Getting Tough On Grandma: Prosecutor drags on case against pepper-sprayed great-grandmother.
By Anne Stanton
It sounds like a send-up from a David Letterman show: Why did the deputy pepper-spray a 79-year-old great-grandmother?
Yet it isn’t a joke to either Elaine Vandenberg or to Frankfort Village police officer Jason Wolfe, who pepper-sprayed Vandenberg twice in the eyes and arrested her on a felony charge for resisting and obstructing a police officer. The charges were dismissed in May, but Benzie County prosecutor John Daugherty filed a motion with the state Court of Appeals last week to reinstate the felony charges.
Vandenberg’s problems began last May when she asked her nephew, Andrew Haas, then 27, to come help her with her badly crippled husband, who “had every single disease and disorder that a human being can have – throat cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer, Parkinson’s, gout, scoliosis, bones replaced with screws, a pacemaker and dementia.”
Although exhausted from round-the-clock caring for her husband, she thought she could “fix” Haas and give him a fresh start. Her grandson had been abandoned by his father at the age of four and raised by Vandenberg’s daughter. She refused state assistance, but it meant working full-time and leaving him alone after he became too old for day care. Haas was a troubled child and, from the age of 14, had been in and out of correctional facilities and prisons. When he moved in with Vandenberg, he was in serious trouble in his hometown, she said.
But Vandenberg was no match for Haas, who, she said, is charming and handsome but also untruthful and a serious alcoholic. “I didn’t have the strength, power or intelligence to help him. When he was drinking, he was totally out of his mind. He’d do horribly stupid things. He smashed my car. He caused a lot of problems. I still love him.”
Almost immediately, he got into drinking-related trouble, and the Frankfort cops were in and out of her house, once walking in, while she was having dinner with her husband, without a search warrant. Until this point in her life, Vandenberg had never had dealings with the police. She had retired to Frankfort after a career as a medical technologist. She was a devoted volunteer at the hospital, played bridge, and served as the president of the Periwinkle Garden Club. Also a silversmith, she donated her works to the Crystal Lake Art Center annual fundraiser.
On a warm evening on August 3, 2009, her grandson, whose license was suspended, told her he was going to take the car and rev it up in a private driveway to recharge the battery. She found out later that he really intended to drive into town to buy cigarettes.
Officer Wolfe spotted the car at about 8:40 p.m. traveling north on Crystal Avenue, driving about 60 mph in an area posted at a speed limit of 35 mph and 45 mph, according to his police report.
He began following the white car, which didn’t pull over. He noticed that Haas had his hand out the window, motioning to him, but he didn’t know why or what it meant.
As he drove home, Haas called his grandma. He said he was being followed, but he was waving on the officer to follow him. He had his pit bull, Lady, in the car. He feared the officer would taser the dog, because it nearly happened before, and he wanted to get the dog safely home before he gave up. Wolfe turned on his siren and called for backup. He followed the car for about five minutes before it pulled in front of Vandenberg’s home, he wrote in his police report.
Vandenberg, barefoot and wearing a T-shirt and shorts, was at the side of the road, her cellphone in one hand. She was yelling, “You don’t understand!” Both men stepped out of their cars.
She walked up to Wolfe’s police car to talk to him, while Haas walked away. The deputy followed Haas and grabbed his arm, but he broke loose and began walking down the road. Wolfe yelled for Haas to get on the ground and he refused. He ordered Vandenberg, who had stepped in front of him, to step back, and she didn’t. “I thought, I am trying to get to my grandson. Why is he stopping me? He is my grandson, and I want to get to my grandson, and I’m on my own property.”
The deputy was rattled from the sirens and the chase, according to court transcripts of the preliminary trial. He stated that Vandenberg was preventing him from walking over to Haas. Neither Haas nor Vandenberg was complying with his orders. Here’s where the two stories diverge: He said, in his police report, that she put one hand on his chest and the other on his arm and pushed him.
He yelled, “Back off!” He took a step back, yelled, “Code 20,” on his radio, and pepper-sprayed her twice in the eyes.
