Ruby Johnson, 77, is afraid to be alone in the house where she’s lived for 40 years because of Denver police.
Denver police officers dressed in military-style SWAT gear on Jan. 4 descended on Johnson’s Montbello home to serve a search warrant. Johnson, in her bathrobe, opened her door when an officer on a bullhorn told anyone inside to come out. Officers carrying rifles stood on her lawn next to an armored tactical vehicle. One officer held the leash of a German shepherd K9.
Once inside her home, Johnson said, they smashed a door to her garage with a battering ram, broke apart a ceiling panel, broke the head off of a beloved collectible doll and left the house in disarray.
They were looking for a stolen iPhone that had pinged near her home. The iPhone was believed to be inside a stolen truck along with several guns. But police found nothing inside Johnson’s home.
Now Johnson keeps all her windows and doors locked when she’s home. She’s afraid to answer the door. She’s thinking about moving and leaving behind the neighborhood where she’s lived for decades, where she raised her children, where her church is.
“I still feel the same as when they did this,” she said. “It’s just frightening.”
Johnson on Wednesday sued the Denver police detective who led the case, Gary Staab, alleging the search violated her civil rights because police failed to conduct a proper investigation before requesting the search warrant, which she said was executed with unreasonable force.
“Ms. Johnson experienced intense shame and embarrassment as a result of the spectacle of DPD’s militarized illegal search,” the lawsuit filed on her behalf by the ACLU of Colorado states. “After a lifetime of being a law-abiding, hardworking, church-going member of her community, she nurses anxiety about what her neighbors thought of her that day and think of her now.”
Denver police spokesman Doug Schepman declined to comment on the lawsuit because the department does not comment on forthcoming or pending litigation.
The search warrant followed a report of a truck stolen at 6:45 a.m. Jan. 3 from a Denver hotel. The owner of the truck said there were five handguns, a rifle, two drones, $4,000 in cash and an iPhone in the vehicle when it was stolen, according to a copy of the search warrant provided to The Denver Post by the ACLU of Colorado.
The following day the truck owner told Staab that he used the Apple “Find My iPhone” app, which showed the iPhone pinged near the intersection where Johnson lived at 11:24 a.m. Jan. 3 and then again at 3:55 p.m. the same day, according to the search warrant. The phone did not ping after that.
The truck owner rented a car and drove by Johnson’s house and told Staab that he didn’t see his truck but it could be in the garage.
Staab used the information from the truck owner to request a search warrant, which was approved by the Denver District Attorney’s Office and signed by Judge Beth Faragher.
The search warrant never should have been approved, according to Johnson’s lawsuit. Staab never tried to corroborate the truck owner’s findings and never conducted an independent investigation before filing the request, the lawsuit states. The “Find My iPhone” app gives an approximate location and is not meant to be a law enforcement tool, the lawsuit states.
The screenshot of the “Find My iPhone” included in the search warrant shows a radius of where the iPhone might be. That radius includes several properties in the vicinity.
“The screenshot offered no basis to believe McDaniel’s iPhone was likely to be inside Ms. Johnson’s house, rather than on any of several neighbors’ properties, or discarded on a nearby street by a passing driver,” the lawsuit states.
Nonetheless, the SWAT team came to Johnson’s home and ordered her outside. They then sat her in the back of a police car and drove her down the street, where she waited for hours while officers completed the fruitless search.
The investigation into the stolen truck remains open and nobody has been arrested, Schepman said.
The police department did not pay Johnson anything to repair the damage to her home, said Greg Brunson, Johnson’s son. The family and their friends sent numerous emails to the department asking for an apology but never received one, he said.
“To have the Denver Police Department not even care enough to reach out to speak to her personally and talk about their decision and how it has affected her personally,” he said. “That would’ve went a long way in the beginning.”
An employee with the department’s community affairs team did call Brunson a few weeks ago after 9News reported a story about the search warrant. But it was too little, too late, he said.
Johnson didn’t return to her home for three months after the raid, Brunson said.
“If I would’ve been downstairs in my shower… they probably would’ve broke in and started shooting,” Johnson said. “There’s a fear that they have instilled in her that is so hurtful to see. I know she doesn’t want to move at all.”
Johnson’s family doesn’t want to move her out of the home. But they worry about her there. Her children took her on a safari in the Serengeti to help take her mind off the raid. But she kept thinking about that day, even amid the beautiful landscape and wildlife.
“I don’t want her to spend the rest of her years under this type of feeling, that something might happen at this home again,” Brunson said.
The family is suing because they want to protect other people from experiencing the same thing.
“There’s nothing that can bring back normalcy,” he said. “Nobody wants to see their parents being bullied and pushed around.”
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