ST. PAUL, Minn. (FOX 9) - A corrections officer accused of using excessive force on an inmate in the Ramsey County Jail has reached a settlement agreement that will lead to his formal resignation, without discipline, effective Feb. 28.
Travis Vandewiele has been on paid administrative leave from the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office for the last two years, collecting $121,555 in salary. The settlement agreement will allow him to collect an additional $9,629 in sick and vacation pay.
The agreement stems from an incident on April 13, 2016, in the sally port of the Ramsey County Jail, in which Vandewiele and five other corrections officers fought to strap a handcuffed suspect into a transport chair.
“YOU AIN’T SEEN EXCESSIVE FORCE”
A 13-minute video of the incident, obtained by the FOX 9 Investigators, shows Vandewiele delivering two knee strikes and four punches to the abdomen of a handcuffed suspect, Terrell Wilson, 24.
“You ain’t seen excessive force yet,” Vandewiele can be heard saying, before delivering the four closed-fist strikes to Wilson’s abdomen.
Seconds later, Wilson is heard saying, “Please don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me. I’m sorry.”
“I’ve never been through so much pain,” Wilson told the FOX 9 Investigators in an exclusive interview. “It was torture. That’s what it felt like, torture."
St. Paul Police arrested Wilson that night for stealing two cell phones from customers at the former Wild Onion on Grand Avenue.
Wilson said he was unaware there was a video of the incident at the jail, until the FOX 9 Investigators brought it to his attention. He watched the video for the first time, as tears filled his eyes.
“They wanted me to sit on my [handcuffed] hands. They wanted me to do things that were impossible,” said Wilson.
"THIS WAS REALLY BAD"
Law enforcement use of force experts who reviewed the video at the request of the FOX 9 Investigators differ only slightly on whether Wilson may have been passively resisting by "going limp."
But the experts were unanimous that the video shows Wilson was never physically combative and was not a threat to the jailers.
“I thought it was one of the more distressing videos I’ve seen,” said Christine Cole, Executive Director of the Crime and Justice Institute, a law enforcement think tank in Boston that studies excessive force cases. “This was really bad, I thought.”
“This wasn’t pain compliance to get someone under control,” said Cole. “This was just violence, power and exercising being pissed off.”
“Mr. Wilson is trying to comply, but he can’t when four or five different things are being done to him,” said Tim Williams, a former Senior Detective Supervisor with the Los Angeles Police Department, who frequently testifies as an expert witness on the use of force.
In the video, a supervisor tells the officers to use “pain compliance” on Wilson to get him strapped into a transport chair. Wilson is 5’7", and at the time weighed 180 lbs.
Vandewiele can be seen pushing up on Wilson’s lower jaw, a pressure point known as the mandibular angle, as he is simultaneously telling Wilson to sit back in the chair.
That doesn’t make sense to experts who study use of force techniques.
“You will see one deputy who is pushing the subject in one direction and another pushing the subject in another direction,” said Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former officer with the Tallahassee Police Department.
“It can give the deputies a perception of resistance, when there is not any actual resistance,” said Stoughton.
A RISK OF "POSITIONAL ASPHYXIATION"
The video also shows Vandewiele holding Wilson down while he is doubled over as Wilson, who has been pepper sprayed and is wearing a spit guard, is screaming that he could not breathe.
Experts tell the FOX 9 Investigators the tactic put Wilson at risk for “positional asphyxiation.”
“That is not resisting, they are trying to breathe,” said Tim Williams, the use of force expert.
He said a suspect in that position will feel like they are drowning.
“There are certain things you can’t do anymore because people were dying because of these techniques,” said Williams.
THREE YEARS, THREE SHERIFFS
The Vandewiele case has dragged on for nearly three years and across the tenure of three different Ramsey County sheriffs.
The incident happened while Matt Bostrom was sheriff. Records show Vandewiele was given a 10-day leave of absence shortly after the April 2016 incident.
In January 2017, Bostrom resigned to take a job with a police think tank at the University of Oxford-England, and the Ramsey County Board appointed Jack Serier as sheriff. At the time, Serier was Bostrom's Chief Deputy.
