alexander asked. She thought he was wearing a T-shirt, but Alexander said photographs show Stinnett in a hooded sweatshirt, the sleeves of which may have obstructed a view of handcuffs.
Kaylee Billingsley, 13 at the time of the alleged assault and now 16, said she was certain that Stinnett was handcuffed and not threatening when she saw officers kicking and hitting him. However, Billingsley said Stinnett was already handcuffed when she looked out the window, even though she got to the window before Robertson, who said she saw Stinnett still running. Billingsley watched for maybe 40 to 50 seconds before she walked away from the window, with the beating continuing, she said.
“It didn’t make me upset, I just knew it was wrong,” Billingsley said.
Billingsley returned to the scene about a week later with her father, and took photographs of blood splattered in the corner where the alleged assault took place.
Brown wrote in his report after his initial interview with Billingsley that she told him she walked away from the scene crying, Butler said in his cross examination, but that did not match Billingsley’s account. He asked Billingsley if Brown put something in his report that was wrong, and she said, “by accident.”
Brown did not record his early conversations with Billingsley or other witnesses or defendants. His report also stated that the Billingsleys took their photos of the scene the same night as the arrest, Butler said, but that was not true.
The final witness called to the stand Tuesday was Adam Minor, who was originally indicted along with the defendants, but pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement in May 2012. Minor was a BCSO deputy on Feb. 24, 2010, later worked for the drug task force, but is no longer in law enforcement.
Minor responded to the scene at the same time as Bennett, arriving seconds after Eaton and Guffey. When he got there, Minor said Guffey had Stinnett handcuffed, and Eaton was walking away from Stinnett. His story on the stand Tuesday differed greatly from the accounts he gave before he entered a plea agreement.
“I kicked him,” Minor said. “I was mad due to the pursuit, the dangerous situation.”
Minor kicked Stinnett twice in the thighs while Stinnett did not resist, he said, and Bennett went behind Stinnett and started punching him in the head. Bennett and Eaton then both struck Stinnett using batons. The assault ended when Bennett accidentally struck Eaton in the leg, Minor said, and drug task force detective Ron Lafferty arrived on the scene. As he escorted Stinnett to his cruiser, Minor said he and a few others added additional strikes to Stinnett. Eaton punched him the groin, Minor alleged.
There was a joint effort to cover up the assault when the FBI investigation began, Minor said. Eaton allegedly gave instructions to the deputies involved about what to put in their reports, and Minor said the report he submitted was not accurate. There was a photo of Eaton punching Stinnett in the groin, Minor said, and they looked at the photo in the office and laughed about the incident.
Prosecuting attorney Sanjay Patel had been questioning Minor for more than an hour when Judge Joseph H. McKinley Jr., made the decision to halt court for the day. Minor’s testimony will resume Wednesday morning, along with a cross examination by defense attorneys.