UPDATE 1 – 7/10/14 3:30 p.m. Parrish’s medical care or lack thereof?
UPDATE 2 – 7/10/14 5 p.m. Parrish’s state of mind at time of incident” and “Verdict and sentencing”
Four law enforcement officers have been charged with civil rights violations and obstruction of justice in connection with an incident that occurred at Bainbridge BikeFest in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
A seven-count indictment was returned charging former Grady County Sheriff’s Deputy Wiley Griffin IV and Decatur County Sheriff’s Office Captain Elizabeth Croley with violating an individual’s civil rights. Additionally, Croley, Decatur County Sheriff’s Deputy Christopher Kines and former Decatur County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Wade Umbach were charged with obstructive conduct relating to the investigation into the civil rights violation.
The individual whose civil rights may have been violated, according to the federal grand jury, is 36-year-old Ronnie Aaron Parrish of Bainbridge, who goes by the name Aaron. At the time of the incident, Aaron Parrish was employed as a utility worker with the City of Bainbridge. He remained employed with the city until March 25, 2014.
Sheriff’s deputies who were assisting with Bikefest security on a contract basis used force to take Parrish into custody during their investigation of multiple fights occurring late on Saturday night at the 2012 Bikefest festival. Parrish sustained injuries in the fight, including what appeared to be a serious, bloody injury to his right eye. The Sheriff’s Office released him into the custody of his wife, Carla Parrish, who took him to the emergency room at Memorial Hospital in Bainbridge.
Parrish was accused by the Decatur County Sheriff’s Office of obstruction of an officer (also known as resisting arrest) and attempting to remove a firearm from the person of a law enforcement officer. He was not arrested that evening but warrants were taken for his arrest the following week. The obstruction of an officer charge was upgraded to a felony because Sheriff’s deputies accused him of punching Sheriff’s Deputy Liz Croley in the chest.
Parrish pled not guilty to both charges and was put on trial in February 2013 in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Kevin Chason. A Decatur County jury convicted him of obstruction of an officer but acquitted him of attempting to remove a firearm from the person of Sheriff’s Deputy Wade Umbach.
According to multiple sources, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began looking into the Decatur County Sheriff’s Office handling of the Bikefest incident some time in Fall 2013. A grand jury received testimony from a number of people who were present at Bikefest on the night of the incident or otherwise became involved in the case. The federal indictments were announced late in the evening of Wednesday, July 9, 2014.
The trial of Aaron Parrish
The trial of Aaron Parrish began Feb. 13, 2013 in the main courtroom of the Decatur County Courthouse in Bainbridge. Joe Mulholland, district attorney of the South Georgia Judicial Circuit, prosecuted the case himself, while Autumn Webster of Darien, Ga., was Parrish’s defense attorney.
The following is a description of what is contained in the court reporter’s official transcript, which we are not allowed to reproduce. We will attempt to summarize the events that both the prosecution and defense agreed happened and /or describe what individuals testified to during the trial. Where the prosecution and defense’s witnesses’ testimonies differ, we will summarize both versions of what happened.
The trial concerned events at Bikefest, an annual motorcycling and music festival held in Decatur County, some time between the hours of 11 p.m. on September 15, 2012 and 1 a.m. on September 16, 2012.
Donald Green of Bainbridge, a truck driver who is Aaron’s first cousin, had set up a motor home and trailers along a dirt road known as “Fat Boy Lane” on the Bikefest grounds off Pondtown Road north of Bainbridge. Green had set up a dance floor and dance pole near his motor home and the area was a crowded party spot on Saturday night at Bikefest.
Green testified that Parrish had arrived at Bikefest around 4-5 p.m. that afternoon and said Parrish had been drinking earlier in the day. Green said he and his wife fed Parrish dinner and encouraged him to drink water to sober up.
Parrish’s mother, Jeanna West, and his stepfather, Mark West, arrived at Bikefest around 8 p.m. Saturday night and met up with Mike Green and his wife Mandy. Mark West and Mike Green worked together as truck drivers. The two couples were hanging out around Donald Green’s motor home.
Domestic arguments preceded Parrish’s struggle with deputies
At some point, Mike and Mandy Green had a verbal argument behind one of three trailers parked close together. Mark West and his wife Jeanna went behind the trailer to see if they could defuse the argument. Jeanna West testified that the Green’s argument continued and so she told her husband, essentially, ‘come on, let’s leave them alone and go elsewhere.’
Sheriff’s deputies Liz Croley and Chris Kines were paired up together on ATV-style cart to help patrol the Bikefest grounds. They were looking for a man involved in an unrelated fight at another party spot at Bikefest and believed that the man they were looking for might be located near Donald Green’s party area.
Sheriff’s deputies testified that they believed the Wests also were having a heated argument at that point. Deputies approached Mark West and placed him on the ground. Concerned for her husband, Jeanna West testified she yelled, ‘Oh God, Aaron, they’ve got Mark.’ Witnesses for both the prosecution and defense said they saw Aaron, who had been on the other side of the trailer, rapidly walk toward where his stepfather was being held on the ground.
