By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
On a moonlit July night three years ago, as Godwin Omokaro headed out to celebrate his 37th birthday, his life seemed full of possibilities. After all, he had come so far already. Of the 11 children in his family, only Omokaro had managed to escape the political and economic repression of his native Nigeria.
Nine years earlier he had struck out on his own for America. After years of working at low-wage jobs -- often two at a time to make ends meet -- he had finally landed a position as a full-time bus driver for Dallas Area Rapid Transit.
He loved his DART job. The pay was good enough that he could furnish his Irving apartment, save money for the family he hoped to have someday, and still send money home to pay for his brother's college tuition. And he was making plans to attend college himself, which DART would pay for provided he kept a high enough grade-point average.
By all accounts Omokaro was a gregarious and mild-mannered man whose temperament was suited to his job, where he met hundreds of new people each day. In fact, this evening he was going to celebrate his birthday with a pretty young woman named Ava Marie Bryant whom he had met on his South Dallas route three weeks earlier.
Omokaro worked almost all the time, frequently even on his days off, so in the weeks after they first met, he talked Bryant into periodically riding his route with him so they could get to know each other. But even Godwin Omokaro didn't work on his birthday. So tonight, July 21, 1996, was going to be their first official date. Unfortunately, it would also be their last.
Shortly after midnight, Omokaro and Bryant made the mistake of being in a public park shortly after curfew -- a misdemeanor offense punishable by a small fine. But Omokaro's punishment would be much more severe. What should have been a routine traffic stop quickly escalated into a violent struggle. Police claim Omokaro resisted arrest, though what they were arresting him for remains unclear. What is clear is that Omokaro was unarmed and sober and had no criminal history. Still, the police say they were justified in squirting pepper spray into his face, putting him in a chokehold, and using eight officers to subdue him. Then they left him unattended in the back of a police cruiser, where he lay unconscious and suffocating.
The officers walked away with barely a scratch. Omokaro suffered a severe brain injury that put him in a coma for two weeks, followed by five months of hospitalized rehabilitation. His injuries have left him legally blind and his mental capacity greatly diminished. He talks with great difficulty and walks with an unsteady gait, and his hands are afflicted with constant tremors that make even the simplest fine motor task -- using an electric can opener, for instance -- impossible.
"My life changed upside down because of one night," Omokaro says, struggling to get the words out as tears stream down his face. "I am so behind now -- all my life gone."
Much was expected of Godwin Omokaro, the oldest son of the tribal chief in his home in Benin City, Nigeria. A beauty supplies salesman and the owner of several rental properties, Omokaro's father was better off financially than many in his country, but he had several wives and children to support, so money was tight. He wanted a better life for his children, especially his first-born son.
Omokaro hoped to go to college, but his father could not afford to send him. In 1987, Omokaro met a man in Nigeria who claimed to be affiliated with an American university that would give him scholarship money to attend. But when Omokaro arrived in New York, his dream of earning a college degree was dashed. There were no scholarship funds to be had.
With no money to return home and too proud to turn to his father, Omokaro decided to stay in America and get a job after applying for a green card. He moved to Dallas, where several friends from his high school were living. For two years, he worked as a skycap at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and part time as a stock boy at Sound Warehouse. Then he was hired at Barton Protective Services, where he worked as a security guard for four years.
During his first year at the security company, which employs thousands of guards in Texas alone, he was chosen employee of the month. Omokaro proudly put the letter from the division president thanking him for his "pursuit of excellence" in a scrapbook that would soon be filled with other accolades.
Life was going well for Omokaro. He had a full-time job he liked, and he had fallen in love. While shopping for Christmas presents at a local mall in December 1990, he met a young single mother who was out shopping as well. A Dallas native, Ramona Courtney immediately took to Omokaro's easy, polite nature.
"He was hardworking and very generous," Courtney says. "I just loved him so much, the way he treated and cared for people. I was a lot larger then and insecure about my weight, but he didn't care."
They moved in together, and Omokaro treated Courtney's 6-year-old daughter like his own. He also convinced Courtney to go back to school and supported her while she obtained her nursing degree. "He helped me in my goals and perspectives in coming up," says Courtney, who works as a surgical nurse at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. "And he helped me raise up my daughter too."
