THAT MUST HAVE BEEN ONE TOUGH PARAPLEGIC
I wanted to see, face to face, what kind of punks attack and beat a wheelchair-bound paraplegic.
There were two of them, a hatchet-faced piece of meanness called Ted Roper and his 200-pound sidekick, the expressionless Richard Brown. Both men carry a badge for the Bullhead City Police Department.
I caught up with Roper and Brown in a large, anonymous federal courtroom that looked all the more cavernous because almost no one was watching the trial; instead of a jury, there was only a judge to listen to the re-creation of the chilling events.
After the two police officers stomped the cripple, they broke his femur, the largest bone in the human body. Although Steve West, 39, cannot control his legs because of a spinal injury, he nonetheless has the full range of feelings in those limbs.
According to the doctors, Steve West's shattered leg felt to him precisely as it would feel to you.
Rather than take their victim to a hospital, the two cops arrested West, tossed him into the back of a squad car, drove to jail and dumped him onto the floor of a cell. Jagged bone fragments of his leg punctured muscle tissue, nerve endings and blood vessels. In fact, when he was finally treated for his injuries, the doctors were forced to give West three units of blood because of all the internal bleeding. But that would come much later. For hours the paraplegic groveled on the floor of a holding cell. His pants had twisted off of his emaciated hips during the struggle, but the traumatized leg was so swollen West was unable to pull his Levi's up to cover himself. He remained naked throughout his confinement as people of both sexes walked past.
Though I'd never talked to officers Roper or Brown or their prisoner, West, I was absolutely certain that I knew, in advance, one detail of the case: The police would claim that the paraplegic went for a gun.
Even Bullhead City cops do not cold-cock cripples without some story that purports to explain such remarkable behavior.
Sure enough, the police said Steve West intended to shoot them. Actually, they claim he went for two guns.
Both Roper and Brown swore under oath that the wheelchair-bound West beat the officers with his fists, tried to take Roper's gun out of its holster and then reached for a second gun inside his house trailer.
As you might also expect, Steve West denied these allegations.
And the physical evidence supports the paraplegic's account.
It simply could not have happened the way the cops claim; what's more, there was no gun. Steve West doesn't own one.
The witnesses also corroborate West.
Their testimony is particularly telling because, all things considered, they must be viewed as, if not outright hostile to Steve West, at least pro-law enforcement. These witnesses include the woman whose complaint brought the cops to West's trailer in the first place, an Eagle Scout who was a citizen ride-along in the police car and the Bullhead City insurance investigator whose company would be liable for damages if the officers were judged guilty of brutality.
@body:On June 29, 1989, Anna Marie Wilson invited her ex-boyfriend, Dan "Animal" Whiteside, to join her for cocktails at Gabe and Angel's saloon. She also invited Animal's buddy, Steve West, to join them, which he did gladly since the drinks were on her. However, when the couple began bickering, West left the bar and wheeled back to his nearby trailer. Sometime later Anna and her ex also departed, taking their escalating argument into the tavern's parking lot where Animal assaulted his former girlfriend. She sustained a concussion.
When Wilson told the cops who beat her up, she also suggested that they might find Animal at Steve West's trailer.
Did she have any particular reason to suppose Animal was in the trailer?
"I don't believe she ever went into any actual detail as to how she knew exactly where he was," said Officer Brown.
Which would explain why the cops arrived at West's trailer without a search warrant. Still, if the police were not legally prepared, they were, in any case, highly motivated. The officers knew something that Wilson did not.
Animal was a fugitive with an outstanding felony drug warrant, a significant complaint in a community the size of Bullhead City. Police careers advance on just such collars. What good luck that Anna Marie Wilson had delivered up to them the lowlife Dan "Animal" Whiteside.
Officers Roper and Brown hightailed it over to West's trailer with the lady in tow. The same inexplicable fate that had dropped the young woman onto their laps also provided an Eagle Scout with a keen interest in law enforcement as a citizen observer in one of the two squad cars.
With Anna Marie Wilson and scout Robert Hunter watching, the two patrol officers approached the trailer.
Both officers testified that the paraplegic West burst out of the trailer, the screen door shutting behind him. In a raging, incomprehensible frenzy, the cripple attacked.
Officer Roper said West lifted up one of his legs, put it on a railing and pinned Roper against the back of the porch. West then struck patrolman Roper repeatedly with his fists and finally tried to pull the cop's revolver out of his holster.
All for no reason.
The other cop, Officer Brown, admitted this seemed odd.