Multiple sources tell the FOX 9 Investigators Serier tried to fire Vandewiele shortly after his appointment. Records show Vandewiele’s two years of paid administrative leave began on Feb. 8, 2017.
Vandewiele, a former Marine, was entitled to paid administrative leave and a hearing before an arbitrator, under the Veterans Preference Act.
Sources tell the FOX 9 Investigators the process of selecting an arbitrator dragged on for eight months. A hearing was finally scheduled for January 2019.
By then, Bob Fletcher had just been re-elected as Ramsey County Sheriff.
Records show the hearing was canceled when Ramsey County reached a settlement agreement with Vandewiele. As part of the agreement, both sides agreed not to pursue any legal action against the other.
The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office worked with outside counsel to negotiate the agreement, which was signed by Sandi Blaeser, Ramsey County’s Labor Relations Manager. Sheriff Fletcher accepted the resignation.
NOT ON MY WATCH
In a statement to the FOX 9 Investigators, Fletcher writes that the video is "extremely disturbing" and "demonstrated failed supervision and poor training." Fletcher added that the supervisor present and employees who witnessed it "had a duty to intervene to stop the assaultive tactics and the use of excessive force."
Serier declined to comment for this story. Bostrom did not respond to an emailed inquiry.
Because Vandewiele will resign and no discipline was sustained, under Minnesota Data Practices, any internal affairs investigation into his conduct is not considered a public record.
A FELONY INVESTIGATION, A MISDEMEANOR CHARGE
However, there was an outside criminal investigation conducted by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office that began 13 days after the incident. Officer Vandewiele declined to talk to the detective handling the case.
Some of the correctional officers interviewed by investigators did not remember Vandewiele delivering the strikes to Wilson. But, others remembered the strikes and thought they were excessive.
“I think the biggest problem you have when you are striking him is the fact that he was handcuffed,” one officer told the detective in a tape recorded interview. “That’s my personal opinion,” the officer added.
It was also the opinion of the officers’ supervisor, who in a confidential memo, wrote that he recommended “counseling for officer Vandewiele,” and that, “Vandewiele admits that the pain compliance methods he was using were the cause of Wilson raising his hips up in his chair.”
The criminal case was forwarded to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office for possible charges of assault or public misconduct. But on Jan. 25, 2017, the Washington County Attorney’s Office declined to file felony charges, according to a confidential memo. Assistant Attorney Kevin Mueller told the FOX 9 Investigators he couldn’t prove “substantial bodily harm” to Wilson beyond a reasonable doubt.
The case was forwarded to the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office and Vandewiele was charged on Feb. 17, 2017, with two counts of 5th Degree Assault, a misdemeanor.
In motions to dismiss the charges, Vandewiele’s attorney, Kevin Beck, argued that his client is protected under a state law, that says “… the correctional officer may enforce obedience and discipline…” and that the pain compliance and pressure points he applied were consistent with his training in how to handle “an unruly and disobedient inmate.”
The Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office agreed to a plea bargain on Jan. 16, 2018, in which Vandewiele plead guilty to disorderly conduct, also a misdemeanor. He paid a $150 fine.
In a statement to FOX 9, Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal said, “We believe strongly in holding law enforcement officials accountable for any criminal conduct ... Through the plea, we obtained a permanent conviction on this deputy’s record, avoiding risks of acquittal at a trial,” the statement read.
After the incident in the sally port, Terrell Wilson spent the next three weeks in the Ramsey County Jail.
Wilson was charged with two counts of felony theft for stealing cell phones at the nightclub. A crime, he maintains, he did not commit.
Wilson said he accepted a plea bargain to avoid the possibility of being sent to prison. As part of the agreement, he plead guilty to one count of felony theft and received a sentence of five years probation.
In contrast, Vandewiele got paid $122,000 for two years on administrative leave and he now gets to resign, without discipline.
Wilson said he found the experience in the Ramsey County Jail so harrowing he moved from the Twin Cities.
“In a weird way, it’s a blessing,” said Wilson. “It opened my eyes to the fact that tomorrow’s never promised ... It was an eye opener, but at the same time it was horrible.”