SUNDAY EDITION | Cellphone videos raise questions about Kentucky State Police cover-up in man’s arrest
“They are just punching him, beating the s--- out of him,” said a man recording the arrest of Lewis Lyttle. “Four cops for one man, and as old as he is.”
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The testimony in front of a Harlan County grand jury last summer left little doubt Lewis Lyttle did not follow orders, became combative and assaulted Kentucky State Police officers as they tried to arrest him outside a hospital.
“We was trying to get him handcuffed and I think Detective Miller was trying to hold his legs to keep him from kicking and he ended up getting kicked too in the chest,” Trooper Jimmy Halcomb testified on Aug. 1, 2016, according to a recording of the grand jury hearing.
“We finally had to force the handcuffs on him because he wasn’t complying with anything.”
But cellphone videos and more than a dozen sworn statements from eyewitnesses paint a different picture, and are the focus of a wrongful arrest and assault lawsuit against police.
State police said an internal investigation completed last month concluded that one of the officers used excessive force and was suspended four months and demoted.
Lyttle’s attorneys argue, however, the investigation didn’t go nearly far enough, and that evidence shows state troopers lied to prosecute Lyttle and tried to cover up their actions from the June 15, 2016 arrest.
“There were several glaring omissions in (Halcomb’s) testimony,” said defense attorney Douglas Asher, who represented Lyttle in his criminal case. “The sad part of it is, that if it weren’t for these witnesses, this old man would be in the penitentiary.”
Lyttle, 68, is a former construction worker who has been disabled since 1992 with a back injury.
On the day of the incident, Lyttle left his home in St. Charles, Virginia, to drive his neighbor to Harlan Appalachian Regional Hospital because she was having problems with chronic bronchitis.
Someone called the police to complain that Lyttle was exposing himself in the hospital parking lot.
When the first witness video begins, Lyttle can be seen sitting on the ground, his hands already handcuffed behind his back as Halcomb and KSP Sgt. Rob Farley hover over him.
In an instant, Farley reaches down and slaps Lyttle across the face, sending him to the pavement.
The woman who filmed the incident on her smartphone from an office overlooking the parking lot and those watching with her can be heard gasping after Lyttle is struck.
“He had no business smacking him in the face,” one woman can be heard saying on the video.
“I bet that’s part of the movie, reckon?” another said, talking about a crew filming in Harlan at the same time.
A second witness, also using a smartphone, captured what happened next.
The officers pick Lyttle up and uncuff him. Farley stands in front of Lyttle and Halcomb behind him. Then, two other KSP officers arrive.
Because the video was filmed inside an office building, it was unclear what was said between Lyttle and the officers, but Lyttle doesn't appear to make any aggressive movements toward them.
Unlike some local departments such as Louisville Metro, state police do not equip their officers with body cameras to record their interactions with the public.
After about 30 seconds, Farley reaches out and grabs Lyttle by his beard, knees him in the stomach and yanks him to the ground.
As Lyttle lies on the pavement, Farley punches him while another officer kicks him, the video shows.
“They are just punching him, beating the s--- out of him,” said the man recording the incident from the window of a nearby building. “Four cops for one man, and as old as he is.”
The officers then handcuffed Lyttle, again, and arrested him.
When he testified to the grand jury, Halcomb did not disclose that he had successfully handcuffed Farley before other officers arrived.
Instead, he tells grand jurors Lyttle resisted, kicking him, and the trooper “hollered for assistance.”
“So it took all of you all to try and get him handcuffed?” the prosecutor asked Halcomb.
“Yes,” Halcomb said.
Halcomb also did not tell jurors about how the officers slapped, punched and kicked Lyttle.
Based on Halcomb’s account, the grand jury indicted Lyttle on charges of assaulting Halcomb and Det. Kevin Miller, driving drunk, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and menacing, among other charges.
Both Lyttle’s criminal attorney and the lawyers representing him in the civil case claim Halcomb lied and intentionally omitted evidence.
“Trooper Halcomb said (Lyttle) was resisting arrest and that he kicked two of the troopers, but the video clearly shows it was the troopers who were kicking Mr. Lyttle as he was laying on the ground,” said David Ward, a Louisville attorney representing Lyttle in the lawsuit, which was filed two days after the incident on June 17, 2016.
The lawsuit remains pending in federal court.
“Mr. Lyttle did nothing, he complied with all of the officers’ requests and, during that period of time, he was submissive with them. And as a result of that, he was assaulted, brutally assaulted, for no reason,” Ward said.
The criminal case against Lyttle unraveled and in January, prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss the felony charges.
Prosecutors based the decision on evidence that came to light after Lyttle was indicted. That evidence included the two cellphone videos of the incident and 16 sworn statements by witnesses who said Lyttle was the one assaulted.
Harlan County Commonwealth’s Attorney Parker Boggs, who handled the criminal case, did not return phone messages seeking comment.
In February, eight months after the arrest, state police launched an investigation “shortly after the events were brought to our attention,” Trooper Josh Brashears, a KSP spokesman, said in a statement emailed to WDRB News.
In a report completed last month, investigators found Farley used excessive force. He was suspended for 120 days and demoted from sergeant to trooper.
Brashears wrote that troopers were called to the hospital after Lyttle was accused of exposing himself to a juvenile and he then became combative, resisted arrest and spit on troopers.