"At that point, I'm trying to bring Mr. West down, since our initial contact I've never a chance to even explain why we were there, what we wanted, which was my intention. And I'm trying to back Mr. West down, to get him to calm down so that we can at least explain ourselves and find out who he is. At this point, we don't even know who Mr. West is."
When the paraplegic grabbed the cop's gun, Officer Roper hit him so hard he knocked West completely out of his wheelchair.
Sprawled upon the deck with his useless legs splayed out in front of him, West used his arms to pull himself back across the floor of the porch. Cussing the cops, he swore he'd get a gun from the trailer and kill them both.
According to Officer Roper's police report, once West crossed the trailer's threshold, the paraplegic reached to the left and right side of the entryway for a gun. The cops became alarmed after West's hands disappeared behind the door. Then, and only then, did the officers, guns drawn, step into the trailer and attempt to apprehend the unruly West. The struggle lasted several minutes, by all accounts, until finally Roper bent West's leg back over the cripple's head and twisted it. With his leg broken, the paraplegic was subdued and arrested.
That is the police version of what happened, though as an explanation it has its drawbacks.
When you look at Steve West sitting in his wheelchair, it is obvious that his legs are no more substantial than a pair of lifeless ocotillo branches. The cop's testimony that one of those paralyzed limbs, propped upon a railing, pinned former high school linebacker Ted Roper to the porch is astounding. Besides, there is no railing on the porch.
In fact, Steve West maintained that the confrontation did not occur on the porch at all, but rather inside his trailer; an unfortunate location, if true, for officers without a search warrant to find themselves. Unless, of course, West first went for the cop's gun out on the porch and then scuttled backward into the trailer loudly and belligerently announcing his intent to secure a second weapon and kill Roper and Brown, thereby legally justifying their "hot pursuit."
Which was it?
The physical evidence, once diagrammed within the courtroom, argued so favorably for West's version that the two officers changed their story. West could not possibly have searched to his left and then his right when he crossed the threshold. The layout of the trailer made that version of events highly unlikely. The closed screen door opened out to the porch. Behind the screen, a wooden door opened in to the trailer. In back of the wooden door, in the trailer's living room, a desk prevented the door from opening fully. West could not have negotiated these obstacles the way the police claimed he did.
When it became clear from the diagrams that the crippled West could not reach behind a door that did not fully open, the cops said that the paraplegic only reached into the open side of the entryway.
The police officers had more than the physical layout working against their alibi that they were first assaulted out on the porch.
When the two squad cars, the police, the Eagle Scout and the female victim all pulled up in front of Steve West's trailer, a crowd gathered to watch the excitement.
The police were unable to produce a single witness from that crowd who saw or heard the cripple go for the officer's gun or loudly announce that he intended to kill the two cops with his own pistol.
Nor did Anna Marie Wilson recall any gunplay. Instead, she said that West demanded a search warrant before he'd let the police in.
"They said they were coming in," testified Wilson in deposition. "He said, 'No, you are not.'"
Eagle Scout Hunter had applied for a position with the Bullhead City Police Department. His courtroom appearance forced him to give very awkward testimony, to say the least.
First, scout Hunter said he could not see what happened because he remained in the police car, which was parked away from the action.
West's attorney, Terry McGillicuddy, pointed out that the officers themselves had already revealed that their cars were directly in front of the trailer.
Then scout Hunter said his view was blocked by a wall.
McGillicuddy pointed out that the wall was only one foot tall.
Finally, scout Hunter testified that he had not seen what transpired because his attention was focused upon the crowd of neighbors that had assembled instead of on the arrest.
Even the judge felt moved to observe that watching the neighbors during an arrest was a unique decision for a future police cadet.
Patiently brought back to reality by McGillicuddy, scout Hunter conceded that he had not seen any gunplay, or threat of gunplay upon the trailer's porch.
Although Animal was not in the trailer, having left for parts unknown immediately after assaulting Wilson, his kid brother was. He testified that the cops barged into the trailer searching for Animal and that when West protested too vigorously, they busted the cripple.
If there never was any gunplay, except in the imagination of cops desperate to cover up for their behavior, what exactly did happen?
Did the cops accidentally shove West out of their way, knocking him from the wheelchair in their eagerness to look for Animal? Or did they maliciously topple the defiant cripple who shoved his insistence upon a search warrant down their throats?
You don't need me to tell you how Steve West and Animal's kid brother answered that question. But let's put aside their testimony as self-serving. Consider instead what the cops did next, which was worse than what they'd already done, and you tell me if this case isn't simply a matter of viciousness.
Loud throughout the confrontation, West went off the Richter scale when the cops broke his femur. In agony, he screamed and never stopped screaming that his leg was broken.
