Linda Goss, a retired federal worker, was home alone with her two dogs, watching a movie on her computer. Looking up, she saw a face illuminated outside the front door.
She asked who was there.
“Police!” yelled the men outside, according to court records. “We are here to search your house!”
“Before I knew it, they were all inside my house,” Linda, 63, said.
Several officers burst through her patio door on that day, March 31, 2012, pepper spraying her dogs. A law enforcement officer handed her a copy of a search warrant, which she was unable to read in the dark without her glasses.
They were looking for a man named “Larry Tatro.” Linda Goss told them she didn’t know a Larry Tatro. Her husband, Don Goss, 44, himself retired from the Army, was away fishing at Lake Keystone during the raid.
Officers led a drug dog through the home. Their petition states the drug dog did not alert on anything inside, but a deputy found a plastic storage bag described in the Gosses’ arrest reports as containing a “white powdery crystalline substance.” Judges would later note that the Gosses’ information inferred that the deputy conducting the test could have “falsified the test or planted the bag.” In any case, the deputy claimed it tested positive for methamphetamine.
When the deputies proclaimed to her they’d “found the meth,” Linda Goss said she asked, “What meth? We don’t do drugs.”
More extensive tests at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation crime lab would show no meth was found. Nevertheless, the Gosses would go to jail, charged with felony drug possession. Federal judges described the raid as “the seizure of the truck, boat, and their contents (that) violated the Fourth Amendment.” When the authorities released the couple, the Gosses filed a suit.
And it went nowhere. Now, more than $100,000 spent on legal costs, with their property seized and returned damaged, their lives, they say, are shattered. Their story illuminates the controversial practices of police property seizure and what happens when ordinary citizens are swept up by accident.
Terror from a typo
The Gosses’ federal case rested on whether a search warrant issued the day of their arrests was legal. An informant arrested in Tulsa County, Jesse Thompson, told a Tulsa County drug task force member, Skiatook Police Officer Jesse Brewer, he’d bought marijuana about 40 times from a man named Larry in Mannford.
Brewer drove Thompson to the area and Thompson pointed out a trailer house. During a deposition in the Gosses’ civil case, Brewer testified Thompson pointed to 283 Navajo Place, the Gosses’ home at the time, but Brewer “made a typo,” incorrectly relaying the information to Creek County authorities as 238 Navajo Place. He later said he wasn’t sure which address was correct.
The Gosses maintained the error as well as a lack of reference to them specifically did not lawfully give authorities access to their home.
Brewer testified he “caught the numbers at a glance” while with Thompson because there were people standing outside who “began to look at (them).” He did not make any efforts to verify the information or research the home’s occupants because the case was outside his jurisdiction of Tulsa County.
At a briefing later that day, before the search warrant was to be served, Brewer pointed out to Creek County deputies that he was unsure of the address but they “shrugged off” the discrepancy, he said. The Gosses’ petition also maintains the arresting officer, Creek County Deputy Scott Forrester, was aware of the error when he sought the issuing judge’s signature.
The typed search warrant includes a handwritten physical description (late 50s, gray hair) for Larry. Court documents note those details were added upon the request of the issuing judge after Thompson identified a photo of Larry Tatro as the man from whom he’d bought drugs.
A traffic citation issued to a Larry Allen Tatro in 2002 lists his address as a mile north of the Gosses’ home, and he was 64 in 2012.
A judge issued the warrant. It named Tatro, not the Gosses. The affidavit listed the address to search as 238 Navajo — the Gosses lived at 283 Navajo, but the physical description on the court record matched their house.
The warrant ordered a search for: “marijuana, fruits, instrumentalities, monies, records indicating the sales of illegal drugs and proof of residency . . . located at, and . . . now being kept, possessed, and concealed by the above named defendant [Tatro], or by other persons in whose possession he has placed it for the purpose of concealment, at or upon or within a certain vehicle and/or house, building or premises, the curtilage thereof and the appurtenances thereunto belonging.”
Armed with a warrant based on the informant’s misinformation and a judge’s signature, the deputies executed the raid.
A fishing expedition?
Don Goss cut his fishing trip short when neighbors called to tell him deputies were at his house. They had ordered his wife, Linda, outside while they searched. Upon driving up, he saw the patrol cars surrounding his house and a deputy guarding his wife.
He pulled out his cell phone to call an attorney, only to have a deputy grab it from him.
At this point, according to their filings, Don and Linda asked the deputies if they might not be searching the wrong house. The deputies responded, asking them the location of Larry Tatro and a woman named “Bonnie.” The Gosses insisted they had no idea who Larry and Bonnie were.
The deputies told them they had watched their house for months and witnessed large numbers of people coming and going. The Gosses had no idea what they were talking about; court records make no mention of any surveillance and indicated Thompson had only tipped them off that same day.
At one point, a deputy, later identified in court papers as Scott Forrester, emerged from the house with a small baggie containing a white substance. “Here it is,” he said.
The Gosses asked where he found it. Behind the sofa, he said. Could he test the bag for fingerprints? Not necessary, he said.
Immediately, the officers brought in a drug-sniffing dog. But that search turned up empty. No drugs.
Then the deputies searched the rest of the property. They searched a travel trailer parked “three, four feet” away from the front porch of the Gosses’ home. They also searched Don’s truck, his boat, and boat trailer. They seized the Gosses’ property, including firearms they found in the home and boat. They seized the boat, too, and his truck.
Then they arrested the Gosses, for possessing methamphetamine, maintaining a place where illegal drugs were kept, and possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony. The deputies took the couple to jail. They were there for three days.
