Small-town clash between police, men on UTV leaves one person paralyzed and a host of unanswered questions

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Webbers Falls Police Chief Larry Ruiz, left, and former Webbers Falls police officer Brandon Tyler, right.

Night had fallen by the time Kyle Lindsey and Zayne Mann climbed into a UTV and left a gas station on the outskirts of Webbers Falls. Lindsey headed south on Highway 100, crossed a bridge over Interstate 40, and made his way to where the road turned to gravel as it curved to the right ahead of him in the dark.

In a federal lawsuit filed last month, attorneys for Lindsey and Mann wrote that’s where the two met Officer Brandon Hyler. They allege that what happened next on that dark stretch of dirt road was a coverup of an attempted civil rights violation that left Lindsey paralyzed and that Hyler was utilizing the training he had received in a department with a culture of corruption and misconduct.

In documents filed last month in the United States Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, Hyler said he began following Lindsey as he left the Burger King at the Love’s Travel Station around 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 15, 2015 after observing Lindsey roll a stop sign.

Lindsey said he began to stop the UTV once he noticed Hyler trying to pull him over, according to the initial complaint. Both Lindsey and Mann would eventually testify they couldn’t remember anything after seeing Hyler flashing lights. Hyler continued to move at a high rate of speed, smashed into the UTV, causing it to hit an embankment and severely injure Lindsey, the complaint states. The attorneys also accuse Hyler of then moving Lindsey, further damaging his spinal cord.

Hyler and the Webbers Falls police department would eventually refute the accusations. In his deposition, Hyler, testified the dirt kicked up from Lindsey’s UTV was so thick that he slowed his cruiser. When the dust settled, he said, he found Lindsey had crashed the UTV and was ejected.

Hyler was patrolling the highway that evening, and he had stopped at the Love’s “to go get something to drink,” he said in a phone interview with The Frontier.
Lindsey rolled the stop sign, Hyler said, so he began to follow him.

“I don’t really feel comfortable talking to a reporter about it, to be honest with you,” Former Webbers Falls police officer Brandon Hyler.

“There’s probably, I don’t know, a hundred yards there past the bridge, it turns to a dirt road,” Hyler said.

Hyler confirmed a cloud of dust was kicked up from Lindsey’s UTV, but at that point in the interview Hyler decided he no longer thought it wise to answer questions about the accident.

“I don’t really feel comfortable talking to a reporter about it, to be honest with you,” Hyler said.

Crime scene photos of Kyle Lindsey’s UTV from a defense motion. Courtesy

Lindsey was taken by helicopter to St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa where he was treated for his spinal injuries. Lindsey’s family said Hyler walked into the emergency room and attempted to serve him traffic citations. Those municipal charges where later dropped.

“Hyler entered the emergency room, stood over Lindsey telling him he ‘got what he deserved,’” attorneys wrote in the initial complaint.

In expert testimony filed in the case, former Oklahoma City police officer and accident reconstructionist Ronald Blevins found the lack of damage to Lindsey’s UTV, specifically its windshield, suggested Lindsey could not have been ejected from the vehicle. Referencing the testimony of another officer, Blevins said damage to the right rear of the UTV was marked with white paint. Hyler’s cruiser, which was also equipped with a brush guard, was white.

The police report filed for the accident was written by Officer Timothy Gilbert, the next Webbers Falls officer to respond. In his deposition, Gilbert testified his initial traffic collision report was altered after he completed it, according to Blevins’s testimony. Gilbert said not only did he think it was impossible for Lindsey to have been ejected, he did not take the measurements listed in the report.

“Gilbert also testified that in his opinion about the source of the changes ‘that’s not a computer error, it’s a human error,’” Blevins wrote.

Blevins noted the final page of the report, which contained the narrative of the accident, was numbered differently than the rest, suggesting to him it was added later. The lawsuit alleges Webbers Falls Police Chief Larry Ruiz and Hyler conspired to change the report.

In his deposition, Gilbert also told attorneys the culture of the police department made him uneasy. He never received training on any aspect of policing, including pursuits, while at the Webbers Falls police department, he said.

“Officer Timothy Gilbert testified that he never received any training on probable cause and that his understanding from the supervisors including Assistant Chief (William) Hutchinson is that ‘There’s always probable cause on a vehicle. I mean, there’s always something wrong with something, is how it was explained. There’s always — there’s always probable cause.'”

Gilbert resigned soon after the accident.

“I didn’t feel comfortable with some of the things that were going on with inside the police department,” he testified.

In his interview with The Frontier, Hyler said Ruiz provided him with field training and required him to have a partner before being allowed to patrol on his own.

