Burning down the house

Jorge Serrato examines the burned-out remains of his late brother's home (Source: Monterey County Weekly)

An article from the Monterey County Weekly‘s “Mucky Duck Probe” starts with the following sentence:

More than a week after a Monterey County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team descended on a quiet Greenfield [no, not that Greenfield — Dr. Q] neighborhood to help the Monterey Police Department serve a search warrant, sheriff’s investigators are probing what went wrong in the operation that left a 31-year old father of four dead and his family’s home a charred ruin.

— Robin Urevick, “Investigators try to determine what went wrong in death of misidentified man.” (Jan. 13th, 2011), Monterey County Weekly

“[I]nvestigators are probing what went wrong…” is a rather disingenuous way of putting it. The police already know what went wrong: they started the fire themselves by setting off an explosive device in the home.

According to an Associated Press article (published almost two weeks ago), the recent incident in Greenfield, CA occurred while the police were looking for 23-year-old Alejandro Jose Gonzalez, a shooting suspect, whom they believed to be in the home. The police found 31-year-old Rogelio Serrato at the residence and, when he refused to leave the building, the police attempted to forcibly enter the home. During their entry, the police threw a flashbang grenade into the home. Flashbangs are often touted as “nonlethal” weapons; they are sometimes referred to as “stun grenades” or “diversionary devices” and police typically claim that they are used purely to disorient criminal suspects. In reality, flashbangs are a deadly weapon which injure, kill, and destroy property indiscriminately. In this case, the grenade started a fire which killed Serrato. Gonzalez was not in the home.

According to the more recent article from the Monterey County Weekly, police are now admitting they knew Gonzalez was not in the home at the time of the raid. In fact, they realized they had the wrong address prior to conducting the raid, but they discovered that Serrato had two warrants related to old charges — both misdemeanors — and thought it would be a good idea to use all their military equipment to force him out of his home. Police are refusing to say what misdemeanors the warrants were issued for which leaves open the possibility that Serrato was burned alive over something as asinine as a couple of unpaid jaywalking tickets.

Rogelio Serrato is by no means the first person to be victimized by police with explosives. In New York in 2005, an 18-year-old woman named Rhiannon Kephart received serious injuries when police set the bed she was sleeping in on fire with a flashbang during a drug raid. Kephart was an innocent bystander, not the target of the raid.[ref name=”source1″]

Rhiannon Kephart
January 25, 2005—NY

Eighteen-year-old Rhiannon Kephart is hospitalized and in serious condition after she receives severe burns during a pre-dawn paramilitary raid on a Niagara Falls apartment.

Kephardt–who wasn’t the target of the raid–suffered second- and third-degree burns on her chest and stomach after the flashbang grenade tossed through a window by the raiding officers landed on the bed where she was sleeping. The grenade ignited the bedsheets, setting off a fire in the apartment.

Source:

Dan Herbeck, “Woman Hurt in Drug Raid Still ‘Serious,'” Buffalo News, January 24, 2005, p. B3.

— Quoted from Botched Paramilitary Police Raids, Cato Institute

[/ref] In 2001, police in St. Petersburg, FL destroyed a rap group’s studio recordings and equipment supposedly worth more than $100,000 when they started a fire in the group’s studio with a flashbang during a drug raid. No drugs or weapons were found nor were any arrests made. In a classic case of blaming the victim, the SWAT team’s leader, Sgt. Gary Robbins, commented that “It’s unfortunate those guys packed that house with materials that were flammable.”

In December, 1996, the Fitchburg, MA SWAT team conducted a paramilitary-style drug raid on the home of Richard Garcia, a 20-year-old man whom the police suspected of selling cocaine. The SWAT team arrived at Garcia’s apartment building on Fairmount Street in the middle of the night, made their way to his apartment which was located on the fourth floor, smashed down his door, and threw a flashbang grenade inside. The explosive device landed on Garcia’s sofa and set the piece of furniture ablaze. The officers attempted to push the burning sofa off the upper balcony of Garcia’s apartment to prevent the fire from spreading.

But it was too late.

The fire soon engulfed the entire four story apartment complex. Horrified residents, some barefoot, were forced to abandon their fiery homes in favor of a cold, snowy December night. All in all, the fire left 24 people homeless. Half of them were children. One of the children was a two-month-old baby. According to Teresa Pixler, then executive director of the North Central Massachusetts Chapter of the Red Cross, “Some of [the residents] had already done their Christmas shopping, and now they’ve not only lost everything, they’ve lost their Christmas as well.” The damages caused by the fire were estimated to be about $150,000 by Fitchburg’s Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Cascio, but for some residents, the damage caused by the fire could never be fixed. For instance, Clarence Green, then in his late 60’s, lost his mementos of his late wife who had died of cancer years earlier.

