Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Officer Michael Vagnini Forced Dozens of Anal Cavity Searches Gets only 2 Years in Prison
Between February 2010 and February 2012, a small group of Milwaukee officers took part in a string of serial assaults on subjects pulled off the streets. In many cases, the officers demanded the subjects produce the drugs they assumed were being hidden somewhere on their person. When they were not satisfied with the cooperation from the subjects, an officer would jam his hand into the subject’s underpants, touch his genitals, and insert a finger into his anus on the side of the road. Some of the complaints stated that drugs were planted during these searches. At least one complainant was a juvenile, and one stated that he was fingered so hard that his anus bled afterwards.
The group’s ringleader was Milwaukee Officer Michael Vagnini, assisted primarily by three other officers; Jeffrey Dollhopf, Brian Kozelek and Jacob Knight. Although 7 officers and one supervisor were originally suspended, the four officers mentioned above were the men the district attorney felt had enough involvement to pursue legal actions against.
Officer Vagnini was the the one who directly performed the searches with his hand; the others were present and assisted with detaining the victims, holding them down, provided Vagnini cover while molested them, and then failed to report the crimes to superiors in the department.
A Pattern of Abuse
For two years the complaints piled up from the victims, with the knowledge of department superiors, including Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn. The chief stated that the department had been aware of the behavior of his officers for “a couple of years,” but waited to investigate until the department recognized a pattern. One complainant said he notified the department of Vagnini’s abusive tactics as early as 2008.
Vagnini and his cohorts were assigned to Milwaukee’s District 5, and regularly pulled over drivers on a pretense of not wearing a seatbelt or of having darkly tinted windows, followed by searches without a legal reason, according to prosecutors.
Finally, in October 2012, city officials felt charged the officers, and the public began to become aware of the stories. One case was described by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
In one case, a man had gone to check on his aunt’s house in the 3500 block of N. 10th St. When he came outside, his vehicle was surrounded by squad cars. Vagnini put his bare hand down the man’s pants, touched his scrotum and inserted fingers into his anus, the complaint says. When the man pulled away, Vagnini put him in a choke hold that caused him to slobber onto Vagnini’s arm. Vagnini repeatedly told him to “stop resisting” as he pulled back so hard on his neck his feet almost left the ground, the man said. Two other officers held his arms and one put a gun to his head, the complaint says.
Vagnini claimed he found crack cocaine inside the man’s anus, but the man insisted it “was not on him prior to the search,” the complaint says.
“When I got the cuffs on, he patted me down,” he told WISN-12 News. “But he rushed his hand. He rushed his hand up my butt.”
Another complaint describes a man being fingered so forcefully that his anus bled.
In another search, Vagnini conducted a traffic stop near N. 12th and W. Locust streets, the complaint says. Vagnini handcuffed the driver and asked him for “the drugs.” The defendant denied having drugs but actually had hidden drugs inside his anal cavity, according to the complaint.
Vagnini put the suspect in a choke-hold from behind, released him and then stuck his gloved hand inside the defendant’s underwear, “shoving his fingers deeply into the defendant’s butt crack and possibly into the defendant’s anus,” the complaint says.
The man was screaming, and as a result of Vagnini’s actions the man was bleeding from the anal area for several days, the complaint says.
And the stories kept coming forward.
Robert Mann, 55, contends that Police Officer Michael Vagnini stopped him as he was walking near N. 31st St. and Atkinson Ave. in June 2011 and without probable cause, pulled down Mann’s pants and put his hand in Mann’s rectum “in an unsafe, unhygienic, and intentionally humiliating fashion.” No drugs were recovered from Mann.
[A] juveinile, identified as K.F., was 15 when he was riding in a friend’s car that was stopped by police on N. 26th St. in December 2011. According to the suit, he was ordered out of the car before Vagnini reached into the teen’s pants, touching his genitalia and his anus while Police Officer Jacob Knight watched.
In July 2009, Chavies Hoskin, 28, was stopped while driving on N. 13th St. Vagnini reached into Hoskin’s pants and pulled a bag of cocaine from Hoskin’s anal area, while Sgt. Jason Mucha and Officer Thomas Maglio watched. Hoskin was charged with the delivery of cocaine. His suit contends that the officers lied in reports, and that Vagnini also falsely testified under oath about how and where he found the cocaine.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analyzed the cases of at least 13 victims as of August 2013.
Keon Canada was pulled over five times during the summer of 2011 and subjected to butt-cheek searches four times, and that officers opened the front of his pants another time. No drugs were found during any of the stops.
A plaintiff identified only as R.P. contends he was twice subjected to improper searches of his anal areas by former officer Michael Vagnini without probable cause, and the during one of stops Vagnini took his watch, despite another officer’s warning “you can’t do that.” R.P. said that when he went to the District Five station immediately following the incident to reclaim his watch and file a complaint, he was denied a complaint form and his watch and warned that police would report him to the FBI.
Someone identified only as M.C.claims he was stopped and illegally searched three times in 24 hours during the summer of 2011. No drugs were found. In December 2011 and January 2012, M.C. contends he was again stopped by Vagnini and other officers and on both occasions was struck in the face by Vagnini before being pulled out of a car, held on the ground and subjected to a forceful penetration of his anus.
The suit lists three stops of Walter Coleman and buttock searches by Vagnini, including one where Vagnini first put on rubber gloves. In most of the cases, victims said Vagnini used his his bare hands or would pull their underwear up tight, as if doing a wedgie, then use the underwear as a shield between his hand and the anal area. The lawsuit says during the gloved incident, Coleman asked Vagnini if he had a search warrant, and the officer laughed.
James Ashford claims he was subjected to six illegal searches over a six month period starting in the summer of 2011. At one point, he, his mother and other relatives met with a District Five lieutenant to complain that Ashford was being harassed. According to the lawsuit, the lieutenant told Ashford he should stay out of certain neighborhoods, and never acknowledged that the officers’ actions, including the warrant-less, public rectal searches, were inappropriate, or that the officers would be investigated or disciplined.
After the long official silence, Police Chief Ed Flynn made public condemnations of the charged officers. “Quite frankly, I’m disgusted by the willful actions by some of the officers in our Police Department. And I’m appalled by the willful inaction of some other officers in our police department in failing to stop egregious conduct,” said Flynn.
In October 2012, the following charges were levied:
against Michael Vagnini, 25 charges including a sexual assault charge;
against Jeffrey Dollhopf, 3 felony counts of misconduct in public office, 1 felony count of false imprisonment, 1 count of being a party to an illegal cavity search, and 1 count of being a party to an illegal strip search;
against Jacob Knight, 1 count of misconduct in public office and 1 count of being a party to the crime of an illegal cavity search;
against Brian Kozelek, 2 count of misconduct in public office, 1 count of false imprisonment, and 1 count of being a party to the crime of an illegal strip search.
“Everybody involved has been on the force long enough to know better. There’s no way you can justify it as some kind of inadvertent mistake. The allegations are proven beyond a reasonable doubt and show inexcusable conduct,” Chief Flynn stated in a press conference.
Wisconsin law prohibits police officers from ever being involved in body cavity searches, regardless of probable cause. This kind of abuse is delegated to professionals like doctors and nurses, according to Wisconsin Statute § 968.255 (3). And they may be only performed after a search warrant has been obtained.