Equally ambitious for himself, Omokaro wanted something more challenging and lucrative than a security-guard job. His friend Kingsley Emokpae, a DART bus driver, recommended him for a position at DART. Several years after he first applied, an opening finally became available, and in his inimitable way, Omokaro quickly distinguished himself. He was one of the few applicants to finish the probation period with a superior rating -- no easy feat, according to a congratulatory note the senior manager for bus operations sent him.
"I haven't personally experienced it, but I gather that it is a lot of pressure to maintain a superior record for six months while on probation," the manager wrote in another letter Omokaro preserved in his scrapbook. "I am happy to know you see hundreds of thousands of our patrons daily, because I know that in you, they will see a positive, safe side of DART."
Omokaro was one of DART station manager Joe Lumpkin's most dependable drivers. "He would work seven days a week if we needed him, and we often did," Lumpkin says.
A fellow Nigerian native, Emokpae had no doubt that Omokaro would do well. A friend who worked at DART and lived at Omokaro's apartment complex in Irving introduced the two men, promising Emokpae that he would like Omokaro instantly.
"What she told me was not a fallacy. I hadn't seen anyone like him before -- in terms of his generosity, his enthusiasm, his versatility," Emokpae says. "He was very fun to be around, and he would help you out with ideas. He was always there for you. He was filled with a lot of exuberance. He celebrated life. When you saw Godwin, you saw life. You were encouraged."
Above all, he knew Omokaro was someone on whom he could depend. That was confirmed for him just a week after they first met. Omokaro had not been in Dallas long and was strapped for cash. He asked Emokpae if he could borrow $300 and promised to pay it back.
"He paid me back without me having to say anything," Emokpae says, still astonished at the memory. "That let me know this was someone I could trust. Ever since, we've been very tight friends."
After two years at DART, Omokaro felt established enough to revive his dream of attending college. He brought home forms from North Lake College, where he planned to study business and accounting. His father was ailing, and it was expected of the first born that he take on his father's responsibilities, so Omokaro dutifully sent money home regularly to help out.
Omokaro also wanted to start a family of his own, which became a subject of some contention between him and Courtney. After several years of trying to become pregnant, Courtney learned she could not have any more children. Their relationship grew strained, and eventually Courtney and her daughter moved out. But she and Omokaro remained close friends and continued to date.
When Omokaro asked Ava Bryant to help him celebrate his birthday, she readily agreed. Although she did not know the bus driver well, what she knew she liked. Ten years her senior, he was unfailingly polite, Bryant remembers, a real gentleman -- not the sort of man a 10th-grade dropout and single mother of four young girls meets every day.
The night Bryant first found herself on Omokaro's bus, she was headed back to South Dallas with her daughters after visiting her mother. Omokaro talked her into letting him drive her and her daughters home. He promised he wasn't going to do anything untoward. She eventually agreed, and they stayed on the bus with him until he finished his shift, then accompanied him back to the bus depot so he could retrieve his car.
As they got to know each other better over the next few weeks, they found that despite their age difference, they had a few things in common. Both of them were in relationships that had stalled, but from which they were having trouble making a clean break. Omokaro told Bryant about Ramona Courtney. Bryant was living with someone at the time, a bouncer at a local bar, but the relationship was "not going great," she says.
On his birthday, Omokaro rented a car and picked Bryant up for lunch at Wyatt's. They spent about an hour at his apartment, where he showed her a video of a party some friends had thrown him for his last birthday. She was wowed by his apartment, how immaculate and nicely furnished it was, with a large dining-room table, black leather sofa, and a "big old pretty fish tank."
She took Omokaro to meet her mother and sisters, then he took her home. They made plans to meet again later that night. Around 10 o'clock, Omokaro picked Bryant up and headed to GiGi's, a club on Park Lane, near Central Expressway. They danced for a while, and Omokaro had a shot of whiskey to celebrate his birthday. But Bryant was uncomfortable. She didn't drink, and the place was "too uppity" for her.
