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Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Botched Cheye Calvo SWAT Raid

     On July 28, 2008, drug traffickers in Los Angeles sent, by Federal Express, a box containing 32 pounds of marijuana to an address in Berwyn Heights, Maryland, a town of 3,000 ten miles north of Washington, D.C. The people who lived at that address had nothing to do with the shipment. The address was a delivery drop site where an accomplice would pick up the package before someone at the site took it inside. Ideal drop locations were homes occupied by childless couples who worked during the day. It also helped if the house had a front porch and at least one of the drug conspirators worked for the package delivery company.

     This particular marijuana delivery operation fell apart when, at a FedEx facility in Arizona, a drug dog made a hit on the parcel. The authorities in Arizona, after notifying the Prince George's County Police Department, resealed the box and sent it on its way. In Maryland, at the FedEx station station in Beltsville, narcotics officers with the county police department took possession of the contraband.

     Instead of conducting a cursory investigation to determine the identities and backgrounds of the people who lived at the point of delivery and conferring with the chief of the Berwyn Heights Police Department to determine if there was suspicious drug activity associated with this house, the officers in charge of the case decided to deliver the package and then raid the place after the resident took the box inside. Had they checked with Patrick Murphy, the Berwyn Heights chief of police, the Prince George's County officers would have learned that 37-year-old Cheye Calvo, his wife Trinity, and her mother, Georgia Porter lived at that address.

     Mr. Calvo worked for a nonprofit organization that ran several public boarding schools for at-risk children. His wife Trinity had a job as a state finance officer. These people were not only law-abiding citizens, but Mr. Calvo was the mayor of Berwyn Heights. Had the Prince George's County police enlisted Mr. Calvo's cooperation, they could have caught the drug movers at the point of destination. Instead, the county officers acquired a search warrant to raid the Calvo house.

     According to the plan, on the day after the package had been intercepted at Beltsville, a county officer, posing as a deliveryman, would bring it to the Calvo house at six-thirty in the evening. The police department's SWAT team, however, wasn't available to lead the raid that day. Melvin High, Prince George's chief of police called the police department in Greenbelt and asked if he could borrow their SWAT unit. The chief in Greenbelt said he couldn't help because his unit was not authorized to operate outside the boundaries of the town. Chief High then turned to Michael Jackson, the sheriff of Prince George's County. Sheriff Jackson agreed to send his SWAT deputies into the Calvo house.

     Every police leader in the county knew of the impending raid but Patrick Murphy, the chief of police of Berwyn Heights. Not only were his colleagues planning a wrong-house intrusion, the SWAT team that police chief High had recruited had been used mainly to intercede in domestic disturbances. The unit had no experience in conducting drug raids.

     At six o'clock on the evening of the raid, Mr. Calvo arrived home from work ahead of his wife, Trinity. He gathered up Payton and Chase, his two black lab retrievers and took them for a walk. While he was away, a police officer approached the residence with the package of marijuana. Georgia, Mr. Calvo's mother-in-law, came to the door and instructed the "deliveryman" to leave the white box, addressed to her daughter, Trinity Tomsic, on the front porch.

     The point of delivery drug trafficking accomplice, realizing that the police had intercepted the package, ran from the scene. Mayor Calvo and his dogs returned from their walk a few minutes before seven. Mr. Calvo picked up the box, set on a small table near the front entrance, and climbed the stairs to charge out of his suit.

     A few minutes later, Georgia, while preparing dinner, looked out the kitchen window and saw a SWAT officer pointing a rifle at her head. A few seconds after she screamed, SWAT officers broke down the front door. From the second floor, Mr. Calvo heard his mother-in-law, the front door cracking apart, loud voices, and gunfire. Several deputies rushed into Calvo's bedroom, grabbed him and dragged the stunned mayor down the stairs in his boxer shorts.

     Payton, the seven-year-old lab, lay dead on the living room floor. The officers ordered Calvo to his knees and told him to remain in that position with his hands cupped on his head. No one would listen as Mr. Calvo tried to tell them he was the mayor of the town and that the raiders had made some kind of mistake.

