A judge has found enough evidence to send four Detroit men to trial for assault with intent to murder and assault with intent to do great bodily harm to Steve Utash, a 54-year-old white man. Earlier this month, Utash, whose truck struck a 10-year-old Black boy who ran out into street, was beaten by an angry crowd, sending him to the hospital where he is still in intensive care.
A 16-year-old boy was also charged with ethnic intimidation, a charge the New York Times called “the only overt nod to a racial element to the case, in a city that is more than 80 percent Black surrounded by suburbs that, in some cases, are mostly white.”
Just as Renisha McBride’s murder last year in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn Heights pointed to the irrational fears of whites in the suburbs, Utash’s assault highlights the brewing anger of Blacks in a city where daily life can seem almost unbearable.
McBride’s killer, Theodore Wafer, is scheduled to stand trial beginning June 2 in a proceeding that is sure to bring even more racial tension to the region.
At the hearing Monday in a Detroit courtroom, three defendants—Latrez Cummings, 19; James Davis, 24, and Wonzey Saffold, 30—sat handcuffed to one another. Saffold raised his middle finger to a group of news cameras, according to the Detroit Free Press, while a fourth man waived his right to the hearing and will also stand trial. The three men each confessed to kicking Utash at least once, according to their statements to police that were read in court.
The court heard from witnesses who told of what they saw on April 2, when Utash was attacked by the crowd after stopping to help a 10-year-old boy he hit when, according to security cameras, the child stepped in front of his truck. During the proceeding, Utash’s emotional family members sat together in the courtroom.
When witness Anton Sykes, 30, tried to avoid testifying by asking to plead the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination and then denied a statement prosecutors said he previously gave to police, 36th District Court Judge Thomas Jackson ordered Sykes to be jailed on $500,000 bond pending trial.
Witness Ashley Daniels told the court that as many as 15 to 20 people were “just stomping on him” as she fled the scene. She said she had arrived shortly after the child, David Harris, was hit by the truck. When she pulled over to check on the boy, she said she heard “a lot of yelling and threats being made.”
Daniels said someone in the crowd punched Utash, who fell but then stood back up, stumbling. She said Utash’s hat had fallen off in front of her and a man told Utash, “I dare you to pick up your hat.” She said she picked it up and handed it to Utash, telling him he should wait in his truck.
“He tells me, he’s like, ‘I’m trying to wait for the police,’ ” she said. Then he was hit a couple more times and fell to the ground. Daniels said Saffold began waving a gun in the air, which prompted her to go back to her car, where her 6-year-old son was waiting. When she looked back, she saw Saffold kicking Utash.
Assistant Wayne County prosecutor Lisa Lindsey added an additional count of felony firearm to the charges against Saffold after the testimony.
The court also heard from witness Deborah Hughes, the former nurse who is credited with saving Utash’s life. When she came to Utash, she said he was sputtering, “Is he dead? Did I hit him? Did I hurt him?”
As Hughes tended to the boy, she said Utash moved to the back of the crowd, and she didn’t see him again until he was being kicked on the ground about 10 to 15 minutes later.
“The crowd was just gathering around him,” she said.
She said Cummings said, “I’m gonna kill him, I’m gonna kill him.” And then Cummings kicked Utash perhaps 10 times. When she got to Utash, she said he was unconscious and the crowd was gone.
Utash’s brother-in-law, Max Mohr, 34, said Utash isn’t doing very well.
“Now he’s waking up, he thinks he’s a train conductor,” he said. “He says he hit the little boy with an airplane, and another airplane hit him.”
He said Utash can say his family members’ names, but only when he’s repeating them.
“He ain’t the Steve that I know,” Mohr said. “Not even close.”
Hughes, who lives in a small apartment near where the attack occurred, told the Times that she yelled at the crowd, “‘Just leave him alone! Get off him!’ ”
“I couldn’t understand that,” she said of the beating. “Whether you’re green, white, pink, yellow, whatever, it’s a human being being beat.”
She believes the episode started with anger about the accident and an injured child, but as more people showed up, it turned racial.
“It got out of control,” she said to the Times.
Two of her five grown children have been killed in Detroit since 1997.
She said she was carrying the gun she keeps with her for protection that day, but she never took it out.