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Thursday, November 3, 2016

Deputy Shaquille O'Neal And The Botched SWAT Raid

     In 2006, Michael Harmony, a lieutenant with the Bedford County Sheriff's office, commanded the battle against child pornography in south central Virginia. Lieutenant Harmony headed a high-profile regional task force called Blue Ridge Thunder. Shaquille O'Neal, the 7 foot 1, 325-pound center for the Miami Heat professional basketball team, an off-season reserve deputy with the Bedford County Sheriff's Office, was a member of the regional task force. The sheriff had enlisted the famous basketball player, also a gun-carrying reserve officer in Miami Beach, as the public face of the area's anti-child pornography campaign. O'Neal had accompanied the Blue Ridge Thunder team on several military-style child pornography raids.

     In September 2006, a cyberspace undercover investigator assigned to the task force, downloaded child pornography via an Internet Provider (IP) address. Based on this information, a local magistrate subpoenaed Fairpoint Communications, the source IP, requiring the company to identify the person or persons at this IP site. The IP complied, providing the authorities with the name of A. J. Nuckols, a resident of Gretna, Virginia. The police didn't know it, but someone at Fairpoint Communications had misread the subpoena. Therefore the identification of the Nuckols family in connection with the IP address was a mistake. Without further investigation into the identify of Mr. Nuckols and his family, the police used this faulty information to acquire a warrant to search his house.

     Mr. Nuckols, a 45-year-old tobacco and cattle farmer, lived with his wife, Lisa, an elementary school teacher, on a farm near Gretna. Two of their children, ages 12 and 16, lived at home. Their 21-year-old daughter attended a nearby college. The family kept their one computer, mostly used by the children for homework, in their living room. The parents didn't know their own email address, and rarely shopped online or downloaded information from the Internet. There was nothing in their histories, lifestyle, or associations that suggested any connection to child pornography.

     Saturday morning at 10:30 A.M., September 23, 2006, two officers from the Blue Thunder Task Force knocked on the Nuckol's front door. Invited into the house by Lisa, they informed her of the warrant allowing them to search the dwelling for child pornography. "I was in shock," Lisa later told a newspaper reporter. "At first it was not just disbelief. I told them, 'We don't live that way.' "

     As the police officers spoke to Lisa Nuckols, a fleet of police cars from Bedford and Pittsylvania Counties rolled up to the house. Suddenly ten officers, dressed in black and camouflage, and wearing flak jackets, were moving about the yard carrying semiautomatic weapons. Mr. Nuckols, working near the barn, looked across the field and saw all the police vehicles. Fearing that something awful had happened to his wife, or one of his children, he jumped into his truck and sped to the house.

     "What's going on?" Mr. Nuckols asked as he climbed out of the pickup. Instead of getting an answer, one of the officers dropped into a shooting position, aimed his pistol at the farmer, and said, "Turn around and put your hands on the truck." Another member of the team handcuffed Mr. Nuckols behind his back. As they led him toward the house, Lieutenant Michael Harmony reportedly said, "Had a rough day? It's about to get a whole lot worse."

     Lieutenant Harmony informed Mr. Nuckols that he or someone in his family was suspected of having downloaded child pornography from 150 web sites. The police were there to search the house for evidence of this crime. Later, in a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, Mr. Nuckols expressed how he felt at that moment: "When it finally became clear what they were there for, I was just flat-out mad. They came and assaulted my family for something we had nothing to do with."

     The Nuckols children came home at 2 P.M. from a high school cross-country meet. The police, still in the house, asked them if they had downloaded child pornography. The children were as stunned by the accusation as their parents. Ninety minutes later, the officers departed, taking with them the family computer, DVDs, videotapes, and other personal belongings. Before he left, Lieutenant Harmony told Mr. Nuckols that the child pornography investigation would take between six and nine months to wrap up, noting that the state crime lab was backed up.

     At one point durng the siege, Mr. Nuckols recognized the famous basketball player. "You're Shaquille O'Neal," he said. The big man, dresssed like the others, and armed, replied that his name was Tony. Nine days later, when the Nuckols family learned that the search and seizure had been based on an erroneous IP address identification, O'Neal denied involvement in the raid. However, after the Bedford County Sheriff's Office confirmed his participation, he admitted his role.

     After the raid, before they were aware of the mistake, Lisa Nuckols told neighbors and friends what happened. Worried that she might lose her job, she advised the principal and the school superintendent as well. In his letter to the newspaper editor, Mr. Nuckols wrote: "When you come into someone's home, that's an intrusion. I feel the same about the raid as I would about any assault on our home and family. A robber would be wrong, and these officers were wrong. No matter what the spin the police put on it, the public will always believe it's wrong. People can't believe this happens in this country."

     In response to the criticism following the revelation that the Blue Ridge Thunder team had raided the wrong house, Lieutenant Harmony blamed the Fairpoint Company. According to him, the IP had made the mistake, not the police. Lieutenant Mike Taylor with the Pittsylvania County Sheriff's Office, though not a participant in the raid, apologized to the Nuckols family.

     Shaquille O'Neal, however, took another approach by accusing Mr. Nuckols of exaggerating his account of the raid to make the police look bad. When members of the media questioned him about his role in the operation, the basketball player reportedly said, "We did everything right, went to the judge, got a warrant. You know, they [the Nuckols] made it seem like we beat them up, and that never happened. [Well good for you Shaquille.] We went in, talked to them, took some stuff, returned it--bada bam, bada bing."

     If there is one thing in law enforcement rarer than a slam dunk case, it's an apology for shoddy police work.

    

1 comment:

  1. If the father would have not cooperated when told to turn around to be handcuffed, that would have been a guaranteed beat down! And all for what? For a freaking mistake on the part of the ones doing the beating. Thank God it didn't get to that. I would have demanded a personal opology from the s%#t head that told him his day was about to get worse! Omg, my blood boils at cowards that can't admit out right when they're wrong and always needs a cop out! Your man enough to point your gun and fire if you have to, then be a man and admit your wrong when you are!!!!

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