Summoned from his slumber by the insistent pounding on his front door, Mark Casterline opened his bedroom window to ask what was wanted. By way of reply a blinding spotlight was trained on him. An instant later his front door was kicked in to admit more than a dozen armed men, who dragged him naked from his bed.
“They intended to kill me,” Casterline said during an interview in the kitchen of his home outside of Ontario, Oregon. “I was sound asleep when the SWAT team showed up and had no idea why they were in my house. They came thundering in and I hear clicking noises as they pointed their guns at me. They were going to take me out.”
The 3:00 AM raid by the Malheur County Sheriff’s Emergency Response Teamwas carried out without a warrant of any kind. Several years after the event, the shattered front door still bears the impression of the jackboot that was used to kick it in. The rationale for deploying a paramilitary team to Casterline’s property was a claim made by an antagonistic neighbor, identified in a subsequent lawsuit as Phil Youngblood, that Casterline was either “drunk or high,” and that he posed a threat to any officer who checked in on him.
Apparently, leaving him unmolested wasn’t an option, nor was conducting a conventional “welfare check” if there was some legitimate concern over his condition.
A “welfare check” consists of a single officer, dressed in conventional attire, politely knocking on the door and making a non-confrontational inquiry about the resident’s well-being. In this case — as in a subsequent raid conducted a short distance away in Letha, Idaho – the “welfare check” mutated into a military-style assault because of the target’s history with law enforcement.
Casterline had a “history” with law enforcement. To be specific, he had been abused and injured by police roughly twenty years earlier in a case of mistaken identity. He was also known to be a gun owner. Thus the possibility that he harbored lingering – and entirely understandable – resentment over his mistreatment was deemed a potential threat to that most precious of all things, “officer safety.”
On the evening before the raid, according to the lawsuit, Youngblood called the police to report – falsely, as it turned out – that he had seen Casterline driving while intoxicated. A Malheur County Sheriff’s Deputy found the truck in a ditch on Casterline’s property, and reported that there was “nothing unusual” on the scene.
Shortly thereafter, Oregon State Trooper Ryan Moorehead conducted a follow-up visit with Youngblood, who told them that he shouldn’t “approach him by himself.” As the Trooper was assuring Youngblood “that I would request a backup officer … we heard a loud gunshot,” Moorehead wrote in his official report. He also recorded that at the time Casterline’s house was “obscured by vegetation, so we could not see in combination with the dark.”
Moorehead provided a conflicting account in a probable cause affidavit, claiming that “as I approached [Casterline’s] home a single shot was fired and officers set up a perimeter.” Moorehead characterized that gunshot as “an intimidating gesture.” In a separate report, however, OSP Sergeant Mark Duncan acknowledged that “It is unknown whether [Casterline] was shooting at police or not.”
Furthermore, there wasn’t any evidence that Casterline had been shooting atanybody.
The sound of gunfire was hardly a novelty in the neighborhood, since Youngblood operated a private shooting reserve used by personnel at the Snake River Correctional Institution, which is located a few miles away.
Troopers Moorehead and Duncan were unable to confirm who fired the gunshot, in what direction it was fired, or the intent of the person who fired it.
Rather than addressing those matters, the officers simply ticked the required boxes on their “Threat Matrix,” and the Special Response Team began planning an assault on Casterline’s home.
During the next four hours, as the tactical team was assembled from officers in both Ontario and neighboring Vale, no effort was made to obtain a search warrant. Given that the team was responding to a supposed threat against law enforcement officers, there is ample justification for Mark’s belief that the stormtroopers intended to kill him, rather than take him into custody. One of the raiders commented that they had expected Mark to commit “suicide-by-cop,” and asked the naked, terrified man if he “knew how close [he] came to being shot.”
It should be recalled that Casterline’s only “threatening” action thus far was to open a window and ask the officers what they wanted.
A total of seventeen people – including Robert Norris, who at the time was the Malheur County District Attorney – surged into Mark’s home, compounding the home invasion with an illegal search. The invaders seized four firearms and filed a variety of charges against the victim, all of which were dismissed in a subsequent suppression hearing because the search was patently illegal.
A police stenographer employed by the Argus Observer dutifully retailed the official line that the SWAT raid had come at the end of a “four-hour standoff” during which Mark had refused to come to the door or answer the phone. All of this, predictably, was untrue: The first legitimate effort the police made to “contact” Mark came when one of the raiders used his jackboot to kick in the front door.
“Once they charge you with something you don’t know what the outcome will be, even if you’re innocent,” Mark commented in 2007, shortly after being acquitted on a DUI charge arising from the raid. “Once they stick a hook in you, you don’t know if you’ll get off it.”
That assessment was the sober product of Casterline’s long and thoroughly disagreeable experience with the racket that has appropriated the title “justice system.”
Mark is a stocky 57-year-old man who suffers from chronic pain – which he treats with medical cannabis — and often walks with the assistance of a cane. Some of his injuries reflect decades of work as a farmer and mechanic, or mishaps such as a nearly fatal motorcycle wreck that occurred several years ago.
Some of the wounds – such as a permanently damaged elbow, and a hernia that often makes it difficult for him to sleep – are battlescars from decades of unprovoked conflict with local police.
