"I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird." Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee's portrayal of two siblings growing up in Alabama during the depression under the watchful eye of their widowed father, Atticus Finch, a lawyer assigned to defend a black man charged with assaulting a poor white girl, has some relevance with what has recently happened in Ludington 90 years later. Finch would ultimately demonstrate in court that his client was innocent of the accusations and that the girl's assault was apparently from a family member who was upset that the girl had romantic feelings for the helpful neighbor on trial. The trial's jury, composed of twelve of the city's white men, still convicts the man. Finch plans a successful appeal before learning that his client has died while in custody.
Rayke Johnson was walking his fiance's dog on the streets of his Fourth Ward neighborhood in Ludington on August 8th, 2022 shortly before 4:00 PM. Johnson is a 35-year-old black man that has lived in big and small cities across America during his life, he had been fortunate enough to have never ran afoul of the law and its enforcers. That would change. His compliance, cooperation, and demeanor through what he would experience this day, illustrate that he tries to live within the law and respects police officers.
Captain Steve Wietrzykowski (currently the interim police chief of Ludington) was enroute to a routine duty to move one of the portable radar speed signs when he was flagged down by two teenagers who told him that a 14-year-old girl had just been threatened by a Hispanic male with a gun, who had been walking a German shepherd a couple of blocks away. Within a minute, the LPD captain would locate Rayke Johnson, who fit the description; Wietrzykowski would activate his lights, exit his vehicle, draw his pistol to the low ready position, and, shielded by the vehicle, instruct Johnson to drop everything and put his hands on his head.
While surprised and acting confused, Johnson would be fully compliant with the demands and the reasonable protocols that the captain used, being that he was advised that Johnson may have been armed and threatening violence to others. Neither Johnson nor his dog was aggressive during the wait for backup officers, or any time thereafter in this incident.
"The reason why we are like this is that they told me you pointed a gun at somebody in their yard.", Wietrzykowski announced to a disbelieving Johnson. "When my partner gets here, we're just going to put you in cuffs real quick, just for our safety. Just until we know you are not armed.
Sergeant Mike Haveman and Officer Michael Gilmurray would arrive and approach Johnson, who had his hands interlocked behind his head and had his cell phone and wallet on the ground next to him with his knees on the dog leash. Johnson was frisked and handcuffed while maintaining that he never had a gun and was a law-abiding citizen.
While this was happening Captain Wietrzykowski picked up Johnson's cell phone and wallet and began riffling through the latter. Johnson would notice ten seconds later that his wallet and cell phone were not on the ground and wonder where they went. Wietrzykowski would note he had it and replied, "Just checking who you are."
This nonconsensual seizure and search of the wallet by Ludington's current interim police chief would be in violation of not only LPD procedures but also of Rayke Johnson's Fourth Amendment rights. Johnson had already voluntarily answered every question asked of him, he would have likely consented to let officers check his ID, but he was never afforded that choice. Wietrzykowski would casually take both wallet and phone and place them unsecured on the back of his vehicle until the end of the incident after getting all of the information he needed in the wallet.
Officer Gilmurray would break away after the handcuffing and check the next block for a discarded gun in the high grass of a vacant lot before he interviewed the 14-year-old girl who was reportedly threatened by Johnson. His bodycam reported the conversation:
Gilmurray: "So what happened?"
14: "Basically, I was with kittens I was playing with them and I grabbed the jump rope..."
G: "Over in this yard?"
14: "Yeah right in this yard right there and he came up to right there and my brother's car was there and he said that the tint was illegal, and then he said, I was holding that bat, that 'you better put that down or I will blow your brains out'. And then, and then, I called my big brother, he walked to the corner, and then he went to my brother's car and then he said to his dog: "Do you want to go get them, I know you do." and then we went around the block and a cop was there...
G: (later) "Did you see a gun?"
14: "No, but he said he was going to pull his gun out and blow my brains out."
Did you notice the subtle change in her story? Her original version has no mention of a gun, only that he was going to blow her brains out. The added detail that he was going to pull his gun out was added as an afterthought, and one would think it should have been part of her original story since she stated what Johnson allegedly said. There are more embellishments and subtle changes when she relates her version of events to Wietrzykowski about fifteen minutes later, after Johnson's arrest for aggravated/felonious assault and transport to jail:
Wietrzykowski: "Want to come out and show me where it happened and kind of walk me through it?"