Inside, Linda was fitted with a jumpsuit too small for her, failing to cover her completely, she said. Diabetic, her condition led to a need to frequently go to the bathroom, but because there was only one toilet for the block she was being held in, she often didn’t make it, and urinated on herself.
Don’s confinement was no better. Under a doctor’s care for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), pain, nerve damage, and depression, he asked for his medications but was denied them, according to the court’s records. He was assaulted in the shower, although he chose not to report it, according to court records.
Attempts to talk to the attorney by phone were stymied by expensive jail charges, which can cost up to $15 a phone call, and Don often only got as far as the answering machine in his attorney’s office.
After three days, the Gosses made bond and were released.
On June 4, the OSBI, its instruments set to the most sensitive level, tested the “suspicious powder” in the bag. It tested negative. But the criminal case against Linda and Don Goss continued for another two weeks anyway, despite Forrester being notified of the OSBI test results.
The authorities, their probable cause evaporating, eventually dropped the charges without prejudice. This move meant that the charges could be reinstated on the option of the authorities.
Don and Linda Goss immediately submitted to hair follicle drug tests on the advice of their attorneys after their jail stay. Both were negative for the five drug classes tested, including amphetamines.
That baggie? It contained bread crumbs, Linda told The Frontier.
Lawsuit and appeal
After their release, the couple began a “quest to vindicate their innocence and retrieve their personal property,” including a pickup, boat, several guns and camping equipment, according to their complaint filed in U.S. District Court by attorney Clint Russell.
However, the sheriff’s department didn’t return all of it. Personal property — a generator, a battery and some camping equipment — was missing from the travel trailer and the boat. As for the boat, law enforcement had drilled holes through it, rendering it unusable.
According to their complaint, rust severely damaged their guns: a pistol, a handgun, three rifles and two shotguns. At least one gun was never returned, according to the court records. As for Don’s Ford F-150, the county impounded it. Because the Gosses were unable to make the payments and impound fees, the finance company sold it at auction, leaving Don holding the outstanding balance on the loan.
The Gosses filed a claim against the Creek County Board of Commissioners and Sheriff John Davis alleging the officials conducted an unlawful search and seizure, took their property without just compensation and deprived them of due process — all constitutional violations. The suit also accused the officials of violating state laws of trespass, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, malicious prosecution, assault and battery and conversion of private property.
When they received no response, on their claim, the couple filed the federal lawsuit in June 2013.
U.S. District Judge Claire Eagan found, among other things, the Gosses’ Fourth Amendment rights were violated and that “the seizure of the firearms in the residence did not violate the Fourth Amendment, but the seizure of the truck, boat, and one firearm in the boat did.”
Nevertheless, the larger issue, the whole raid being based on an inaccurate address, the search of the home, the wrong claims of drug possession, even the treatment of the Gosses while in jail, all was within the scope of immunity for law enforcement.
“Because plaintiffs have shown constitutional violations as to the search and seizure of their truck and boat only, Sheriff Davis is entitled to summary judgment on plaintiffs’ other claims,” the judge wrote.
Eagan granted summary judgement against the couple, ordering them to pay the county’s defense costs in the case.
“It’s unconscionable that your own government can violate your rights then order you to pay its costs,” said Russell, the Gosses’ attorney.
Later, 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judges Gregory Phillips, Harris Hartz and Robert Bacharach also found the erroneous address did not affect the legality of the search warrant. The judges found that Forrester, through Brewer’s information, had developed sufficient probable cause to search the home, according to their written opinions.
Creek County Sheriff John Davis was not found liable, as judges saw no evidence that sheriff’s office policy or procedure resulted in constitutional violations. Also, since Linda Goss did not ask for another uniform and her husband did not report the jail assault, they did not experience constitutional violations, the judges determined.
Davis declined The Frontier’s request for an interview about their case.
Forrester was fired in September 2012 for “failure to do paperwork and lying about it” to the sheriff, he testified. He is named on the Bristow municipal website as a volunteer firefighter and pictured with other members of the department in photos posted on a Facebook page in December 2014.
Another deputy involved in the case, Lieutenant Leslie Ruhman, resigned in October 2013 during an OSBI investigation into allegations of embezzlement against him. Ruhman pleaded no contest to the charge last year and was sentenced to 10 days in a jail and with sentencing deferred for the remainder of 10 years and ordered to pay $15,000 in restitution.
Meanwhile, Linda Goss says she was robbed of her dream retirement. She and her husband had moved to Mannford, where Don Goss has family, after she retired in 2010 and began saving money to build a log cabin on land they bought in Colorado. The Gosses are unable to continue with their plans due to financial hardship created from defending the criminal case and litigating the civil cases.
They spent at least $100,000 in legal costs, they said.
“What do you do when the cops are the thieves?” Don Goss said.
The Creek County Board of Commissioners previously offered to settle the case, which the Gosses’ rejected, they said.
The board denies liability for employees “acting outside the scope of their employment” and asserts immunity from punitive damages, alleged state tort violations and the execution or enforcement of lawful orders of a court, such as a search warrant.
A losing battle
“I always thought that justice would prevail since we didn’t do anything wrong or illegal,” Linda Goss said recently, upon receiving news the couple’s petition for rehearing was denied by the courts.
“I have totally lost faith in the justice system.”
“I think at this juncture, we must try and move on with our lives,” Russell wrote in an email to the Gosses’ after the ruling.
“Sometimes life is not fair. Bad things sometimes happen to good people, just like your situation.”
An Oklahoma civil case pertaining to the loss of the personal property seized during the search is still pending in Creek County.