The railroading of Ryan Frederick
by Radley Balko
Imagine you’re home alone.
It’s 8 p.m. You work an early shift and need to be out the door before sunrise, so you’re already in bed. Your nerves are a bit frazzled, because earlier in the week someone broke into your home. Oddly, they didn’t take anything; they just rifled through your belongings.
But the violation weighs on your mind. At about the time you drift off, you’re awakened by fierce barking from your two large dogs. You hear someone crashing into your front door, as if he’s trying to separate it from its hinges. You grab the gun you keep for home defense and leave your room to investigate.
This past January that scenario played out at the Chesapeake, Virginia, home of 28-year-old Ryan Frederick, a slight man of little more than 100 pounds. According to interviews since the incident, Frederick says when he looked toward his front door, he saw an intruder trying to enter through one of the lower door panels. So Frederick fired his gun.
The intruders were from the Chesapeake Police Department. They had come to serve a drug warrant. Frederick’s bullet struck Detective Jarrod Shivers in the side, killing him. Frederick was arrested and has spent the last six weeks in a Chesapeake jail.
He has been charged with first degree murder. Paul Ebert, the special prosecutor assigned to the case, has indicated he may elevate the charge to capital murder, which would enable the state to seek the death penalty.
At the time of the raid, Ryan Frederick worked for a soft drink merchandiser. Current and former employers and co-workers speak highly of him. He also recently had gotten engaged, a welcome lift for a guy who’d had a run of tough luck.
He lost both parents early in life, and friends say the death of his mother hit particularly hard—Frederick discovered her in bed after she had overdosed on prescription medication. After the deaths of both parents, Frederick grew close to his grandmother, who then died two years ago.
Friends and neighbors describe Frederick as shy, self-effacing, non-confrontational, and hard-working. He had no prior criminal record. Frederick and his friends have conceded he smoked marijuana recreationally. But all—including his neighbors—insist there’s no evidence he was growing or distributing the drug.
According to the search warrant, the police raided Frederick’s home after a confidential informant told them he saw evidence of marijuana growing in a garage behind the home. The warrant says the informant saw several marijuana plants, plus lights, irrigation equipment and other gardening supplies.
After the raid, the police found the gardening supplies, but no plants. They also found a small amount of marijuana, but not much—only enough to charge Frederick with misdemeanor drug possession.
Frederick told a local television station that he was an avid gardener. A neighbor I spoke with backs him up, explaining that Frederick had an elaborate koi pond behind his home and raised a variety of tropical plants. He’d even given his neighbors gardening tips on occasion.
One of the plants Frederick told the local television station he raised was the Japanese maple, a plant that, when green, has leaves that look quite a bit like marijuana leaves.
So far, Chesapeake police have given no indication that they did any investigation to corroborate the tip from their informant. There’s no mention in the search warrant of an undercover drug buy from Frederick or of any extensive surveillance of Frederick’s home.
More disturbingly, the search warrant says the confidential informant was inside Frederick’s house three days before the raid—about the same time Frederick says someone broke into his home. Frederick’s supporters have told me that Frederick and his attorney now know the identity of the informant, and that it was the police informant who broke into Frederick’s home.
Chesapeake’s police department isn’t commenting. But if true, all of this raises some very troubling questions about the raid, and about Frederick’s continued incarceration.
Special prosecutor Paul Ebert said at a recent bond hearing for Frederick that Shivers, the detective who was killed, was in Frederick’s yard when he was shot, and that Frederick fired through his door, knowing he was firing at police.
Frederick’s attorney disputes this. Ebert also said Frederick should have known the intruders were police because there were a dozen or more officers at the scene. But some of Frederick’s neighbors dispute this, too. One neighbor told me she saw only two officers immediately after the raid; she said the others showed up only after Shivers went down.
What’s clear, though, is that Chesepeake police conducted a raid on a man with no prior criminal record. Even if their informant had been correct, Frederick was at worst suspected of growing marijuana plants in his garage. There was no indication he was a violent man—that it was necessary to take down his door after nightfall.
The raid in Chesapeake bears a striking resemblance to another that ended in a fatality. Last week, New Hanover County, N.C., agreed to pay $4.25 million to the parents of college student Peyton Strickland, who was killed when a deputy participating in a raid mistook the sound of a SWAT battering ram for a gunshot, and fired through the door as Strickland came to answer it.
In the case where a citizen mistakenly (and allegedly) shot through his door at a raiding police officer, the citizen is facing a murder charge; in the case where a raiding police officer mistakenly shot through a door and killed a citizen, there were no criminal charges.
Over the last quarter century, we’ve seen an astonishing rise in paramilitary police tactics by police departments across America. Peter Kraksa, professor of criminology at the University of Eastern Kentucky, ran a 20-year survey of SWAT team deployments and determined that they have increased 1,500 percent since the early 1980s—mostly to serve nonviolent drug warrants.
This is dangerous, senseless overkill. The margin of error is too thin, and the potential for tragedy too high to use these tactics unless they are in response to an already violent situation (think bank robberies, school shootings or hostage-takings). Breaking down doors to bust drug offenders creates violent situations; it doesn’t defuse them.
Shivers’ death is only the most recent example. And Ryan Frederick is merely the latest citizen to be put in the impossible position of being awakened from sleep, then having to determine in a matter of seconds if the men breaking into his home are police or criminal intruders.
You wonder how many people can honestly say they’d have handled it any differently than he did.
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