Portland, OR Man ‘Wins’ $1 Million On ‘Who Wants To Get Screwed By Racist Cops?’
Michael Fesser of Portland, Oregon, just received $600,000 in the cash settlement sweepstakes, but this isn't another upbeat lottery story. The city of West Linn, Oregon, negotiated the settlement because Fesser, who's black, was the target of an "unwarranted racially motivated surveillance and arrest." Former (thank God) West Linn Police Chief Terry Timeus used his own officers to put the smackdown on Fesser as a "favor" for a fishing buddy.
The fishing buddy was Eric Benson, owner of A&B Towing, which is located in Southeast Portland sometime in the 1950s. Fesser, who'd worked for A&B since 2004, claimed in February of 2017 that coworkers had called him racial slurs, and one had asked him what he thought of a Confederate flag that decorated a pickup truck in the parking lot. Fesser escalated his concerns to Benson, who took an unconventional approach to addressing complaints of a hostile work environment: running to his buddy Police Chief Timeus and persuading him to "investigate" bogus charges that Fesser was stealing from the company. Timeus had his officers conduct audio surveillance of Fesser at work — without a court order or a warrant.
Benson kept in close contact with West Linn Detective Tony Reeves during all this, and the two exchanged homophobic and sexually explicit text messages. They also made more racist comments about Fesser. It was gracious of Benson to include Reeves in the hostile work environment.
At one point, Benson told Reeves that he regretted Fesser's arrest wasn't going to happen in Clackamas County because he had hoped to "make sure he was with some real racist boys."
Benson added: "Dreams can never come true I guess" and followed up, writing, "Oh did I say that? I'm a bad person. I have some anger issues going on with him right now."
Benson is so pissed that Fesser dared to ask him to cut out the racism that he initiated this whole racist conspiracy against Fesser. Reeves isn't the best racist conspiracy wingman, either, because he doesn't even try to keep Benson from incriminating them. Reeves would later delete the offensive texts but they were found on another phone, because he's a moron. iCloud wins again.
At another point, Benson sent Reeves a photo of his dog. Reeves messaged, "Hope Fesser doesn't get her in the law suit." Benson wrote back, "Hahaha. She is not a fan of that type of folk. She is a wl (West Linn) dog."
Sweet Christ. Don't project your racism on dogs. They'll lick the face of anyone who feeds them.
During his shady stakeout, Reeves failed to find any evidence that Fesser did anything wrong. He still had a West Linn cop, along with four Portland officers, stop Fesser on his way home from work. Reeves texted Benson, "My game, my rules" like he's auditioning for the psychopath character in an action thriller.
Reeves continued in texts to Benson: "It's better that we arrest him before he makes the complaint (of race discrimination). Then it can't be retaliation."
Just in case anyone reading is planning on having an employee arrested without probable cause as a way to avoid a harassment suit: This doesn't work. It's both evil and ineffective.
A swarm of police cruisers surrounded his car. A Portland police sergeant told Fesser he was helping the West Linn officers. Fesser was rightly concerned.
FESSER: West Linn? It has to be a mistake. I know I haven't done anything wrong. I'm terrified. I'm scared.
The West Linn police ordered Fesser from his vehicle. They seized his phone, his cash, and the letter he'd written to Benson documenting the alleged racist incidents he'd experienced. He was taken to Portland's East Precinct — again, he'd done nothing wrong and the police had no cause to detain him. The West Linn officers questioned him. Reeves tried to get the passcode for Fesser's phone, which certainly would've simplified his illegal search. Fesser was booked on the imaginary theft charges at the downtown Portland station and released. When Fesser returned later for his belongings, Reeves told him he was fired like he was Benson's head of HR and ordered him not to return to A&B Towing.
"How do police fire me from my job?'' Fesser said he thought.
Before he left, Reeves told Fesser, "Stradley says hi."
Reeves apparently attended police academy in the "crime film" section of Netflix. Then-West Linn police Lt. Mike Stradley was a former Portland officer. Stradley described Fesser as a "gang associate" to Reeves. He even pulled in Portland's gang enforcement officers for Fesser's arrest. Stradley has since admitted that his last real encounter with Fesser was almost 30 years ago. Fesser was later convicted of a drug-related offense and sentenced to four years in prison. That was in 2001 and he's had no convictions since. The irony is it was Reeves and his associates who were acting like gang members.
The case against Fesser rightly went nowhere, and it didn't scare him away from suing Benson in 2017 for racial discrimination. Benson pressed his cop buddies to put the screws to Fesser. He was indicted on first-degree theft charges, based primarily on grand jury testimony from Benson and Reeves, and statements from “shady and dirty" witnesses. Fesser had done nothing wrong.
Benson's lawyers offered to drop the criminal charges if Fesser would forget about his lawsuit, but Fesser wouldn't back down. A year later, Fesser's lawyers gained access to the offensive texts between Reeves and Benson. Benson agreed to settle the discrimination case in 2018 for $415,000. Lawyers for the West Linn department argued that Fesser's federal suit against them should be dropped because the officers were just acting as "agents" of Benson's tow company, and what did that have to do with them? Fesser's suit against the West Linn police department would later bring his “winnings" to more than $1 million, and it only cost him his civil rights.
Reeves admitted to pretty much all the corruption, including conducting unauthorized surveillance of Fesser and seizing his phone without a warrant. He didn't document the seizure of the phone and failed to record the interview with Fesser. West Linn police claim Reeves was disciplined but he was also
promoted to sergeant in 2018.
Timeus, former police chief and eternal fishing buddy, admitted to hearing Benson use a racial slur at least “half a dozen times." He'd also used the word himself, but he's not sure if it was when he was a police chief (yeah, right). He retired in 2017 amid claims the he drove drunk while on duty. He received a pretty nice $123,000 package.
Stradley resigned in 2018 and is now a trainer and supervisor at the Oregon basic police academy for the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training.
Benson is somehow not in prison. This was the worst “Dragnet" wrap-up ever.
The Oregonian story this week did manage to jump start justice a little. Reeves and Stradley were both placed on administrative leave pending an investigation that one hopes won't end with another promotion. Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly said Wednesday she was “sickened" by this story and is working to terminate the city's current contract with A&B Towing.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has ordered Public Safety Standards and Training "to conduct a full and thorough review of this matter as swiftly as possible." She issued the following statement:
If what Oregonians are hearing about this case is true, everything about it is egregious, horrific and completely unacceptable. Law enforcement officers take a pledge to uphold the law and keep everyone safe - which is the opposite of active abuse of power, cronyism, hate crimes, and obstruction of justice
Oregon's two US senators, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, along with Rep. Earl Bluemenaur of Portland, have demanded a federal civil rights investigation of the West Linn Police Department's despicable treatment of Fesser. Let's hope Oregon's elected officials, and decent people everywhere, keep the pressure on so the people involved are held accountable and something like this never occurs again. This is a story that truly offends the conscience, and it just proves the Jim Crow South can resurface anywhere.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle. Tickets are on sale now for his latest Nordo collaboration, "Curiouser and Curiouser," an adaptation of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." It promises to feel like an actual evening with SER (for good or for ill).