On their way home, at approximately 12:30 a.m., Omokaro pulled into a parking lot off of Northwest Highway at Bachman Lake. "We went there to talk and to relax," Omokaro says. The water reminded him of the beaches he missed back home. He says he didn't see any signs alerting them that the park was closed between midnight and 5 a.m. Had he known, Omokaro says, he would never have stopped.
As they sat in the car and talked, a green Chevy truck pulled into the lot. Three white men got out and relieved themselves on the grass. As they hopped back into the truck, the red flashing lights of a Dallas police car illuminated the darkness.
The police car was about to turn into the parking lot and stopped as the Chevy turned to leave. Omokaro was headed out as well, but before he could pull onto the driveway that led to Northwest Highway, the police car blocked his exit.
Officers Scott Whitemyer and Kyle Hensley walked up to the couple's car and told them they were in violation of the park curfew. They asked Omokaro for his license and Bryant for some identification. They then went back to their patrol car to check the couple for any outstanding warrants and to issue them tickets.
As the police walked away, Bryant told Omokaro he didn't think the police were being fair. Why did they let the truck with the white guys leave, but stop them? she complained. Bryant told Omokaro she thought it was a racial issue. Omokaro claims that he asked the police why they stopped him and not the truck, but that he did not get an answer. Instead, he says he overheard them say that they wanted to harass him. Bryant didn't hear them say anything. The police claim they told him that they could handle only one car at a time.
Omokaro got out of his car, walked to a pay phone 10 feet away, and dialed 9-1-1. He says he felt threatened because of what the police allegedly said and because he believed they singled him out for a ticket because he was black. According to a transcript of the call, prepared by the police, Omokaro starts to tell the emergency operator that the officers let three white men leave the park but chose to ticket him. Officer Hensley is heard yelling in the background to put the phone down.
"....Hold on, don't pull me...sir, I'm talking to 9-1-1, I'm talking to 9-1-1," Omokaro tells Hensley, who continues to yell at him to hang up.
"See, he's cussing me, cussing me," Omokaro says.
Hensley then attempts to get Omokaro off the phone by putting his nightstick in front of his neck and pulling.
"He's pulling my neck; he's pulling me on my neck," Omokaro yells. "He's pulling on my neck while I'm on the pay phone. They want to hurt me."
The dispatcher suggests that Omokaro hang up, but he keeps insisting that the officers want to hurt him, while they are heard screaming in the background for him to hang up.
Again Omokaro asks the operator why the police want to give him a ticket. The dispatcher tells him he'll have to ask the officers. Omokaro begins to ask another question and again tells the officers he's talking to 9-1-1.
"Talk to them later," says Officer Hensley, who grabs the phone from Omokaro.
"Uh, give me that...pho-o-o-ne," Omokaro says.
"Get it," the officer shouts; struggling, screaming, and moaning can be heard in the background.
The call ends with Omokaro crying out in pain as Whitemyer sprays a canister of pepper spray into his face.
From the car, Bryant could hear an officer yelling at Omokaro to get off the phone. She saw him talking on the phone as the second officer sprayed him with pepper spray. When he screamed in pain, she got out of the car and rushed to the pay phone. Omokaro was face-down on the ground, writhing in pain and screaming that his eyes were burning.
"He begged me to help him, but there was nothing I could do," Bryant says. "I said, 'What are you all doing to him and why?' They just said, 'You get to the car -- now.'"
The officers were attempting to handcuff Omokaro. He refused to give the officers his hands, so they pressed a baton into his legs and dug their fingers into a pressure point on his neck -- to no avail. They tried to pull his arms out from under him, but Omokaro, at 5 feet 10 inches tall and 210 pounds, was too strong for the officers. When Hensley tried again, Omokaro allegedly bit him, but did not break the skin, according to the officer's affidavit.
As Omokaro continued to thrash on the ground, exhibiting, in the officers' words, "a hysterical superhuman-strength state," Hensley left his partner at the scene while he returned to his vehicle to search for leg restraints, which they did not have.
When Hensley returned, Whitemyer locked his forearm around Omokaro's neck in a potentially dangerous maneuver known as lateral vascular neck restraint. By constricting blood flow in the neck, it can cut off oxygen to the brain and cause serious injury and even instant death. The officers say this maneuver did not subdue Omokaro, but they nonetheless managed to handcuff him. Whitemyer then called on the radio for leg restraints. Within 30 seconds to a minute, three police cars arrived. At least six officers piled on Omokaro to affix the shackles to his legs.