Vandenberg, who has never testified in court, said she couldn’t have touched him with two arms because she had a cellphone in one hand. She said in the space of what seemed like 10 seconds, she tried to get the police officer – silhouetted in siren lights – to listen to her. Suddenly, she saw fluid squirt at her eyes, followed by searing pain. She began screaming in agony. Haas came over to his grandma and gave her a hug, touching his face to hers.
At this point, several other police cars arrived, and the scene was awash in shrieking sirens and lights. The police officers called an ambulance for Vandenberg and then focused their efforts on capturing Haas, who ran into the lake to wash off the pepper spray. Vandenberg, who continued to scream in pain after getting assessed, but not treated, by an ambulance worker, was helped by a neighbor, who flushed her eyes with water from a garden hose.
Vandenberg was cuffed and taken to jail for the night. She continued to sob and flush her eyes with a cold washcloth to relieve the pain and begged the jailers not to leave her sick husband alone. She was assured someone was with him. A Michigan state police trooper did make him comfortable, and a neighbor checked on him, but he spent the night alone. Luckily, he didn’t fall, she said.
As a result of rubbing her eyes, two plastic tubes inserted in Vandenberg’s eyes for a “dry eye” condition fell out and had to be replaced. The incident traumatized her, she said.
She appeared before 19th Circuit Judge James Batzer in May, nearly a year later. Her attorney, Jesse Williams, asked the court to use common sense and referred to Vandenberg as “Grandma.” He asked Wolfe: “Are you scared of little old ladies? It’s real simple, straightforward. Are you scared of little old women? Yes or no? Yes or no?”
“At that time, I was,” Wolfe admitted.
In truth, Vandenberg at 5-foot 7 inches is not really “little.” She believes she’s about the same height as the deputy, although much older than Wolfe, who’s in his 30s, and much lighter.
Batzer dismissed the charges in May, summing up his conclusions like this, according to the court transcript:
“Now, of course, a police officer, when he’s in the course of making an arrest, doesn’t want other people coming up, other than other police officers. He doesn’t want other people around. Because he doesn’t, you know, he doesn’t know, are they going to be jumping on his back trying to take his gun, or what? He wants to effect that arrest. Well this woman isn’t trained in police procedures. She wants to tell this officer, You don’t understand, you don’t understand.
“Well, I take it she wants to tell him what he doesn’t understand. He’s not interested in listening to that. He’s interested in making the arrest to her grandson who doesn’t want to be arrested, and he’s telling her to back off. And that’s not sinking in because she’s under as much emotional upset and distress as this police officer is because that’s her grandson. And she goes up to him, and she puts a hand on him. And he says she grabbed a hold of his left arm. Now, he does say – there’s no testimony of what that was. I mean, did she grab his arm and try and wrench it behind his back? Did she grab his arm and was she scratching and clawing? Or – people can go up and grab someone’s arm; they just want to talk to them. You can grab an arm and say, just listen – you know – its just – it’s just an emphatic way, or can be, of speaking. Anyway, and then what kind of force did she push you with? This officer doesn’t know. This record is perfectly capable of the inference, he says, I took a step back. Because he was surprised. He was surprised when she touched him. He took a step back. That’s all. And then he pepper sprayed her.”
Vandenberg was relieved with the dismissal. At least she was until last week, when Daugherty filed an appeal with the state Court of Appeals to reinstate the felony charges against her. “It doesn’t matter if she knew police procedure, and it didn’t matter the deputy wasn’t injured,” he wrote in his motion. Williams said the logical course would have been to refile the case as a misdemeanor. “Why would he go to state Court of Appeals? How is it benefiting the community? This is a waste, an incredible waste of taxpayer money. She’s 80 years old with no criminal history. What are we doing? What does it accomplish?”
Vandenberg said she’s sick of it and just wants it over. “The community needs to get up in arms about the prosecutor prolonging this ridiculous case and wasting their money. It’s been nearly a year.”
Prosecutor John Daugherty did not return a call seeking comment.