14: "I was just sitting here (inaudible) like this, I grabbed something over there in the bag, and I was swinging them like this playing with the kittens and he was right there by the boat and he said, 'you know that tint's illegal. right?', and I said..., and he said 'This isn't Hollywood you know.' and then he told me to drop the stuff before he blows my brains out, and then, um, and that's when he stepped like two steps forward into our yard, and then I dropped everything and ran in and got my big brother, and then by the time we got back out, he was all the way by the corner, and um, he was telling his dog, 'You want to attack them, I know you do', and he was unleashing it. And then that's when we went around the block and saw you there.
As the only witness to the initial contact, totally denied by Johnson, the girl's testimony is crucial to getting to the bottom of what actually happened, but she gives three subtly-different versions that call her credibility into question when reviewed. A gun is only mentioned in one, Hollywood is only mentioned in one, Johnson moving towards her is mentioned only in one. Yet, while Johnson expresses his innocence throughout with a story that remained unchanged, the 14-year-old's morphing version of events is taken as the only evidence to charge the 35-year-old with a spotless record with aggravated/felonious assault as noted in the police report (LPD 22-36970).
Neither of these two crimes were perpetrated even when we totally believe the 14-year-old and her brother, who verified his sister's version of the incident with the dog. She did not receive any injuries, and Johnson did not possess, use, or threaten to use any 'dangerous weapon' as defined by statute and precedent.
When the police report and videos were sent to Assistant Prosecutor Beth Hand for charging Johnson with these crimes, she recognized that there was no aggravated assault present, but kept the felonious assault, saying that the German shepherd was deployed as a 'dangerous weapon':
Yet, Michigan law does not suggest that any or all dogs can be considered dangerous weapons, the controlling case coming from a 1982 decision in Michigan's Court of Appeals: "Since at least 1938 Michigan courts have recognized that objects that are not "per se" dangerous can be dangerous weapons " '[w]hen the purpose is evidenced by act, and the instrumentality is adapted to accomplishment of the assault and capable of inflicting serious injury, then it is, when so employed, a dangerous weapon.' " People v Kay, 121 Mich App 438, 443-444; 328 NW2d 424 (1982), quoting citing People v Goolsby, 284 Mich 375, 378; 279 NW 867 (1938).
if we believe that the two siblings came out and pursued Johnson, leading him to say to his dog: "You want to attack them, I know you do." or her other version: "Do you want to go get them, I know you do.", there is no threatening act in the conversation with his fiance's dog, it's more of a defensive tact. Which never occurred if we believe Johnson.
The crimes in this incident appear to be on the part of our local police department. Wietrzykowski's violation of Johnson's Fourth Amendment rights already noted, a probable cause arrest alleging escalated crimes based solely on the flexible narrative of a young minor, the lack of any formal questioning of the accused-- not that his emphatic denials of what he was accused of went unheard anyway by the white male police officers who went against their own policy when Wietrzykowski told Gilmurray to turn off the audio on his body cam (Wietrzykowski's was already off) for over a minute before arresting Johnson. A couple of other behaviors indicate they had little respect for the basic rights of the accused.
In the police report, Wietrzykowski claims that he could smell a strong odor of intoxicants on Johnson's breath, and yet the closest he ever got to Johnson was when he lifted his wallet off the ground six feet away from him, and this is the only mention of it throughout this encounter, despite Haveman and Gilmurray being in prolonged close contact with Johnson.
Officer Gilmurray unsuccessfully read Johnson his Miranda rights after Johnson had eased himself into the back of his vehicle. Johnson admitted not understanding what was being read to him about his right to remain silent, etc. This frustrated Gilmurray who closed the door without warning and caught Johnson's elbow in it. A few seconds later, after offering a perfunctory apology for the careless act and closing the door more cautiously, Gilmurray gets over the embarassing faux pas by joking with Sergeant Haveman.