"They were like a pile of ants on a piece of candy," Bryant says. "When they were done, he was just lying there, face-down on the ground, not saying anything. I said, 'What did you do him? Why isn't he moving?' The officer who sprayed the Mace said he probably wasn't moving because he was tied up."
Omokaro says he lost consciousness shortly after the officers piled on top of him. The officers claim he was still awake when they carried him to the police car, where they lay him face-down across the back seat, with his head supposedly hanging off the seat's edge so he could breathe.
A few minutes later, Sgt. Dean Sorenson arrived, and the officers told him what happened. He checked on Omokaro and saw a gash on his forehead. When he rolled Omokaro over, his saw that his tongue was blue and swollen. Officers pulled Omokaro out of the car, and Sorenson checked his vital signs. He found no pulse and called for an ambulance.
Sorenson began chest compressions, and when that didn't restore Omokaro's breathing, he radioed for a CPR mask to begin the breathing portion of the resuscitation. Within six minutes, the ambulance arrived. With the paramedics' help, Omokaro began to breathe, albeit it shallowly, on his own. The ambulance rushed him to Parkland Hospital, where he remained unconscious for two weeks. He awoke a different man, an invalid who could not see and who had to learn to walk and talk all over again.
"What they did to that poor man," Bryant says, shaking her head. "Godwin was a good person, and for that to happen to a good person just isn't right. It was so frightening to me. I had seen things like that happen on TV, but never in person."
Although Ramona Courtney was initially upset when she learned Omokaro was on a date with another woman on his birthday, she stayed by his side throughout his long ordeal. His friend Kingsley Emokpae, among others, has been there for him as well.
The night after the incident, Emokpae and fellow DART bus drivers, as well as members of the Nigerian community, marched in Dallas to protest the way the police had treated Omokaro.
"To me it is still a mystery what happened that night to my friend," Emokpae says. "I tend to think of it as an illusion. It doesn't seem real that something like this could happen to Godwin. He didn't deserve it. Violent is the last word in the dictionary to describe him. I had never even seen him engage in an argument with a friend."
Courtney insists that Omokaro was not normally fearful of the police. "He had a good relationship with them when he was a security guard," she says. "And Godwin knew the system."
How did something that started out so seemingly benign -- a simple ticket for a curfew violation -- spin so utterly out of control? For his part, Omokaro says he did nothing wrong. He says he called 9-1-1 because he felt threatened, a feeling the police only confirmed when they pulled on his neck to get him off the phone, then sprayed his face with pepper spray and put him in a chokehold.
The police, meanwhile, insist they were justified in using escalating force because Omokaro violently resisted arrest. But from the officers' own statements, it's hard to tell exactly what Omokaro was being arrested for to begin with.
The police conducted an internal investigation into whether the officers had used excessive force against Omokaro. There are discrepancies in the officers' accounts of what happened. Hensley claims he attempted to get Omokaro, whom he described as "wild-eyed," to sign the ticket while he was on the phone, but there is no indication on the 9-1-1 transcript that this occurred. In an affidavit given to police investigators, Hensley first said that he attempted to arrest Omokaro while he was on the phone -- for what, it isn't clear -- and that Omokaro kicked him. But in a later affidavit, Hensley says he didn't intend to arrest Omokaro until he kicked the officer when he tried to remove the phone from Omokaro's hand. Hensley said he then told Omokaro he was under arrest -- also not evident on the transcript. Hensley admitted to a police investigator several hours after the incident that he could not find a bruise on his shin where he was allegedly kicked.
In Whitemyer's statements, he claims Omokaro kicked Hensley when he tried to take the phone and then the officer told him he was under arrest. He also claims he then attempted to calm Omokaro down by telling him the whole thing was silly, and when he wouldn't settle down he felt compelled to spray him with pepper spray. Again, none of the officers' alleged attempts to defuse the situation, nor the officer's informing Omokaro he was under arrest, appears on the transcript.
