Denver Police sent a SWAT team in an armored truck with military-style weapons to a 77-year-old grandmother’s home, where she lived alone, to illegally search for a stolen cellphone that was never there, according to a lawsuit obtained by Atlanta Black Star.
Ruby Johnson, a retired postal worker, said she was watching TV when she heard someone on a loudspeaker ordering everyone in the house to come out with their hands up. She was there alone, confused and afraid — and left traumatized by the ordeal.
“I didn’t want them coming in there shooting,” Johnson told 9News. “I came out, and then they asked me, ‘Do you have a gun on you?’ I said, ‘No, why would I have a gun on me?'”
According to the lawsuit filed by the ACLU on Johnson’s behalf, Apple’s tracking software was the sole basis for the warrant used to ransack the woman’s home. Police were trying to locate an old cellphone from a stolen truck, using the “Find My” app, which they claim led them to Johnson’s home,
However, the ACLU alleges that the app did not pinpoint the precise location of the device, and it could’ve been at several other houses near Johnson’s street or even discarded on the street.
The lawsuit filed on Dec. 1 against Denver Police detective Gary Staab, who sought the search warrant, accuses him of drafting a “hastily prepared, bare-bones, materially misleading affidavit” that led to the violation of Johnson’s civil rights and caused her severe physical and emotional distress.
The day before the SWAT team ascended on Johnson’s home, someone stole Jeremy McDaniel’s truck from the Denver Hyatt. It contained four semi-automatic handguns, a tactical military-style rifle, a revolver, two drones, $4,000 in cash and an old iPhone 11. It is unclear why the items were in McDaniel’s vehicle that he left parked in the Hyatt’s secured garage.
McDaniel’s told Staab that he rented another truck and drove on Johnson’s street but had not seen the stolen vehicle.
However, he suspected that it could’ve been in someone’s garage in the majority-minority neighborhood. Staab used a screenshot of the victim’s Find My app to request the warrant, but the ACLU argues that he had no experience with the app or its reliability, nor was it a law enforcement tool.
According to the lawsuit, the GPS accuracy of the app depends on the number of visible GPS satellites, and objects like walls, buildings, trees and vehicle roofs, and bad weather could cause inference. The blue circle on the app covered at least six different properties and parts of four different blocks near Johnson’s home, the lawsuit says, yet Saab sought the warrant for inside the woman’s home.
The elderly woman had just taken a shower and was wearing a robe, hair bonnet and bedroom slippers when she heard officers talking on a bullhorn the afternoon of Jan. 4.
Denver police officials said they handled the incident with the “lowest threshold of aggression,” and body-camera footage of the incident showed the officers wearing tactical gear and carrying guns calmly asking Johnson questions.
However, the ACLU argues that the incident resembled a full-on military attack.
At least eight officers wearing camouflage stood in front of the home in a tank-life truck, footage shows. The lawsuit says many other marked vehicles were on the scene and a police dog combing the house.
“Ms. Johnson was very frightened and confused but immediately cooperated with the overwhelming show of police force,” the lawsuit says.
“You got any guns or knives or anything,” one of the SWAT officers asked Johnson.
“Oh no, I don’t have any,” Johnson replies as other SWAT team members laugh. They tell Johnson to sit on the rear doorframe of the armored vehicle while they checked to see if “someone else snuck into the house.” Officers also asked her if any of her three grandchildren had been to the home the day before.
They later moved her down the street in a patrol car, where she was confined while they searched her home for hours, the suit says.
Officers used a battering ram to break the garage door and a door frame. One officer stood on the top rail of one of Johnson’s newly purchased dining room chairs and used the handle of her kitchen broom to break apart the unsecured ceiling panel to search her attic. Body camera footage shows the officers search every corner of Johnsons’s home, which the ACLU says they “left in disarray.”
None of the stolen items, including the phone, were discovered in the house. Staab allegedly admitted to Johnson’s children that the department’s search caused unnecessary harm to their mother and her property but said the agency would not pay to repair the damage.
The truck was found six miles away in the Denver suburb of Aurora two days after the raid, police told 9News. The guns were not recovered, and no one has been arrested in the case.
The lawsuit accuses Staab of violating the woman’s right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Her “sense of safety, and peace in her home have been shattered since” the ordeal, it says.
Johnson tried to return to the home a week after the raid but didn’t feel safe. She ended up staying with her son in Texas for three months before returning to the house she had lived in for 40 years.
“Ms. Johnson experienced intense shame and embarrassment as a result of the spectacle of DPD’s militarized illegal search,” the lawsuit says. “After a lifetime of being a law-abiding, hardworking, church-going member of her community, she nurses anxiety about what her neighbors thought of her that day and think of her now.”