After being profiled by Idaho's Gem County Sheriff's Office as potentially dangerous “constitutionalists” and assaulted by deputies in a guns-drawn, SWAT-style raid, Michael and Marcela Cruz have finally found peace and security from government-inflicted abuse – but they had to leave the “Land of the Free” to do it.
“Bear and I are happily living in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico,” Marcela told the Free Thought Project on Wednesday, referring to Michael by his long-time nickname. (His new friends in Mexico call him “Oso.”) Their choice of residence might strike some Americans as ironic, given that just a few months ago the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning advising tourists and businessmen to avoid Puerto Vallarta due to violent clashes between Mexican police and politically protected narcotics gangs.
The much-advertised – and, according to some analysts, much-exaggerated – dangers to be found in that Mexican tourist haven didn't intimidate a couple who had survived an unprovoked paramilitary home invasion in their tiny western Idaho town.
On August 16, 2012, several Gem County Sheriff's deputies, accompanied by Sheriff Chuck Rolland, converged on the couple's farmhouse in Letha, an unincorporated village near Emmett, Idaho, in response to anonymous report of a domestic incident. The neighbor claimed to have heard the couple quarreling, and said that Bear might have been "hitting" his wife, but couldn't provide an eyewitness description of actual violence.
Just a few days earlier, the same sheriff's office had responded to another domestic episode in the same neighborhood – this one involving alcohol, physical violence, and the presence of firearms. In that earlier incident, the department dispatched one deputy and a social worker. No guns were drawn, and the suspected abuser – who, as it happens, was a former deputy – was allowed to leave without being handcuffed.
Bear and Marcela, who ran a small organic farm, were treated much differently after being identified – on the basis of their political beliefs – as a threat to “officer safety.”
“Are you familiar with these guys?” asked a deputy identified in the 911 recordings as “Officer 57,” while en route to the home.
“Negative,” answered another deputy designated “Officer 56.”
“I am, and it’s affirmative, there is [sic] weapons,” continued Officer 57. “He is – or at least was – anti-law enforcement. We’ve had issues with him. He’s a constitutionalist.”
The “issues” to which Officer 57 referred were a single traffic infraction by Bear, and the couple's desperate attempt, roughly a year earlier, to get the sheriff's office to investigate the burglary of their home. Although both Bear and Marcela were outspoken critics of government corruption and abuse, there is no evidence that Bear was “anti-law enforcement.” In fact, he suffered a nearly fatal on-duty injury as a peace officer – in his case, as a private security guard – when he was stabbed in the abdomen by a shoplifter.
Although that injury and the subsequent infection happened decades ago, Bear still suffers the lingering physical and psychological effects, which sometimes undermine his good cheer. The morning of August 16, 2012 was such an occasion. Stiff, sore, and grouchy, Bear snapped at Marcela when she complained about a problem in their vegetable garden. That was the extent of their “domestic dispute – but it was overheard by an antagonistic neighbor, who “SWATted” the couple.
A little more than an hour after the couple's brief and innocuous spat, Marcela looked out the kitchen window and saw the raiding party.
“Bear! There are guys with guns outside!” shouted Marcela, timidly opening the door. She briefly froze in terror as Detective Rich Perecz, wearing a tactical vest and carrying his drawn sidearm, lumbered toward her.
“Don’t go back into the house,” Perecz ordered Marcella as the woman instinctively retreated into the safety of her home.
At roughly the same time, another intruder armed with an assault rifle pounded on the front door.
“Come out!” he demanded.
It's important to note that at this point, the officers had no direct evidence that criminal conduct was underway or had occurred at the domicile. The receipt of an anonymous third-party report would have justified a “knock-and-talk” contact, but the deputies had neither a warrant nor probable cause, and therefore no legal authority to enter the home without the couple's consent. This was why they demanded that Bear and Marcela exit the home at gunpoint. When Marcela, the supposed victim, tried to retreat into the home, Detective Perecz committed an act of felonious violence by laying hands on her.
As Marcella tried to shut the kitchen door, Perecz, who outweighed her by at least 100 pounds, grabbed her by the left wrist and started to pull the struggling woman from the house.
“Why are you dragging me out of my home?” Marcela demanded. “Why would you be pulling me out of my home?”
“Open the door,” insisted the assailant, using his weight advantage and leverage to extract the woman, who had braced herself against one side of the door while clinging to the other with her right hand. As Marcela's grip failed her, the left side of her body scraped painfully against the door frame before she was thrown to the ground.
It was at this point that one of the invaders finally identified himself.
“Bear! Step out – Sheriff’s office!” bellowed a deputy packing an assault weapon.
