By Sarah Foster
EL RENO, Oklahoma – Police officers involved in the tasing of an elderly bedridden grandmother into unconsciousness at her apartment last Dec. 22 are being sued in federal court by the woman and her grandson for violations of their civil rights.
“It seems to me using some sort of high voltage on an 86-year-old woman seems inappropriate,” said attorney Brian Dell, after filing the Complaint June 21 in Oklahoma City on behalf of his clients, Lona Varner and her grandson, Lonnie Tinsley, 47. “The whole purpose of this lawsuit is they used the force on an elderly woman.”
The Complaint is more specific, stating Varner was “cruelly injured with a Taser and imprisoned for several days without probable cause,” while both she and her grandson were “wrongfully seized, assaulted [and] battered.”
The action has been brought pursuant to Title 42, U.S. Code, Sections 1983 and 1989, and the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Police officers — Thomas Duran, Frank Tinga, Joseph Sandberg and other unknown police officers – are not the only defendants. The city of El Reno is also named for having a policy of “deliberate indifference” towards training and disciplining its police officers “concerning the rights of citizens” and for failing to sanction and discipline officers who violate those constitutional rights.
It was this “deliberate indifference” on the part of city officials that led police to engage in the “unlawful conduct” described in the lawsuit – conduct that has been likened by online commenters to Reno 911, the television series that recalls the old Keystone Kops comedies. Indeed, the scenario is so bizarre that some thought it couldn’t be true but must have been a spoof piece created by the staff at the The Onion.
It involved a dozen or so cops storming Varner’s apartment against her wishes, deploying a Tazer to “subdue” her in response to a few verbal threats she may or may not have made, handcuffing her while she was unconscious, cutting her arm, and after a few hours at Parkview Emergency Room, hauling her 20 miles east to a psychiatric hospital in Oklahoma City where she was kept through Christmas and several days following.
The incident began when Tinsley, at the request of his father, drove to his grandmother’s apartment which is less than two miles from his own. Because Varner has had several strokes, she takes various medications – just what or how many she’d taken that afternoon Tinsley did not know and she could not or would not, tell him. He was concerned that she might have overdosed deliberately. He couldn’t be sure.
So he did what we’re supposed to do in such emergencies – he called 911, requesting paramedics to come and check on Varner and make sure she was alright.
“She says … her life is over. She wants to end it. … She’s taken some medicine. I don’t know what she’s taken,” Tinsley said in the 911 call. “I can’t get her to tell me what she took. … She’s kind of upset and everything else.”
That was at about 6:30 in the evening.
The dispatcher said an ambulance was started, but instead of an emergency medical team, an armed police officer, Thomas Duran, showed up. Tinsley met him outside and warned him that Varner would not want him to enter her home.
Varner’s small apartment is on the ground floor, and she has her hospital-style bed set up in the living room. That way she can watch the front door, and she has her phone, table, television, and the oxygen concentrator upon which she depends for easier breathing.
When attorney Roger Everett, co-counsel, was approached to take the case he could hardly believe that the police had actually used a tazer on Varner, in part because of her age, but also because of the potential danger of using such a device in a room where there’s an oxygen concentrator.
“On the front door there’s a piece of paper that says there’s oxygen in use here, that’s so we don’t have people bringing in any kind of flammable stuff or smoking,” he said. “You’d think if you saw that on the door you’d figure it might not be a good idea to shoot this gizmo that zaps electricity. You’d think that the police would think twice about shooting somebody 86 years old – that would be enough to give somebody a heart attack.”
Duran, the lead officer, apparently never saw the notice. In his narrative report he writes: As I started to enter the residence I heard a voice say, ‘Get out of here. I don’t want your help.’ I looked around the corner and observed Varner lying on a bed in the living room.”
Duran continues: “I observed Varner pull a kitchen knife from under the pillow and grasp it in a fashion commonly used to stab or slash. Varner looked at me and said, ‘I want to die, I did not call you so get the (expletive) out of my house.’”
HOW BIG A KNIFE?
The knife figures in this story, but Duran does not report how big it was, only that it was a “kitchen knife” – which could mean anything from a small paring knife to an 8” or larger chef’s chopping knife. The first is most likely, according to Varner’s attorneys.
“The reason she had a knife – she likes to eat fruit, particularly oranges,” explained Everett. “She had a piece of fruit she was going to use the knife on. That’s why she had it. I haven’t seen the knife, but it was the kind you’d use to peel an orange. That size.”
In other words: probably about three or four inches.
Duran called the dispatch for backup saying he had a “subject with a knife and needed more units.”
Meanwhile, Tinsley was trying to reach his grandmother and Duran was ordering him “numerous times” to back away and not come near her.
As he tells it: Duran tried to “calm her down, but nothing would work. Varner told me she was in control of her life and I could not do anything to stop her. Varner looked me in the eyes and said, ‘If you try and get the knife I will stab you and kill you.’ Varner said, “I killed four japs in World War II and I would not bat an eye killing you.’”
Duran writes that he was “in fear for the safety of Lonnie, Varner and myself.”