When asked if he received any training at Webbers Falls in traffic pursuits or probable cause, Hyler said that training was done with the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training, a state agency that trains and certifies all state officers in Oklahoma. Hyler completed the police academy one week before the accident.

“The Webbers Falls Police Department ‘Pursuit of Vehicles’ Policy is the most lacking, inadequate and dangerous pursuit policy I have ever seen,” Major Travis Yates with the Tulsa Police Department wrote in his expert testimony, which included a review of the police department’s policy and procedures.

Yates said the Webbers Falls Police Department’s pursuit policy was designed to “serve one purpose and that was to pursue all violators.”

Yates casted serious doubt on the credibility of Hyler and the police department as a whole under the guidance of Ruiz. He agreed with Blevins that it was likely Hyler both initiated the accident as well as moved Lindsey afterward.

“This expert opines that the actions of the defendant(s) shocked the conscience,” he wrote.

Statements made by Tulsa Police Department Maj. Travis Yates, who reviewed the incident on behalf of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

In his testimony on behalf of Webbers Falls, Oklahoma City Police Department Major Keith Cornman wrote that he found Hyler was operating accordingly, based on good, although outdated, policy.

“Although the WFPD pursuit policy needs updating, Hyler’s actions were appropriate, reasonable and consistent according to his own department’s policies as well as the other basic models,” Cornman wrote.

Corman also praised Hyler for having the “situational awareness” to call for an ambulance once he noticed Lindsey was unresponsive.

In 2006, the Oklahoma City police department named Cornman the first fulltime Law Enforcement Driver Training Coordinator, according to his resume.

Cornman also found it hard to believe Hyler would be capable of intentionally ramming Lindsey, although the lawsuit never claims whether or not the wreck was intentional or an accident.

“Hyler, with precision, would have had to align the front left of his patrol car with the right rear corner of UTV all while negotiating a sharp right hand curve on a gravel road in darkness and with his vision obscured by the dust,” Cornman wrote. “That type of maneuver and precision vehicle alignment would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, even for an officer who is skillfully trained and who routinely practiced tactical vehicle intervention (TVI) maneuvers. Additionally, Hyler testified to never being trained in TVI nor ever seeing to performed.”

Unlike Blevins and Yates, Cornman found no evidence of damage to the rear of the UTV consistent with a collision in the photographs provided as evidence.

Cornman also noted that in Lindsey’s deposition he testified he and Mann had been drinking that day before heading to the Burger King. In a toxicology report filed in the case, a private Tulsa-based toxicologist wrote Lindsey’s blood alcohol content was 0.089 percent about two hours after the wreck, slightly above the legal limit of 0.08 percent. The toxicologist estimated Lindsey blood alcohol content would have been around 1.27 percent at the time of the accident.

The case is scheduled for trial later this year.

Checkered Pasts
For Chief Ruiz and Assistant Chief Hutchinson, Webbers Falls is not the first police force where they have faced lawsuits and accusations of wrongdoing.

About a twenty minute drive east, in the small town of Vian, Ruiz and Hutchinson, acting as police chief and assistant chief, respectively, were forced to relinquish control of the police department following civil rights litigation and accusations of misconduct.

In 2014, the town settled with Marguerite Allen, who said Ruiz targeted her for speaking ill of his police department.

In court filings, Allen claimed Ruiz entered her home unlawfully in 2013 and arrested her. Allen said Ruiz handcuffed her and threw her around the room as Hutchinson stood by and watched.

“Defendant Ruiz transported Plaintiff to the Sequoyah County Jail, and upon arrival exclaimed to Plaintiff, ‘You need to get f–ked hard!,’” attorneys wrote in the initial complaint.

Two weeks later, after Allen’s mother located her missing daughter at the jail, she testified Ruiz told her that Allen is “a real trouble maker and we’re tired of her, and I want her out of town.”

Four months later, Allen said she was riding as a passenger in a friend’s truck, and Ruiz approached them as they pulled into her driveway. Ruiz asked Allen where she had been for the last two months, she said.

“I’ve been looking for you,” she testified Ruiz said before snatching her bag from her hands and searching it.

“Defendant Ruiz then declared to Plaintiff that he was interrupting her liberty because Plaintiff had been “talking sh-t about the Vian Police Department,” Allen’s attorneys wrote in the court document. Allen said Ruiz then stomped on her foot causing injury and arrested her for public intoxication.

Allen managed to call her mother during the altercation, who testified that during the scuffle she heard Ruiz telling her daughter “I’m going to put you behind bars where you belong for running your mouth about the Vian Police Department.”