Whitemyer also maintains that Omokaro was still conscious in the police car, because he claims that he asked him three different times whether he would release the rental car to Bryant and that Omokaro nodded his head in response twice.
In an affidavit, Omokaro says that he never kicked or bit the officers, was never asked to sign a ticket, and was never told he was under arrest. Bryant also denies that Omokaro attacked the officers in any way.
Despite these discrepancies, the IAD investigation finding was "inconclusive" because they could not talk to Omokaro. When they first began investigating the case, Omokaro was in a coma. The police tried again when he was in rehabilitation, but his lawyers wouldn't let him talk to investigators. The Dallas County district attorney presented the case before a grand jury, but it declined to indict the officers.
To Omokaro's attorney Ed Moore, this is clearly a case of excessive force. "My client failed the attitude test, and it went to shit from there," he says.
With Moore's help, Omokaro filed suit in state district court against Hensley and Whitemyer and the Dallas Police Department alleging negligence and the violation of his civil rights. The police refused to talk to the Dallas Observer, citing pending litigation.
The civil rights portion of the suit was transferred to federal court. In court documents, Moore argues that Dallas police officers and police policies and procedures were at fault for Omokaro's injuries. He bolsters his case with the opinion of national law enforcement expert Lou Reiter, a former deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. In addition to consulting with police departments around the country on issues from deadly force to police discipline, Reiter has been retained in more than 500 police-related lawsuits. In two-thirds of those cases, he has worked for the defense.
In Reiter's opinion, Dallas police violated their own policy, which dictates that "force should be used as a last resort and only after exhausting reasonable alternatives."
Instead of defusing the situation, Reiter says, the police officers exacerbated it. While an agitated Omokaro was on the phone, Reiter says, the "reasonable and trained response" on the part of the officers would have been to summon an objective third party -- the supervisor on duty -- to the scene. The neck-restraint hold, he says, was an unreasonable use of force, because at the time it was used, Omokaro, by the officers' own admission, was simply "passively resisting-refusing to remove his hands from underneath his body."
Furthermore, the police violated their own policies -- and nationally recognized protocol -- in dealing with a person who has been subjected to a chemical spray, which can cause swelling in the trachea and mucous membranes of the nose, and a chokehold. Omokaro was placed on his stomach in the back of the police car, while a 1994 DPD training bulletin states that subjects sprayed with a chemical agent "...should be placed in a seated position or rolled on their side so breathing is not restricted...Officers shall constantly monitor...loosen clothing around neck, check pulse rate and monitor breathing. If necessary establish an airway."
None of this, however, was done with Omokaro, Reiter notes. "This constituted deliberate indifference, in my opinion, to the medical needs of Mr. Omokaro."
Although the dangers of the chokehold and the proper monitoring techniques used in administering it were common knowledge to law enforcement for years, it wasn't until after the Omokaro incident that the Dallas Police Department created an appropriate policy dealing with the issue. In April 1997, the DPD issued an order stating that if a person has been sprayed with a chemical agent, the lateral vascular neck restraint should be applied only in extreme circumstances. The person should not be placed in a prone position, and his vital signs should be checked.
Despite the conflicting claims in the case, U.S. District Judge Joe Fish of Dallas determined in June 1998 that it lacked sufficient merit to be tried. Essentially, he put the equivalent of a legal chokehold on the case. In granting the city's motion to dismiss the civil rights suit on summary judgment, Fish concluded that the police officers had used reasonable force in subduing a person who was resisting arrest.
Omokaro has appealed the judge's ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. A trial in state court against the police for negligence is scheduled for next July. The state Legislature has capped the monetary award a plaintiff can receive from a municipal body. The most Omokaro can probably recover if he wins the negligence suit is $250,000, according to Moore.
"There are two real stories," says Moore. "What the police did -- attacking Godwin without provocation. And the power of a federal judge to dismiss his case when there were clearly fact issues for a jury to decide. Few rulings irk me the way this one does. It was so wrong. It is appalling to take people's rights away without any lawful basis. What the judge did was almost as bad as what the cops did."
Omokaro doesn't completely understand all of the legal machinations that have transpired. He just hopes that he will get his day in court. "I forgive the officers for what they did to me," he says. "But I think they should pay."
