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September 28, 2006
Word to the Wise:
Don't Cop an Attitude in Ferndale
by HELEN SANDERSON
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
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,
"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
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
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
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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