Donald Green and Robby “Lynn” Webb, the head of Bikefest volunteer security, both testified that they told Aaron Parrish to stay away from where the deputies were attempting to break up the domestic arguments involving the Greens and the Wests. However, Parrish continued walking past them. Mike Green was also taken into custody and charged later that week.
As deputies were struggling with Mark West, Deputy Umbach asked Croley to keep Jeanna West from interfering. Croley testified she didn’t know the nature of the arguments and asked Mrs. West to calm down until deputies could find out what was going on. Croley said she didn’t attempt to restrain Mrs. West.
Croley testified she was listening to a conversation between Carrie Green, Donald’s wife, and Macon Moore, a Bikefest security volunteer, when Parrish approached her and made contact with her. According to the testimony of Croley, Moore and Deputy Umbach, Parrish struck Croley–who was wearing a bulletproof vest called a flak jacket–in the chest with his fist.
Moore and witness Carrie Green both testified that they were standing near Croley and testified they also fell down during the commotion. Green said she was tripped up by some sound system wiring and reached out for Croley’s shoulder in an attempt to balance herself. Croley initially thought Green was attempting to push her down, but Green later apologized and explained why she had fallen and reached out.
Defense attorney Autumn Webster denied that Parrish struck Croley, and later, Jeanna West and another defense witness, Brenda Stogner, also testified that they did not see Parrish strike Deputy Croley. Stogner testified that she only saw Parrish arguing with another man and then put his hands up in the air before being taken down by deputies.
Emphasis to show added text:
Webster also questioned whether the injuries Croley said she received in the incident–a bruise on her left hand, a bruise on her arm and a scratch on the back side of her arm–could have been caused when the deputy fell to the ground in a heap with two other people. Mulholland suggested that it was reasonable that Parrish could have struck Croley in the chest and there may not have been a bruise on her chest due to the protection from the bulletproof vest she was wearing.
The struggle in question – conflicting testimony
Deputy Umbach, who had been dealing with Mark West, stated he saw someone he didn’t know at the time run behind him and strike Croley. Umbach placed his hands on Parrish, pulled him backwards and then pulled him down to a kneeling position on the ground. Umbach said he was then also kneeling behind Parrish, ordering Aaron to put his hands behind his back. However, Parrish was struggling or resisting with Umbach–Jeanna West testified she only saw her son “squirming” on the ground.
Deputy Chris Kines testified that he did not see Parrish strike Croley, but went to assist Umbach in attempting to make Parrish lie flat on the ground on his stomach. During the struggle, with deputies Umbach and Kines behind Parrish, Kines testified he saw Parrish attempting to grab Umbach’s firearm out of his belt. Defense attorney Autumn Webster questioned that testimony, asking how Parrish, whose hands were behind him, could have known what he was reaching for or where to grab hold of the firearm.
Stogner, who coincidentally happened to have walked over to the area in between the trailers where the arguments and altercation occurred, said she saw Parrish being taken to the ground. She essentially said, “I saw one of the officers get him by the hair on the back of his head and [that officer] pulled his head back and went to beating him in the face with a black object.”
Emphasis to show added text: D.A. Mulholland tried to discredit Stogner’s testimony, and in his closing argument, called her statements “unbelievable.”
Umbach testified that he didn’t see Parrish attempting to grab his gun but felt an upward tug on his belt, as if someone was trying to remove something from it. Umbach also had a small flashlight and an extendable police baton on his belt in addition to the firearm, however Umbach testified that neither the flashlight or the baton was used to strike Parrish. Umbach said he believed it would have been difficult for someone to remove his firearm, even if they grabbed at it, because of a security mechanism designed to prevent the gun from being easily removed from its holster.
Emphasis to show added text: Kines stated he was not carrying a “Mag-lite” flash light that night and that he didn’t himself strike Parrish with any weapon. Kines said he estimated he used his hand to strike Parrish in the upper body approximately 4-5 times.
Umbach stated Parrish “was actively fighting [deputies] … it was a full-on fight.” The deputy said that during the struggle, a group of Parrish’s friends started to approach him and Umbach ordered them to back up. At several times during the trial, District Attorney Joe Mulholland made reference to the fact there were approximately a hundred people in the area around Green’s dance floor and therefore Sheriff’s deputies would have been greatly outnumbered in the event a riot were to break out.
Kines testified that he did use his hands to strike Parrish’s head and upper body, but in his view, only with enough force to try and make Parrish stop resisting the officers. Kines said he repeatedly told Parrish to stop grabbing at Umbach’s weapon belt. More struggling ensued, and other law enforcement officers and security guards may have become involved after Kines called out for Parrish to stop grabbing for Umbach’s weapon. Macon Moore, a Bikefest security volunteer, testified that he placed his hands on Parrish to help restrain him.