     One of the SWAT officers, in speaking to another member of the unit, said he thought the subject, who was kneeling in his own living room, was crazy. In the meantime, officers were tearing the house apart looking for evidence of the drug trade. Finally, after an hour of ripping the place apart, an officer told Calvo they had intercepted a box of marijuana that had been sent to his address. The officer assured Mr. Calvo that the police had a search warrant and what they were doing was perfectly legal.

     With his hands bound behind his back, Mr. Calvo was led into the kitchen where he saw Georgia lying face-down on the floor, her hands restrained behind her back and a rifle barrel pointed at her head. Near her body Mr. Calvo saw his other dog, Chase, lying in a pool of blood. An officer had shot the three-year-old lab as the terrified dog fled into the kitchen.

     Ninety minutes after the intrusion, about the time personnel from an animal control agency hauled away the dead pets, a member of the SWAT team removed Mr. Calvo's plastic hand restraints. A narcotics officer informed him that while the white box delivered to his house by the police was enough to arrest him and his wife on drug charges, they would give them both a break as long as they cooperated with the authorities.

     When Trinity came home a little after eight, police questioned her in the front yard. Having found no evidence of drug trafficking in the house, the invading officers departed, leaving Mr. Calvo, his shaken mother-in-law, and his distraught wife with a smashed front door, a ransacked house, a dark cloud of suspicion hanging over their heads, and a home without their beloved pets.

     That night, Cheye Calvo and his wife cleaned up the blood spilled by their dogs and tried to put their house back together. An officer from the Berwyn Heights Police Department came by at midnight to help the mayor secure the front door. The next morning, the couple's friends started calling, offering their support and sympathy. The local and national media took an immediate interest in the story.

     At a news conference held on August 5, 2008, Prince George's County Police Chief Melvin High announced that his officers had arrested two suspects allegedly involved in the interstate scheme to deliver marijuana by shipping packages to unsuspecting homes. The package addressed to the mayor's house in Berwyn Heights was one of six or so parcels intercepted by the authorities in northern Prince George's County. In all, the packages contained 417 pounds of marijuana worth $3.6 million. One of the suspects worked for FedEx.

     Chief High and Sheriff Michael Jackson said they would not apologize for the Berwyn Heights raid which they characterized as legal and responsibly conducted. The sheriff said his SWAT team had been deployed because guns and violence are often associated with drug rings. Chief High, to those assembled at the news conference, said, "In some quarters, this has been viewed as a flawed police operation and an attack on the mayor. It was not. This was about an address, this was about a name on a package. In fact, our people did not know this was the home of the mayor and his family until after the fact." When asked by a reporter if the arrests of the FedEx deliveryman and his alleged accomplice had cleared Mayor Calvo and his wife, Chief High said, "From all indications at the moment, they had an unlikely involvement but we don't want to draw the definite conclusion. Most likely they were innocent victims."

     On August 8, 2008, Chief of Police Melvin High telephoned Mayor Calvo to inform him that Maryland's attorney general had cleared him and his wife of drug trafficking. While the chief didn't apologize for for the SWAT raid, he expressed regret over the killing of the dogs. A month after the Berwyn Heights SWAT raid, Melvin High retired.

     The internal affairs investigators, obviously aware that the killing of the dogs was unwarranted and made the SWAT team look like a squad of armed and vicious law enforcement zombies, did their best to make the killings appear justified. According to a preliminary report issued by the sheriff's office, the officer shot Payton because the dog had "engaged" a deputy. The police killed the other pet because it ran toward an officer.

     A few days after the police made the September 4, 2008 preliminary report public, Mr. Calvo released the results of necropsies (animal autopsies) performed by a veterinarian with the Maryland Department of Agriculture. According to the findings of this expert, the police had shot Peyton four times, twice in the chest/flank region, once in the jaw, and once in the neck. Chase had been shot twice, one on the bullets striking his chest and the other his left rear leg.

     In conducting the internal inquiry into the Calvo raid, the investigators did not interview Mr. Calvo or his mother-in-law. Quoted in the Washington Post, Calvo said, "The fact they've done an internal review without contacting the victims of their raid, the people whose house they stormed through, shows they're not very interested in the facts."

     In January 2011, Prince George's County attorneys settled the lawsuit Cheye Calvo had brought against the county in 2009. The parties to the civil suit did not disclose the amount of the settlement. 

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