“What’s the matter?” asked Bear in exasperation as he opened the living room door. “What is the problem?”
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“Who else is in the house?” demanded one of the invaders.
“Nobody,” replied Bear.
“You guys having a fight this morning?” asked the deputy, his finger still hovering on the trigger of his rifle.
“We had an argument,” Bear replied, his voice freighted with puzzlement. “What’s going on?”
“We’ll let you know in a sec,” the assailant replied in a dismissive tone. “For right now, go to your knees for me. Face away from me.”
Without cause or explanation, Bear was ordered to his knees. As he bent stiffly to comply with the demand, one of the deputies impatiently kicked his knee. Bear was left in coup de grace position, the muzzle of a rifle poised inches away from his skull.
“What is this about?” Bear asked from his knees as a deputy handcuffed him.
“We’re going to tell you – now’s the time to shut up!” ordered the deputy with the assault rifle.
Actually, at this point, the raid became an exercise in self-justification. On the pretext of “clearing the house,” several deputies, joined by Sheriff Rolland, prowled through the home in the hope of finding something – anything, in fact – that could be depicted as evidence of a criminal offense.
While his comrades were carrying out a patently illegal search, Perecz couldn't resist the opportunity to upbraid Bear.
“Perecz knelt down next to me, showed me his badge and said, `What is this?’” Bear related to me during an interview in his living room about two months after the incident. “I said, `It’s your badge.’ He said, `Can you tell me why your wife wouldn’t come out of the house when I told her to?’ Those guys didn’t identify themselves as the Sheriff’s Office until after they had dragged Marcella out of our house. All we knew was what she said when she saw them coming through our corn field – they were men with guns.”
Trying to uphold the fiction that the raid had been triggered by an act of domestic violence, Perecz – who, it should be remembered, had just assaulted Marcela – asked Bear, “Why are your wife's knuckles all scraped up?”
“He was trying to get me to admit that I had beat my wife,” Bear recalled in disgust. “He apparently knows nothing about living and working on a farm. Of course Marcella’s hands get scraped from time to time; we work for a living, after all.”
As a professional tax-consumer, Perecz may be unacquainted with the physical toll involved in honest work. As a purveyor of state-licensed violence, he did what he could to build a pretext for the raid.
The official police report noted that Marcella Cruz showed “no evidence of battery” at the end of the incident. (Interestingly, she was not identified as a “victim” in that document.) Photographs taken two days later showed that her left arm and side were disfigured with large bruises that had been inflicted by Detective Perecz when the officer yanked her out of her kitchen doorway.
“Now that you know we didn’t have a fight, why don’t you pack up and go away?” asked Bear after the deputies emerged from his home.
“Oh, we can’t do that,” one of them replied. “We’re here now, and we have probable cause.”
What they had – or, at least, thought they had -- was an opportunity to seize Bear and Marcella’s home and farm through “civil asset forfeiture.” That tantalizing prospect evaporated when it became clear that the “grow area” the raiders thought they had found was used to cultivate organic tomatoes, rather than marijuana.
By this point, Bear was feeling the effects of having been dropped end-first on a concrete patio with his hands cuffed behind his back. Shackled, disoriented, and in severe pain, he was interrogated at gunpoint by his captors, who extracted an admission that he had smoked a marijuana cigarette the previous evening. That “offense” is a misdemeanor, even under Idaho's medieval drug laws, for which Bear was given a citation. But this provided Sheriff Rolland and Gem County Prosecutor Richard Linville with an excuse to describe the raid as “fully justified.”
Bear, who suffered an incapacitating tailbone fracture after being handcuffed, was unable to harvest that fall's crop of organic vegetables. About six months later, the couple lost their home and were forced to move in with Bear's mother in north-central Idaho. Unable to find an attorney willing to represent them in a civil suit, Bear and Marcela recuperated from their injuries, saved their money, and decided to become expatriates.
The Mexican view of law and order is often caricatured in the familiar scene from “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” in which the leader of a gang of bandits tries to disarm a leery Fred C. Dobbs by insisting that he and his comrades are “Federales – you know, the mounted police.”
“If you are the police, where are your badges?” Dobbs replies, refusing to lower his rifle.
“Badges?” repeats the momentarily flustered bandit leader, whose anger grows in crescendo after his bluff was called. “We ain't got badges. We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinking badges!”
That there are gangsters of that variety in Mexico and elsewhere is true. The most dangerous variety of gangsters here in the United States are those who have “stinking badges” but assume that they don't have to follow the law or respect the Bill of Rights. This explains why officially licensed gangsters see “constitutionalists” as suspect – and why Bear and Marcela decided that if they wanted to live in relative freedom they would have to leave their country to do so.