The police were tight-lipped about the fire, providing only a few details of what happened. They claimed that they conducted the nighttime raid on Garcia’s apartment because they believed that he was armed and that his apartment was “barricaded.” Miraculously, they claimed to have recovered cocaine from Garcia’s burning apartment — enough to charge him with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and distribution of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school — yet they refused to say whether or not they found any firearms. The fact that Garcia was not charged with any firearms-related offenses, however, suggests unambiguously that they found none. The police had destroyed innocent peoples’ homes and possessions and put them all in mortal danger all over a victimless “crime.”

The only information I’ve been able to locate about the legal aftermath of the fire is that Clarence Green (mentioned above) was awarded $5000 in a settlement. That money, of course, came from innocent taxpayers, not the officers responsible for the act of arson that destroyed Green’s home and possessions. To the best of my knowledge, none of the officers who planned or participated in the raid were ever held accountable in any way. In fact, the officers who conducted the raid were apparently cited for the heroism they supposedly displayed during the fire.[ref name=”source2″]

My sources for the Fitchburg police arson story are as follows:

  • “Fire sparked by police leaves dozens homeless: Device meant to distract starts blaze” (Dec. 8th, 1996), The Boston Globe
  • Matthew Taylor, “Fitchburg police mum on raid, fire 24 left homeless want answers, relief official says” (Dec. 9th, 1996), The Boston Globe
  • Ric Kahn and Zachary R. Taylor, “‘Iron fist’ of policing SWAT team use questioned” (May 11, 1998), The Boston Globe

Unfortunately, these old article are no longer hosted at The Boston Globe‘s official website. You can find them by searching High Beam Research, although you’ll need to make an account with them, unfortunately. You can also find the text of the “Iron fist” article in this .txt document.

The fire is also mentioned in Radley Balko’s book Overkill and is charted on the Cato Institute’s “Botched Paramilitary Police Raids” interactive map.

It’s also worth pointing out that the arson at Fairmount Street was not the first time Fitchburg’s SWAT team engaged in outrageous criminal activity. In 1993, shortly after finishing up with a nighttime drug raid, the SWAT team approached eight Hispanic men on a sidewalk in an unmarked van. The officers — who were dressed in all black, had their faces covered with black masks, and had no visible, identifying marks on their clothing — jumped out of the van, forced the men to the ground at gunpoint, searched them, and then placed them under arrest for “loitering” (yes, the police really sent out a fucking SWAT team over “loitering” on a public sidewalk). The men claim they were thrown (literally) into the van, one-on-top-of-another, and were threatened, beaten, spit on, and called racial slurs while they were driven to the police station. The loitering charges were later dropped when the police refused to comply with a court order that simply required them to confirm the names of the officers involved in the incident. The eight men who were victimized filed a civil rights lawsuit against the police, but, astoundingly, the court upheld the gang-style kidnappings and torture as legitimate arrests.

See:

  • William F. Doherty, “Court upholds arrests by SWAT team in 1993” (May 18th, 1999), The Boston Globe

You can also find this article at High Beam Research.

[/ref]

The Fitchburg fire, though horrific, pales in comparison to the the Philadelphia Police Department’s 1985 massacre. The Philly cops were not using mere flashbangs — they actually dropped a four-pound bomb out of a helicopter in a residential neighborhood. The resulting explosion killed 11 people, five of which were children, and started a fire that destroyed 65 private homes. None of the police who participated in this act of terrorism were ever held accountable.

Incidents like these have the unfortunate effect of reminding us that some people are more equal under the law than others. If you or I intentionally set off an explosive device in an innocent stranger’s home or dropped a bomb on it, we would almost certainly be charged with a litany of serious crimes. There is almost nothing imaginable that we could say to avoid spending years, perhaps our entire lives, in prison once we had been implicated in such an act. If we destroyed any property or injured or killed anyone with the explosive, we would be personally liable for the damages. We’d probably be branded as psychopathic murderers or evil terrorists. Yet when police do the exact same thing, it’s somehow seen by many people as perfectly reasonable for them to claim that they made a “mistake” or an “accident” and that their actions were fully justified.

Notes:

EPN

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