“But even under these circumstances, KSP officers are trained and expected to uphold professional standards of conduct and must be held accountable for violations,” Brashears wrote in an email to WDRB.
The state police internal investigators questioned the other officers involved with Lyttle’s arrest and cleared them of wrongdoing. Lyttle still has a misdemeanor indecent exposure case pending in Harlan District Court.
And attorneys for the troopers said video of Lyttle’s arrest represents only an incomplete snapshot of what happened.
“You can’t form a conclusion based on just the video,” said attorney Scott Miller, who represents Trooper Kevin Miller, who is accused of kicking Lyttle.
Attorney Jason Nemes, who represents Halcomb, said “we believe our guy did what was appropriate.” Nemes is also a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives, where he represents a Middletown-area district.
The attorneys declined to go into detail. Lawyers for the other troopers declined to comment.
In court records, Halcomb said in his investigative summary that after he “forcibly cuffed” Lyttle and sat him on the ground, the trooper noticed the cuffs were too tight and Lyttle’s wrists were bleeding.
When Farley arrived, Halcomb said he decided to uncuff Lyttle and reapply the handcuffs for the defendant’s comfort, according to Halcomb’s summary of the arrest.
After taking the left cuff off, Lyttle “clinched his fist and pulled it back,” prompting Farley to grab his beard and “put his hand up,” Farley wrote in his summary.
When Lyttle would not let Halcomb cuff him, Farley “applied a knee strike” and officers took him to the ground, Halcomb wrote.
Lyttle then “started kicking and being aggressive” and troopers forcibly cuffed him, according to Halcomb.
In a response to the lawsuit, troopers said they were reacting to Lyttle’s conduct and trying to get him to comply with being handcuffed and arrested, claiming he was “fiercely combative, spit at the officers, kicked the officers, tried to draw back his fist ... and refused to comply with repeated lawful commands from the officers to submit to the attempt to peacefully arrest him.”
"Had to fight him"
But the KSP findings, and Halcomb’s investigative summary, are just part of a larger cover-up by state police, Ward said.
He pointed out that several witnesses provided affidavits to investigators saying Lyttle was not aggressive with troopers, didn’t resist arrest and never spit at them.
The other officers should have been punished, and state police failed to hold Halcomb accountable for lying to the grand jury, Ward said.
The lawsuit argues that Halcomb uncuffed Lyttle and Farley began “verbally taunting him in order to provoke him to fight. When Lyttle refused to fight, Farley became infuriated, grabbed Lyttle's long, white beard, violently jerked his head downwards, and then kneed him in the groin area.”
Ward also argues that KSP knew about the alleged use of excessive force long before February, noting multiple witnesses called police during the arrests claiming Lyttle was being assaulted.
One witness identified Farley specifically and told a dispatcher in a 911 call during the incident that she wanted to talk to a supervisor about what she saw, according to a recording of the call in court records.
Lyttle’s attorneys also point to the murky circumstances surrounding the resignation of Lt. Jason Adams, the state police supervisor who immediately followed up on the incident. They claim Adams coached the officers on what to say to avoid culpability.
Adams called the hospital on the day of the arrest and asked for any video, saying his troopers “ended up arresting a guy over there and they had to fight him,” according to audio of a phone call in court records.
The lawsuit claims Adams helped the troopers draft “untruthful memorandums regarding the assault of Lyttle. These memorandums were crafted so that” the troopers “would not be disciplined or criminally charged for their conduct.”
On Jan. 13, 2017, the day the charges against Lyttle were dropped, Adams resigned. On his resignation letter, KSP officials wrote that he would not be considered for rehire as a trooper “or in any other capacity.”
Another note on the resignation letter said: “Based on the circumstances surrounding Lt. Adams’ retirement, I am unable to recommend him” for a program that allows retired troopers to work part-time. The notes do not go into further detail.
One of the hospital employees interviewed by Adams a few weeks after the incident said in an affidavit she believed Adams was trying to protect the troopers rather than find out what really happened.
Misty Mullins said Adams interviewed her about what she saw and “for someone who is supposed to be an un-biased fact finder, (he) went out of his way to inflame my emotions against the old man,” according to her affidavit. “In fact, I think he was nothing but biased.”
She claims Adams told her “that if that old man had exposed himself to my child and I had beaten the old man up that ‘we’ (KSP) … would not even arrest you for it.
“I told Lt. Adams that it didn’t matter what the old man had been accused of, the officers couldn’t just beat him like that,” she said in her sworn statement.
She said Lt. Adams theorized that while he didn’t know what Farley was thinking, he had a young daughter and “he was just upset over what the old man had done (allegedly).”
Mullins wrote that several of her coworkers who also witnessed the incident would not talk to Adams “because it will all be covered up like it normally is and nothing will be done about it anyway.”
The findings by state police also ignore conduct by the other troopers, Ward said.
“To only discipline Sgt. Farley for what occurred, and not the other troopers – who were on video kicking a helpless old man – is troubling,” he said.
The lawsuit is on hold as Lyttle’s attorneys last month asked a federal judge to order Kentucky State Police to turn over records from the internal investigation.
“The ultimate goal in filing the suit is to hold the troopers accountable for their actions,” Ward said. “What they did was reprehensible and … they should be subject to the same laws as everybody else.”
Copyright 2017 WDRB News. All rights reserved. Reporter Travis Ragsdale contributed to this story.