At 40 years old, a white, aluminum folding cane his frequent companion, Godwin Omokaro still organizes his life around DART. But instead of navigating a bus through the streets of the city, which he did six and seven days a week for two years, he now calls HandiRide two days in advance to make an appointment every time he needs to go someplace.
For the past year, those destinations have been fairly fixed and limited. Tuesdays and Thursdays, he travels to Matrix Rehabilitation, a Las Colinas clinic for occupational and physical therapy. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, he spends several hours a day at the Lighthouse for the Blind. There he learns skills to make him more independent, undergoes speech therapy, and volunteers in a work lab that prepares clients to re-enter the work force.
"When he first started coming to the Lighthouse, he was very depressed," says Allison Gerron, supervisor of the work-adjustment training program. "He felt so helpless, so hopeless and discouraged. From people who worked with him and from looking at his scrapbook, it was obvious he had been very successful at DART. He had been the one from his family who had made it. He was very proud of his achievements."
It didn't help his spirits that shortly after he started going to the Lighthouse, he was arrested and put in jail. A Lighthouse volunteer had taken him to get a valid picture identification card at the Department of Public Safety because the police had kept his driver's license. When a clerk checked Omokaro's history in the computer, an outstanding warrant for his arrest came up on the screen. Until that moment, Omokaro had no idea the police had charged him with resisting arrest and violating curfew that night in the park. He was immediately arrested at the DPS office and held in jail overnight until he could post bond the next morning. Earlier this spring, the District Attorney's Office dismissed the charges against him "in the interest of justice," according to the order.
Omokaro has made an indelible impression on the therapists and counselors who have worked with him. Last year, when the Medicare funding that paid for his physical and occupational therapy ran out, Matrix Rehabilitation offered to give him a year of free service, citing his "hard work" and "cooperative and pleasant" manner.
Gerron is not surprised by Matrix's generosity. "Everyone who comes in contact with Godwin cares about him, because he is such a caring person," she says. "I haven't worked with someone like him before. His overwhelming appreciation and helpfulness is striking. He has touched all of us in a profound way."
Omokaro recently sent a card thanking his therapists and counselors at the Lighthouse. "God has really used you guys to help me in my times of need because he (Lord) cannot come down from heaven to do these things," reads the letter Omokaro dictated to a friend. "... If everybody in the world were like you guys, the whole world would have been a beautiful and wonderful place to live. Because I feel free as air when I am around you guys."
Omokaro has a way of detecting when people are upset, and his gentleness, Gerron says, has a soothing effect on them. During the summer, she explains by way of example, a young high school boy comes to Gerron's work lab, where he assembles spatulas. Hyperactive and blind, the boy has a hard time staying on task. So Omokaro, whose job it is to disassemble and count the spatulas to see whether the clients are increasing their speed and productivity, walked to the other side of the workstation to do his job next to the boy.
"Godwin has a calming influence on him," Gerron says. "He really helped a lot in this situation. He helped keep him on task."
Although his therapists are impressed with how hard Omokaro works to regain the abilities he has lost, his deficits are significant and will make it hard for him to find work. He does not have enough dexterity to assemble the items -- binders and markers -- the Lighthouse makes under contract with the military. Nor is he able to use a keyboard or even read Braille. His speech, while improving, also poses a problem. According to Dr. Thomas Salmon of the North Texas Neuroscience Center, who evaluated Omokaro in the spring of 1997, "Mr. Omokaro appears to have suffered a brain injury that is most probably due to a combination of head trauma and cerebral anoxia [oxygen deprivation]...He has severely decreased visual acuity...modest to sever dysarthria [articulation disorder caused by a nerve defect]...impaired fine motor control...His gait is very slightly unsteady and wide-based."
"But his personality is such a strength, the way he is with people," says Gerron.
In the meantime, he must rely on government support and the kindness of friends. He lives on $684 a month in Social Security disability. His church pays half the rent on his Webb Chapel apartment, and Ramona Courtney and her family help him out financially as well. Courtney and some of his other friends also cook his meals, take him shopping, and clean his apartment.
"This is such a tragedy," Gerron says. "He was just minding his own business. He didn't do anything wrong. He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was the wrong color."