Prosecutor Hand would look through all the videos and the police report and come to a different conclusion about Rayke Johnson and his accusers before securing an arraignment in district court over the two charges, sending them up to the circuit court for trial. In November, Hand will prosecute those two charges against a man with a clean record who denies everything that was said against him by the two siblings; a man who cannot prove his innocence by his denials up against a system that cannot prove his guilt except through believing what a 14-year-old girl asserts in three different ways.
Has our society improved its justice system since Depression-era Alabama when an accused but innocent black man could so easily be convicted on a young white girl's word over his even when the evidence pointed more to his innocence? Let's hope so, and let's hope that our circuit court will live up to Attorney Atticus Finch's ideals stated after he took up the defense of a harmless mockingbird:
"We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe- some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they're born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others- some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men. But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal- there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court."
I hope to post the video some day in the future to allow everyone to see and gauge for themselves whether this encounter was either filled with just bad police protocols or the ugly specter of racism, I think both were evident.
Longtime readers of the Ludington Torch may remember that I was the recipient of an assault and battery back in late 2014, received physical damage, and immediately reported it to the LPD. I recounted the incident at a city council meeting and later in this article on thresholds:
"That same prosecutor, Mason County Prosecutor Paul Spaniola, was presented with a similar case in December 2014 without much difference. Let me re-admit what I already presented to the Ludington City Council in January 2015 in my public comment about that incident:
"In December, I was on a Ludington sidewalk in front of a vacant lot when I was attacked by two black lab dogs. After fending them off, I was blindsided in an assault and battery by the owner of the two dogs. I contacted the LPD, made a statement, and the next day they interviewed the assailer. For the record,no enforcement action was made, even though the dogs were not on a leash off their property and I had marks from the man's assault still on my chest at the time I reported the encounter to the LPD officer."
In this instance, occurring just two months after Mr. Reyes was arrested and jailed for alleged caressing of a breast based only on the word of a 15 year old, Prosecutor Spaniola did not issue a warrant for this, rationalizing that the assailant disputed my claims and there was no physical proof of the crime occurring.
Sound familiar? And yet, he goes forth with an alleged non-violent crime on the belief that a 15 year old girl, who he claims in the courtroom is not emotionally mature like a normal girl that age, is truthful, whereas, I suffered damages from the assailant's covert shove, sporting a red mark on my chest from the assault that was clearly visible twenty minutes later to my daughter, and even an hour later after I came home from the LPD, where Officer Jacob Miller didn't even bother to look at the damage.
And I will gladly take any lie detector test and swear until my dying day that the events I described to the LPD officer were true about getting assaulted and battered by someone I had never met before whose only grudge against me was that I kicked his dog in self-defense. Prosecutor Spaniola does not have to worry about me changing my testimony of the encounter, he only has to punch the gaping holes in the testimony of the assailant, who fabricated a story to save his own bacon and his dogs the next day."
In context, I had won three lawsuits in the span of a couple years against the City and I wasn't expecting much by reporting my assault to the LPD, I was doing it primarily as a civic duty-- to make sure that the man and his aggressive dogs would not attack more vulnerable targets in the future.
I was assaulted by a brutish man and a dog, I had a bruise, I had property damage (my camera), but because the other guy took a day to respond and created a story that made no sense that had me assaulting his dogs and himself first, Officer Miller and Prosecutor Spaniola would not take any action because it would have little chance of success as a 'he-said/he-said' case. The case against Rayke Johnson now and Ricardo Reyes back in 2015 (explained in the linked article earlier) shows that they seem to go after assailants in 'he-said/she said' cases, at least when the alleged assailant is black and/or Hispanic and the victim is not some 50-year-old on his way home who needs to kick off an attacking dog and gets sucker-pushed by some lying Bluto.
Yup! that's me :P
Good luck tomorrow.
How did the Rayke Johnson case end or is it still in the process?
Still in process
Good answer, Mr. Johnson, one always needs to be careful what they say about an ongoing court case they are part of on social media as it could later be used against them in a court of law (advice I ignore at my own peril at times). There was a procedural hearing earlier today, and one will be happening in April which will likely determine whether this case is dismissed, plea bargained, or going to trial.