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 isnt a joke to either to Elaine Vanderberg or to Frankfort Village Police Officer Jason Wolfe, who pepper sprayed Vanderburg 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 Daughtery filed a motion with the state Court of Appeals last week to reinstate the felony charges.
Vanderbergs 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 havethroat cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer, Parkinsons, 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 Vanderbergs daughter. She refused state assistance, but it meant working full-time and leaving him alone after he became too old for daycare. 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 Vanderberg, he was in serious trouble in his hometown, she said.
But Vanderberg was no match for Haas, who she said is charming and handsome, but also untruthful and a serious alcoholic. I didnt have the strength, power or intelligence to help him. When he was drinking, he was totally out of his mind. Hed 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 has having dinner with her husband without a search warrant. Until this point in her life, Vanderberg 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 Centers 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 speed limit of 35 and 45 mph, according to his police report.
He began following the white car, which didnt pull over. He noticed that Haas had his hand out the window, motioning to him, but he didnt 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 back-up. He followed the car for about five minutes before it pulled in front of Vanderbergs home, he wrote in his police report.
Vanderberg, barefoot and wearing a t-shirt and shorts, was at the side of the road, her cell phone in one hand. She was yelling, You dont understand! Both men stepped out of their cars.
She walked up to Wolfes 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 Vanderberg, who had stepped in front of him, to step back, and she didnt. 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 Im 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 Vanderberg was preventing him from walking over to Haas. Neither Haas nor Vanderberg was complying with his orders. Heres 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.
Vanderberg, who has never testified in court, said she couldnt have touched him with two arms because she had a cell phone in one hand. She said in the space of what seemed like 10 seconds, she tried to get the police officersilhouetted in siren lightsto 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 Vanderberg, and then focused their efforts on capturing Haas who ran into the lake to wash off the pepper spray. Vanderberg, 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.
Vanderberg was cuffed and taken to jail for the night. She continued to sob and flush her eyes with a cold wash cloth 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 didnt fall, she said.
As a result of rubbing her eyes, two plastic tubes inserted in Vandebergs 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 Vanderberg as grandma. He asked Wolfe: Are you scared of little old ladies? Its 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, Vanderberg at 57 is not really little. She believes shes about the same height as the deputy, although much older than Wolfe, whos 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 hes in the course of making an arrest, doesnt want other people coming up, other than other police officers. He doesnt want other people around. Because he doesnt, you know, he doesnt 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 isnt trained in police procedures. She wants to tell this officer, You dont understand, you dont understand.
Well, I take it she wants to tell him what he doesnt understand. Hes not interested in listening to that. Hes interested in making the arrest to her grandson who doesnt want to be arrested, and hes telling her to back off. And thats not sinking in because shes under as much emotional upset and distress as this police officer is because thats 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 saytheres 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? Orpeople can go up and grab someones arm; they just want to talk to them. You can grab an arm and say, just listenyou knowits justits just an emphatic way, or can be, of speaking. Anyway, and then what kind of force did she push you with? This officer doesnt 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. Thats all. And then he pepper sprayed her.
Vanderberg was relieved with the dismissal. At least until last week, when Daughtery filed an appeal with the state Court of Appeals to reinstate the felony charges against her. It doesnt matter if she knew police procedure, and it didnt matter the deputy wasnt injured, he wrote in his motion.
Williams said the logical course would have been to re-file 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. Shes 80 years old with no criminal history. What are we doing? What does it accomplish?
Vanderberg said shes 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. Its been nearly a year.
Prosecutor John Daughtery did not return a call seeking comment.