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September 28, 2006

In the News

The Town Dandy
School Daze

Short Stor

The Brown Balloon

Word to the Wise:
Don't Cop an Attitude in Ferndale


On the evening of May 31 Sean Marsh sat in the Humboldt County Correctional Facility, clad in orange, pondering his situation.

The day had started innocently -- normally. He drove his wife, Allison Marsh, who was eight months pregnant, to a doctor's appointment in Fortuna. Forty minutes later they popped over to Ferndale so she could shop for some new shoes. While Allison perused Abraxas Shoes and Leather on Main Street, Marsh and his 2-year-old son Everett stepped out to the sidewalk to chat with old friends about getting a softball game together. (The Marshes formerly owned a bakery on Main Street, but sold it when they became pregnant with Everett. The couple is still chummy with other business folks there.)

Moments later, baby Everett toddled his way toward the candy store, Trudy's Sweets and Treats. Marsh called to his son to come back. Everett returned but then continued past Marsh in the opposite direction, waving to customers in the Mexican restaurant, and walked down Main Street toward the intersection of Brown Street. As he began to follow his son down the road, Marsh's friends went about their business, one to the Mexican restaurant and the other to Abraxas. Marsh walked behind Everett -- by about 15 feet, he estimates -- and was telling him to come back. This is when Ferndale Police Chief Lonnie Lawson arrived.

What transpired between Chief Lawson and Marsh that afternoon is now the basis of a criminal case. A pre-trial hearing on the matter will be held Wednesday, Oct. 4. Marsh and Lawson are the only witnesses to what took place next.

According to Lawson's police report, the baby had gone 18 inches off the curb and into the roadway, while Marsh was half a block behind. Marsh said this was nonsense -- that his son was standing on the curb when Lawson swung his cruiser into the crosswalk.

"My son never entered the street," Marsh said in a phone call on Monday, his 39th birthday. "That is the most important thing. In fact, if he had he would have been under the [police] car, because the car came right up to the curb."

On the advice of the District Attorney's office, Lawson declined to comment as the case is headed to trial. Marsh says it went down like this.

His son was startled at first, but then grew excited. He likes police cars. He said over and over, "Peace car, peace car."

"So I bend down to pick him up and Chief Lawson yells out his window, `You need to hold his hand!' So I put my palm up -- for the universal sign of `I got it.' As I am walking away, I hear the door slam shut and he's coming around the front of the car. He said, `What did you say?'"

According to Marsh, he told the chief that he hadn't said anything. So then, "He said, `Did you hear what I said?' I told him yes. He steps up in my face, and says, `What did I say?' I look at him like, `What is this?' I said, `Look, I'm holding my son, we're gonna go back to shopping now.' I step away. He steps in and repeats it. I say, `Is there some kind of problem?' He says, `Yeah, there's a problem. That boy was going to run out into the street.' He said, `Who was going to stop him?' I said, `He'd stop himself.'

Lawson allegedly scoffed at this and asked the boy's age. Two years old, Marsh said. Then the words "child endangerment" were brought up. When Lawson asked Marsh for identification, he refused, and instead told him his name and birth date and explained that he once owned a business on this very street. Lawson still wanted to see his ID. This is when Marsh got a little snarky.

"I say, `This isn't a communist state," Marsh recalled. "`I don't have to produce papers on command. Do you want my Social Security Number?'"

According to Marsh, Lawson replied: "Do you want to be arrested?" Marsh described the chief as purse-mouthed and unreasonably agitated.

Arrested for what? Marsh wanted to know. Lawson asked again for the ID.

At this point the fracas was attracting attention. Ferndale Real Estate owner Jake Drake approached them. It was then that Lawson gave Marsh an ultimatum -- produce an ID or go to jail.

"I was exasperated," Marsh said. "I felt like I was being bullied."

Marsh says he began to put his son down when Lawson grabbed him and ordered Jake Drake to "take the boy."

Lawson proceeded to arrest Marsh. He says that the chief put him in handcuffs and twisted them hard. Three months later and his thumb still tingles. A doctor told him he has nerve damage.

The whole event, Marsh says, probably occurred in three to five minutes. He never got to explain to his wife what had happened before he was taken to the Ferndale police station and she was stranded without keys to the car.

That evening, Marsh was brought to the county jail in Eureka, where his bond was set at $50,000. He called his wife. They decided there was no way they could pull together $5,000 to make bail. He was booked, made to strip before the guard and issued an orange jumpsuit. He was then given a spork, toothbrush, toothpaste, two stamped envelopes, a pencil and four pages of notebook paper. While biding his time in the jail cell he wrote down every detail of his arrest and his interaction with Chief Lawson.

The next day at 11:30 a.m., the jailer told him he could go. He had missed a crucial appointment for work, which was scheduled for 8 a.m. Three weeks later he was fired. He figures it's a direct result of the missed meeting, and also having his name in the paper for child endangerment and resisting arrest.

Marsh had never been arrested before. And he swears he has nothing against cops. His brother is a police officer outside of Chicago, and he's been on a number of ride-alongs with him. Marsh studied criminal justice in the early 1990s and scored high on his law school entrance exam (top 12 percent). He didn't become a lawyer because he decided to pursue culinary arts with his wife.

In retelling the story of his arrest, it all still seems surreal, almost humorous, to him. Almost. But then, the reality is that his record is seriously tarnished, he has a new baby and no job.

"To add insult to injury, I get to defend my reputation," he said. "It's bad to have child endangerment on your record. It's [California Penal Code] 273(a). That's the same code they use for someone who locks their kid in a car for a half-hour in 100 degree weather. They're not normal people walking down the street with their son."

A witness to the arrest, Main Street business owner Polly Stemwedel, filed a complaint against Chief Lawson. The City of Ferndale then passed the investigation on to an independent party -- Fortuna Police Chief Kris Kitna. On Tuesday, Kitna said that he could not release information about the matter -- it was a personnel issue. Mayor James Moore, filling in as city manager in place of Michael Powers, who recently resigned, also said that information from the investigation could not be disclosed to the media.

Stemwedel declined to comment on the matter except to specify that she filed an official complaint a few weeks after the event, but had discussed her disapproval of Chief Lawson's conduct with councilmember Carlos Benemann and Mayor Moore immediately after the incident.

Abraxas owner Brett Boynton said Tuesday that following Marsh's May arrest, he sought Lawson out at the police station but he wasn't there. As he walked back to work he saw the chief's car at Papa Joe's restaurant.

"I said, `What's the deal, man?'" Boynton recalled of their meeting. "And he [Lawson] said, `Brett, his body language was saying, `F- you.' What was I supposed to do?'" (Boynton decided to drop the topic because, "I'll probably have to call him to help me out when I get robbed or something.")

To Marsh, this is further proof that he was arrested because Lawson was "on a power trip."

Boynton has another conclusion. He thinks the chief was agitated because earlier that day, on May 31, Lawson attended a Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) crash simulation at Ferndale High School. Boynton's younger sister, a high-schooler, said that the chief was there that day, crying and getting very emotional.

Ferndale High Principal Alan Brainerd confirmed that Lawson was there, and that he made an emotional plea to the students not to drive drunk. "There were very few dry eyes in the Ferndale High gym on that day," he said.

Whatever the reasons for his arrest, Marsh believes he will have his record expunged of the crimes.

"I couldn't imagine a 12-person jury ever, ever understanding the police's point of view on this," he said. "I was behind [Everett], talking to him. He was never in any danger." l





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