“For some reason, the police here in Ontario thought I was a Hell’s Angel or something, and they keyed on me after I moved here about thirty-three years ago,” Mark told me.
Shortly after his arrival, Mark was enjoying a dinner date at a long-gone Ontario nightclub called Moore’s Alley when “two cops grabbed me from behind and ripped me out of my chair,” he recalls. “They didn’t tell me what was going on; they just beat me up in front of my girlfriend and hauled me off to the jail in Nyssa.”
Casterline’s hernia was inflicted by either a club or a flashlight wielded by one of the officers who attacked him. The assault was a product of mistaken identity – and it resulted in no punishment, of course, because the assailants were protected by “qualified immunity.” The charges were quickly dropped, but Mark – according to his account — became a preferred target for law enforcement harassment.
“They’ve dragged me in more times than I care to remember,” Mark recalls. “I’m not a criminal, but for some reason they decided to treat me like one.”
Eventually, Malheur County paid Casterline a token amount to settle his lawsuit “with prejudice.” Several of the deputies involved in the raid went on to distinguish themselves in similar dubious ventures.
Deputy Robert Speelman, who led the SWAT team that evening and whose boot mark still adorns the front door to Casterline’s house, coordinated the MCSO’s years-long campaign of official harassment against the family of local cattleman Sweeny Gillette, thereby precipitating a $9.3 million dollar lawsuit.
Deputy Brad Williams, who was one of the first through the door in that raid, headed the MCSO’s campaign against the 45th Parallel medical marijuana co-op, which extracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in “forfeited” cash and property – including a huge volume of confiscated marijuana for which no adequate accounting has ever been provided.
Williams also holds a seat on the Vale City Council, which will soon be collecting tax proceeds on marijuana sales. In other words, he will be collecting “proceeds” on marijuana sales — the same “offense” for which William Esbensen and the other operators of the 45th Parallel were prosecuted.
Deputies Brian Belnap and Casey Walker were also kitted out in paramilitary drag during the raid on Mark Casterline’s house. They played an interesting role in a recent incident that started out in similar fashion – but ended much differently.
On January 31, the MCSO responded to a complaint that an apparently intoxicated driver was “yelling and revving his car engine.” Belnap and Deputy Walker arrived at the scene and found that the drunken driver was Matt Hawley, Superintendent of the Vale School District and – much more importantly – coach of its undefeated state champion high school football team.
Hawley was visibly drunk and emitted “an overwhelming odor of an alcoholic beverage,” wrote Deputy Walker in his report (which consistently referred to the subject by the familiar first name “Matt,” rather than the formal “Mr. Hawley”). Behind the driver’s seat of the car could be seen “a bottle of what appeared to be hard alcohol.” He was “dishonest” and “not cooperative” when asked “about his drinking and … where he began to drink.”
According to Hawley, he was visiting the home of a long-time girlfriend. He had sent the woman more than 30 text messages in the hours leading up to the incident. Deputy Belnap explainedthat the woman “didn’t respond as she [was] trying to avoid him.” In fact, the harried woman had “headed to Boise so she wouldn’t have to be around Matt.”
“I asked Matt how he would feel if his students found out about the incident,”reported Deputy Walker (who has starred in anti-drunk driving skits presented to local high school students). “Matt stated that his students will never know about this. I explained to Matt that he could get back on the road and at his level of intoxication he could crash[,] hurting or killing someone and then everyone would know.”
Rather than arresting Hawley, or writing him a citation, the deputies called Sergeant Dave Kesey, who “gave Matt a ride to his residence in Vale.”
The deputies actually handled this matter appropriately – assuming that their actions would represent a uniform approach to incidents of this kind. No one had been injured, no property damage had been done, nobody filed a criminal complaint, and Hawley’s potential threat was neutralized by having someone drive him home.
|How it’s normally done: Deputy Walker “arrests” a student.|
All of those elements were present in the case of Mark Casterline – stipulating, for the purposes of this discussion, that the report of his intoxicated driving was accurate. One important difference is that Casterline was on his own property – not that of someone he could have been accused of stalking.
Hawley’s comrades in the school district did their respectable best to validate his insouciant statement that his students would “never know” about his behavior. Hawley was quietly placed on leave and temporarily replaced as superintendent by Dr. Stephen Phillips. When the Argus Observer inquired about Hawley’s absence, school board chairman insisted that he couldn’t comment on “an employee matter.”
Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe defended the decision not to cite or arrest Hawley under circumstances that would certainly have led to that result but for the identity of the subject.
“It is not illegal to drink alcohol and drive,” insisted the sheriff. “It’s unlawful to drive under the influence.'”
This is a perfectly defensible distinction that would have been summarily rejected by Sheriff Wolfe and his deputies if the drooling, stupefied motorist hadn’t been one of the most celebrated members of Malheur County’s nomenklatura.
In dealing with Mark Casterline – a man who allegedly got drunk on his own property — the MCSO staged a SWAT raid; in dealing with Matt Hawley – who was behaving as an obstreperous, drunken stalker who had chased a woman from her property – the deputies offered taxi service, and the sheriff became party to a cover-up. That’s how they roll in Malheur County. But then again, that’s how “they” roll anywhere the political class has a police force at its disposal.