Then, his day took a sudden turn for the worse. A Dallas Fire-Rescue employee named Brad Cox confronted Vess, accusing him of lighting a grass fire on the side of the road. Cox and other DFR employees detained Vess, waiting for the police to arrive.
Things quickly got out of hand.
Vess is now suing Cox for detaining him and allegedly using excessive force. The city is also named in the lawsuit, alleging it didn’t provide adequate training on how to detain and treat mentally ill or homeless people. The suit also says the city should have already canned Cox for previous allegations of misconduct.
Video obtained by the Observer shows Cox, a trained martial artist, kicking Vess in the face while he sits on the ground surrounded by police and other DFR employees.
Cox’s attorney, Gerald Bright, didn't reply to requests for comment. The city of Dallas has only said it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
The body camera footage begins when the police arrive. Cox hovers over Vess, staring at him down on the ground as the police officers discuss what to do and other DFR employees stand nearby. Vess begins to flail on the ground.
Cox appears to twice tell Vess, “Don’t get up again.” Vess started to sit up, and then Cox punts Vess in the right side of his face. Vess then stands up to confront Cox. His fists already clenched, Cox throws a series of punches at Vess. Two appear to land. Then, two Dallas Police officers who arrived on the scene shortly before the kick shock Vess with a Taser.
An officer with the Dallas County Sheriff's Department, identified in the video only as Garcia, calls in the incident. He says, “One male tased by DPD. Subject swung at a … firefighter.”
Vess becomes increasingly combative throughout the footage, especially after officers slap handcuffs on him. Cops and DFR speculated he was on drugs. As police handle Vess, Cox can be seen in the background casually talking to other DFR employees.
As Vess struggles on the ground, one of the officers says, “You want to put him in the back of our car? We’ll get him up. That way we don’t asphyxiate him or some crap.”
The officers then pick Vess up, but they only manage to get him off the street and into the grass. One of the officers says Vess was continuing to struggle, refusing to stand on his own. “He’s all fucked up on something,” one of the officers says.
Vess tries to kick the officer as he lies down in the grass. The officer then mounts Vess, pressing his knee into his ribs to keep him on the ground. The officers keep Vess on his side. “Keep him on his side, man. I don’t want a fucking death in custody,” one says.
When they finally get him on the gurney, Vess shakes his head back and forth. He appears to try to bite one of the DFR employees. The DFR employee slaps Vess hard on the right side of the face, where he’d been kicked earlier. “Don’t you bite me, man,” the DFR employee says.
After Vess is loaded into the ambulance, sheriff's department officers discuss how to properly transport him and why they need him on his side, opposed to on his stomach.
One, identified only as Barney, asks Garcia, “What was he doing when you got here, when you rolled up?
Garcia responds, “He was on the floor. … The firefighter had knocked him out.” Barney shakes her head as Garcia runs through the situation.
A lieutenant with the sheriff’s department, identified only as Murphy, tells Garcia to make sure he writes everything he saw in his report of the incident. “What I’m saying is, you want to cover yourself on what you took because body cameras were all on to see we didn’t do anything else.”
Garcia interjects, “But hold him down.”
Murphy says: “Yeah. Like, the other activity that was going down and that kind of stuff. Even though if I felt like [Vess’] life was in danger, I would have to intervene, it wasn’t. He slapped him. Which, we might not agree with that, but what I’m thinking is, it wasn’t putting him in harm's way. He slapped him, so I’m not going to intervene.”
“He did try to bite him,” Barney says.
Garcia eventually walks off and approaches the DFR employees. He asks Cox what happened. "The guy, was he the one starting the fires?" he asks.
Cox nods and says yes. “He was going up the service road and he set one right here in front of the engine somewhere, so I got out to go kick it out because it was small before it got big. That’s when [Vess] got up and started charging,” Cox adds.
Vess was taken to Parkland Hospital. Body camera footage from a DPD officer identified only as Ruis captures Vess' moments in the hospital. With his face swelling up, hospital staff eventually tell him his orbital socket and sinus were fractured, and his teeth were cracked. At the hospital, he denies ever starting the fires on the side of the road.
DPD asks Vess what all happened before cops arrived on the scene. Vess says he and Cox got into a brawl. Vess doesn’t deny hitting Cox in the brawl before the police showed up.
Then, Vess tells them, “He kicked me across the face.”
DPD asks if he was on the ground or standing up when Cox kicked him. “Laying down. He kicked me when I was down,” Vess replies.
DPD says DFR told them that Vess tried to hit Cox with a PVC pipe. Vess doesn’t confirm whether or not this is true.
The officers call Vess’ mother to let him talk to her and tell her what happened. “I got my ass beat, Mom,” Vess says.
Since last year, Texas’ Department of State Health Services has been investigating more than a dozen potential violations involving DFR. The Dallas Morning News reported the state’s investigation at the time. Some of the complaints are from 2016, DFR Chief Dominique Artis told the public safety committee this month.
The state initially proposed a fine upwards of $200,000 for the violations. However, the state now says Dallas may only have to pay a little more than $100,000 in a settlement for nine alleged violations.
“The possibility exists that we probably won’t have to pay it, if we follow some conditions,” Artis told the committee.
In separate investigations earlier this year, the state determined four DFR paramedics violated policy. This included two emergency responders involved in the August 2016 police custody death of Tony Timpa. Like Cox, the four paramedics still work for DFR.
DFR wouldn’t say whether its employees are allowed to detain people.
“In addition to matters involved in active litigation, the department also does not discuss personnel matters,” spokesperson Jason Evans said. “Additionally, since the plaintiff’s claims against the city and the department involve its policies, procedures and training, will not be making any comment, or responding to any questions, regarding this matter while litigation is pending.”
They also wouldn’t say if the state is investigating Cox's alleged violations.
To Sean J. McCaffity, one of Vess’ attorneys, the case is simple. “There was no reason [for Cox] to do what he did,'' McCaffity said. "Just no reason.”
As a result of the incident, McCaffity said Vess’ face is numb, and the entire right side of his body trembles. While they pursue the lawsuit, McCaffity said they plan to get Vess whatever medical attention he needs.
“It certainly worsened the condition he was in already and has made it much more difficult, if not impossible, for him to hold down a job and function,” McCaffity said.