Not so, say the police.
It wasn't until the cops had West locked in the back seat of their squad car and were on their way downtown that the prisoner mentioned his leg was bothering him.
Once in custody, an injured prisoner is supposed to be transported to a hospital, according to Bullhead City police procedures. Instead, they took West to the jail and radioed ahead for a paramedic.
Upon arrival each cop grabbed West under an armpit and carried the cripple across the parking lot with his pants down around his ankles. West's genitalia hung exposed to the paramedic who met them outside of the jail.
The cops did not tell the paramedic that Steve West was a paraplegic or that the prisoner had complained of a broken leg.
Never getting closer to West than ten feet in the parking lot, the paramedic did not treat or examine the prisoner, who by then was in shock and screaming for a doctor instead of a volunteer firefighter.
The paramedic explained that he did not render any first aid because Steve West tried to urinate on him.
In fact, Steve West, as established by medical history and the testimony of his doctor, is incontinent and unable to control his bladder. In fact, Steve West was urinating upon himself.
With medical treatment out of the way, officers Roper and Brown tossed their prisoner onto the holding-cell floor.
Then they did something cute.
Instead of booking Steve West under his name, the name on the identification in the wallet the police now held in their evidence locker, they booked him as "John Doe." John Does can be held without bail.
Roper and Brown wanted the paraplegic to spend a few days in jail thinking about the relevance of search warrants.
Treated and broken like an animal, Steve West responded in kind. He sobbed and screamed and spit at cops who walked by looking at his nakedness.
The police testified that once West made his wish to see a doctor known, they promptly dressed him and transported him to the nearest hospital. In fact, the cops were so sympathetic that they violated department policy and sent West for medical attention unhandcuffed. The officers were shocked to learn nearly five hours after the confrontation that their prisoner had a broken leg. Severely broken.
In the courtroom, West's lawyer McGillicuddy took this testimony and put himself inside the mind of a police officer.
"We thought we would put a man who was charged with four counts of aggravated assault, attacked two policemen, tried to kill them, tried to get the gun of Roper, allegedly threatened to kill him, acted like a maniac . . . in a police van at night, unhandcuffed, with a woman officer," mused the lawyer.
McGillicuddy concluded that this was "nonsense."
It was more than nonsense. The cops lied from beginning to end.
Officer Brown repeatedly claimed he could not imagine how West's leg was broken, but if he had to guess, he would say the leg was probably fractured before the police even arrived at the trailer.
An insurance investigator representing Bullhead City had to confess on the witness stand that Officer Roper knew from the very first moment that the leg was broken. The police officer had heard it break with a loud "pop" during the struggle inside the trailer. The insurance investigator knew this because Officer Roper had admitted it in an interview a year after the incident. As far as the compassion the police claimed they used in transporting West to the doctors, a nurse told how the paraplegic West was still naked and handcuffed when the police van rolled up to the hospital. She was so mortified that she ran to get a sheet to cover the poor man. The officer who transported West testified that of course he was handcuffed; she would never transfer any prisoner who wasn't shackled.
Regardless of what the police would like you to believe, this is how Steve West actually was taken to the hospital:
After hours of barbaric confinement, Steve West snapped. Reaching down into his jeans, he withdrew a Buck knife the police missed when they took his wallet. Holding the open blade to his neck, Steve West said he would slash his throat unless he was taken to a hospital.
Eagle Scout Hunter was still in the Bullhead City jail when this happened, and under oath he contradicted the police and confirmed the desperate paraplegic's final act in custody.
Once hospitalized, it took four months before West was released.
The attorney for Bullhead City actually argued to the judge that West's long hospital stay was his own fault because the cripple continued to smoke in bed against his doctor's advice.
West's other attorney, Jim Hill, made short work of this legal theory. His client, after all, not only suffered from an acute break in his leg but also "ecchymosis of his scrotum" and "decubitus of the sacrum."
In other words, said Hill, officers Roper and Brown had kicked the paraplegic in the groin and stomped his broken spine.
It took $66,000 in medical bills before Steve West could be returned to his wheelchair.
After such a staggering litany of abuse, I wondered how McGillicuddy would conclude his remarks to the judge. How do you explain such cold-blooded behavior? The answer is, you cannot.
The best you can do is sort out the lies from the truth. McGillicuddy finished by repeating West's comment after he had been knocked out of his wheelchair.
"Go ahead," West had told the cops. "Beat up a cripple."
Hearing once again West's pathetic taunt, Officer Ted Roper's face lit up the courtroom with a huge grin.
To be continued
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.