Dondi Johnson Sr. died after being subjected to a "rough ride" in police van, his family says
Others arrested in Baltimore say they were injured the same way; they have filed suit against police
The family of another man who died after being paralyzed riding in the back of a Baltimore police van wants a criminal investigation into his case.
Dondi Johnson Sr., a Baltimore plumber arrested in 2005 for public urination, died two weeks after he was injured in a “rough ride,” in which a police van is deliberately driven erratically.
The case is eerily similar to Freddie Gray’s. Gray died after suffering a spinal injury while in police custody. Six Baltimore police officers have been charged in his death.
But in Johnson’s case, no charges were filed against the three police officers involved, and the three still work for the Baltimore Police Department.
The driver of the van, Nicole Leake, was featured in March in a Baltimore police promotional video, looking into the camera and saying, “I am the BPD.”
Johnson’s family sued the Police Department and in 2010 they were awarded a $7.4 million; the amount they received was much lower, $216,500, because of a legal cap.
Johnson was arrested in 2005 for urinating on a sidewalk, He was put in the van without a seat belt, according to an affidavit filed in the family’s lawsuit. When police arrived at the barracks and opened the door, he was lying on the floor with a broken neck. He told an officer, “The bitch was driving like an asshole. I fell and I can’t move.”
He was paralyzed. The officers never called an ambulance. Johnson died two weeks later from complications of his paralysis.
In the lawsuit, Leake testified that she wasn’t driving erratically and didn’t strap in Johnson because he said he had to urinate, and she didn’t want to cause his bladder discomfort with a seat belt. At trial, a former Baltimore police officer took the stand and testified that rough rides were an “unsanctioned technique” of the Police Department, during which the driver would “drive in such a manner that caused injury or pain.”
That testimony came five years before Freddie Gray died. Others have come forward, saying they, too, were taken for rough rides during that time by the Baltimore City police.
“All that says to us is that they can and will kill or hurt you or your family members and walk free,” said Johnson’s stepdaughter, who asked CNN not to use her name.
Baltimore police did not respond to CNN’s questions about the Johnson case or the officers involved.
Leake could not be reached for comment.
Since Gray’s death, Jake Masters also has said he will sue over what he says was a rough ride.
Others say they had rough rides
In photos, Masters is bruised almost from head to toe. He said he considers himself lucky to have survived.
“They would slam on their brakes like every thousand feet, and to make sure that we slammed into something in the back,” he said, recalling the night in 2012 that Baltimore police showed up at his house after a noise complaint.
The situation escalated quickly, according to court documents, and he and his wife, Chrissy Abbott, ended up on the ground, cuffed, headed for the back of a police wagon just like the one that transported Freddie Gray before he died.
“They throw you in and it’s dark in there and so you can’t really see anything,” he said. “…I would hear Chrissy from the other side, slamming into the wall and just crying out.”
She was on the other side of a metal partition.
“Every time he broke or hit on the brakes, I would slam forward and then he’d start driving again, slam back the other way,” Abbott said. “I felt less than human, the way they treated you.”
In 2012 Abbott sued the Baltmore police over her treatment that night. Her case is pending. Masters didn’t sue – until he heard about Freddie Gray, the allegations of “rough rides” and realized that they are more common than he thought.
In Baltimore, the practice has been documented as far back as 1997, when Jeffrey Alston was arrested for speeding and placed in the back of a police van. When the ride was over, he was paralyzed.
He sued the department and settled for $6 million. He died in 2007.
“The fact that this practice is going on to this day is just inexcusable,” said Masters’ and Abbott’s attorney, Steve Norman. “… I think it’s time to focus exclusively on this rough ride issue to evoke change here, to change the longstanding custom of handing out street justice.”
Norman said he wants to file a class-action suit against the department, but state protections stand in the way. He said he’s exploring his options and may have to file individually for every person who says they’ve been taken for a rough ride.
Baltimore police did not respond to CNN requests for comment on this story.
“It’s just like they treat you like a cargo they don’t care about,” Masters said, recalling his anger when he found out from others in Baltimore that they’d been through the same thing. “So, like no value for human life … and took us on a ride to make sure we were injured, basically, and felt their anger.”