The town was sued again after a man said Ruiz tased him while he was trying to repossess a car in 2013. Robert Bailey said Ruiz pulled the vehicle over as Bailey was attempting to leave town. When Bailey tried to call his boss, he said Ruiz tased him, had a bystander help him hold Bailey down, and arrested him for disorderly conduct.

The town of Vian settled both lawsuits for an undisclosed amount.

Ruiz was removed from office in 2014 “for the good of the service,” said Larry Vickers, town attorney for Vian, who represented Ruiz and the town in each case.

Vickers said Ruiz still drives through Vian regularly in his Webbers Falls patrol car, something many in town see as an act meant to “antagonize.” Locals have started showing up at city council meetings to ask if Ruiz is allowed to drive through Vian in his cruiser.

“That is concerning because I don’t trust the kind of character of the person he is to have a badge and have authority,” Vickers said.

Small, rural towns like Vian and Webbers Falls have a difficult time employing and keeping good officers, Vickers said. It’s a tough job and the good ones don’t last long once a police department in a bigger city offers them more money.

Both of Vickers’ sons, one in high school and one in college, hope to be police officers. In the meantime, he said he advises both of them to avoid driving through Webbers Falls.

“I have concern passing through Webbers Falls,” he said. “I have a wife and three kids, and (Ruiz) knows what I drive, he knows who I am. So, that bothers me some because he’s wearing a badge.”

“Because probable cause, the way I’ve heard it put is… anything can be probable cause,” Vickers said.

“It’s unsettling to think that anyone with a badge would think that way.”

In a 2002 Arkansas case, Ruiz and Crawford County — where he worked as a deputy — were sued after Ruiz “knee dropped” an inmate in the county jail, severing his intestines. The U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case, however, the court highlighted Ruiz’s checkered past as an officer, including excessive force.

“There are also accusations by Deputy Ruiz’s ex-wife that, in 1997, he ran her off the road, tore a necklace off her neck, and pushed her, as well as accusations by Deputy Ruiz’s girlfriend that, in 1999, he grabbed her arm and threw her, and threatened to assault her,” the court wrote.

“We agree with the district court’s assessment that “[Deputy] Ruiz’s record may have made him a poor candidate for a position as a detention center deputy, but it would not have lead [sic] a reasonable supervisor to conclude that there was an obvious risk that he would use excessive force if hired.”

Accusations of domestic violence would follow Ruiz throughout the next decade.

In April 2007, Ruiz’s wife, Natisha Ruiz, filed for a protective order against her husband after she said he broke her ribs.

“I feel like I can’t go anywhere without having to look over my shoulder and make sure he’s not following me,” she wrote in the request filed in Sequoyah County.
“Honestly, I am in fear for my life and my child’s life, I didn’t know what he will do since he already has one domestic case that sent me to the hospital with broke ribs and now this,” she wrote in a separate protective order request nine months later. “I don’t know what he will try to do to us. I am living in fear, wondering if he is somewhere with a gun – to just get rid of me — I don’t know — He won’t leave me alone – keeps calling trying to get me to stop this. However, I do not want to live in fear for my life nor my childrens’ lives.”

Both protective orders were dismissed after Natisha Ruiz either failed to appear in court or declined to pursue the request.

Town Unrest
Citizens of Webbers Falls started a petition in 2016 to have Ruiz removed from office. Citing Ruiz and Hutchinson’s removal from the Vian police department, increased traffic stops and excessive use of force, the petition was brought to city council meeting in June of that year.

“We stay busy. We’re not over here harassing innocent people,” the Muskogee Phoenix reported Ruiz saying at the meeting.

“Citations went up, but accidents went down when we started,” Ruiz continued. “We could write citations out there all day long. But we’re not.”

“No way, it’s not going to happen,” then-mayor Bob Ross chuckled as he spoke about the petition with KJRH afterward.

“As far as I would consider Chief Ruiz to resign,” Ross said, shaking his head. “No, not at all.”

Ross now sits on the Webbers Falls city council.

A spokeswoman for Webbers Falls said neither Chief Ruiz nor any member of city council would be available to comment on the pending litigation or the petition to remove Ruiz.

Hyler told The Frontier he left the Webbers Falls police department on his own before the lawsuit was filed, but he thought Ruiz was a good officer.

“I still talk to him, and I’d still work for him if I could,” Hyler said.

Hyler was hired on as a deputy at the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office a little less than a year ago, said Sheriff Harlan Moore.

Moore said he was unaware of the lawsuit against Hyler until he was contacted by The Frontier.

“I don’t have any problems with him,” Moore said. “He’s been a good deputy.”

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