Both Dell and Everett have told NewsWithViews that Varner and Tinsley deny any threats were made. But even if Varner had made threats, what is the likelihood she would have been able to follow through? She’s in marginal health, blind in one eye from her strokes, unable to walk without assistance (she uses an electric chair to get around her apartment), and dependant on oxygen.
In any case, help was on the way – Officers Frank Tinga and Joseph Sandberg arrived to help “calm the situation.” Duran neglects to say that some 10 additional officers – over a third of the city’s police force — swarmed into the tiny apartment, which must have terrified the woman. However, she held her own, or tried to.
“When Varner saw Officer Tinga and Officer Sandberg enter, she took a more aggressive posture on the bed, raised the knife above her head, and said ‘If you come any closer your [sic] getting the knife.’”
AGGRESSIVE OR DEFENSIVE?
Aggressive posture? What Duran calls an “aggressive posture” could just as well be described as “defensive.”
His backup having arrived, Duran decided it was time to deploy his tazer against the “aggressive” senior. Here’s how he tells it (emphasis added):
“I told Varner if she did not drop the knife she’d force us to use our Taser’s [sic]. Varner continued to be aggressive and furthered my fear of injury to other’s [sic] and myself. I deployed my department issued Taser (208930) using cartridge number T08-2070595. One of the Taser prongs made contact with Varner’s upper chest but the other imbedded into a blanket Varner had around her abdomen. The Taser did not make the contact and did not affect Varner. Varner stared at me and continued to hold the knife up in an aggressive manner. I told officer Sandburg who was next to me that my Taser was not working. Officer Sandburg deployed his Tazer with both prongs making contact. The Taser rendered Varner incapable of any further aggressive action and officers were able to remove the knife from Varner’s hand and secure it safely. When the Taser was being used Lonnie became very upset and tried to interfere with officers. Officer Tinga and Officer Gore detained Lonnie. Lonnie calmed down and understood officers had to use force.
“While controlling Varner’s arm and removing the knife, she received a laceration from her elbow to her wrist. Parkview staff later told me it was a very common occurrence for elderly subjects to receive bad lacerations with the slightest of contact with objects due to the thin nature of their skin.
DON’T TAZE MY GRANNY
That’s not how Tinsley recalls the scene. According to the Complaint:
“Lonnie Tinsley told them, ‘Don’t taze my Granny.’ To which they responded they would tazer him; instead they took him down to the floor, handcuffed him and placed him in the back of a patrol car.”
With Tinsley out of the way, the police proceeded to “deploy” their tazer – but first one or several of the officers stepped on her oxygen hose, “until she began to suffer oxygen deprivation.” When the first tazing didn’t work, they fired a second, “striking her to the right and left of the midline of her upper chest and applied high voltage, causing burns to her chest, extreme pain and to pass out.
“The police then grabbed Ms. Varner by her forearms and jerked hands together, causing her soft flesh to tear and bleed on her bed; they then handcuffed her.”
The Emergency Medical Team had by then arrived, and was allowed in to take Varner to the hospital to have the prongs removed and her burns and laceration treated. Tinsley was un-handcuffed and allowed to accompany his grandmother in the ambulance.
Several hours later, after midnight, she was taken to Oklahoma where was committed to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation.
Dell told NewsWithViews: “After keeping her for six days they figured they didn’t have any reason to keep her so they cut her loose.”
A city attorney, Roger Rinehart, said the city had no comment. Assistant Police Chief Kevin Wilkerson said, “With the federal lawsuit, we can’t make any comment on it right now.”
WHERE WAS THE MEDIA?
Not surprisingly the story has created a storm on the Internet – but this did not happen until the case was filed in U.S. District Court, six months after it happened. A short piece appeared in the El Reno Tribune in early January, but there was no follow up by the paper, even though the police had been castigated a year earlier for tazing a man whom they thought was a drunk driver, but instead was having a diabetic seizure.
Dell told NWV that in the Varner case, a local reporter picked it up because he covers federal court and he saw a copy of the petition and called Dell, who then talked to him.
“Then I started getting calls and found out it had been picked up on www.courthousenews.com,” Dell recalled. “I’ve been getting phone calls and emails and everything else from everybody all over. In fact, if you Google “Taser granny” – I got 416,000 hits (June 25). There’s been the Daily Mail, an Irish newspaper, a Nigerian newspaper, the India Times.” (By June 29 it was 668,000)
CIRCLING THEIR WAGONS
The 65-year-old NewsWithViews.com editor Paul Walter was shocked when he learned of the events described here, and said it hit him especially hard since he was born in a communist country and did not come to the United States until he was 15. So he’s seen this kind of behavior by police before.
“The only difference between what I saw there and cases like this one is that the cops in Yugoslavia didn’t have tasers,” he said.
“I wonder if those cops would like that done to their mothers? Or, to themselves for that matter when they reach old age? Didn’t Jesus teach us to treat others the same way we would like to be treated ourselves?
“The real problem is not the wicked cops. The real problem is the management: the police chief, city manager, the mayor and perhaps the city council for condoning such behavior and not setting down proper rules of conduct.
“I guarantee you as sure as I’m writing this, that the city management will circle their wagons to protect their mean-spirited and out-of-control cops.”