When the defense attorney asked Deputy Kines why no one attempted to use a TASER (a law enforcement weapon designed to stun people resisting arrest) on Parrish, Kines testified that heard another deputy, whom he believed to be then-Sheriff’s Office Investigator Chip Nix, call out that he was going to try and deploy a TASER. However, no TASER was deployed and Croley later testified that it would have been impractical for a TASER to be used when Parrish was being held down by at least two deputies; the TASER would have stunned not only Parrish but anyone touching him as well.
Umbach and Kines finally got Parrish’s hands behind his back and handcuffed him. Parrish was taken to the Sheriff’s Office Command Center on the Bikefest grounds by deputies using the ATV-style golf cart. There, the handcuffs were removed and Parrish was made to sit down and wait. Jeanna West, Aaron’s mom, also went to the command center. Concerned for her son, she called Aaron’s wife Carla–who was at home taking care of the couple’s children–and asked her to come pick up Aaron and take him to the hospital. Undersheriff Wendell Cofer, who was also working Bikefest security that night but did not arrive until Parrish had been taken into custody, told Parrish’s wife–who is a registered nurse–that he would be released to her custody if she promised to immediately take him to the hospital.
Parrish’s medical care or lack thereof?
Carla Parrish, who was awoken in the middle of the night by her mother-in-law’s call, stated she did not know what had happened on the Bikefest grounds, other than knowing that her husband had gone to the Bikefest grounds the previous afternoon. Mrs. Parrish dropped her children off at her mother’s house and went to the Bikefest grounds. She said that when she arrived, she didn’t recognize her husband as he sat in the command center because he had blood and bruises already. The only way she knew it was her husband was because of the shirt he was wearing. Mrs. Parrish asked for a shirt to put up to her husband’s eye to try and stop the bleeding, and then received permission to take him to the hospital.
Jeanne West, Aaron’s mom, testified that Aaron was at the command center for approximately 20 minutes before being released to his wife. D.A. Mulholland asked Mrs. West why she asked Aaron’s wife to drive them to the hospital. Mrs. West said she had drank two mixed drinks over the course of the evening and was not drunk, but did not want to take the risk of driving under the influence.
Croley and Undersheriff Wendell Cofer testified that they had requested Decatur County EMS, which had an ambulance stationed at Bikefest, to come and check out Parrish’s injuries. However, neither was sure as to whether or not he received treatment at Bikefest. Mike Green, who was also taken to the Sheriff’s command center, was also judged by deputies to be in need of medical care.
Parrish’s defense attorney asked Cofer why Parrish was not arrested and taken to jail on Saturday night if he had done the serious things he was accused of. Cofer said that the deputies working at Bikefest were assigned specifically to the event and that a separate group of deputies was working the normal patrol of Decatur County.
Cofer said he had instructed the deputies on the road to stay away from Bikefest, so as to keep them from getting caught up in dealing with incidents at Bikefest and not covering other parts of Bainbridge and Decatur County. He explained the reasoning for why Parrish wasn’t taken to jail that night was because the deputies working security were so busy Saturday night–commonly known to be the most-attended night of the festival–that they couldn’t afford to spare an officer to leave to go book someone into the jail.
Cofer alluded to the fact that there were many more partiers than law enforcement at Bikefest. He said Sheriff’s deputies had to block off each end of “Fat Boy Lane” and encourage people to disperse, in an attempt to restore order to what they considered an agitated environment. So much so that another unrelated altercation broke out at Bikefest shortly after the incident involving Parrish and required response from deputies.
In addition, Cofer said he knew that Parrish was from Bainbridge and therefore Cofer felt that deputies would be able to get in touch with him afterwards if necessary.
Emphasis used to show added text: Mulholland noted that Parrish had been released from the hospital after being treated in the emergency room, and the D.A. stated his belief that though the injury to Parrish’s eye looked bad, there wasn’t any permanent damage. Carla Parrish testified that she didn’t know whether or not Parrish could have had a concussion or internal bleeding when she first saw him that night in the command center.
Parrish’s state of mind at time of incident
Robby Lynn Webb and Macon Moore both testified that they believed Parrish to be visibly intoxicated when they saw him.
Carla Parrish said she knew her husband had gone to BikeFest earlier that day but didn’t know if he had been drinking or not. In answer to questioning on the stand, Mrs. Parrish said her husband took the prescription painkiller hydrocodone “as needed” for pain associated with an accident that happened in 2002. Aaron’s family members said that he fell off a ladder in 2002 and broke his neck. Aaron’s mom said she understood that her son also took the prescription drug Lyrica for nerve pain, also because of his accident.
Mrs. Parrish said she wasn’t sure if her husband had taken his pain pills that day. She said his eyes looked different, as if he was having trouble focusing on her as they talked.
Croley testified that the Tuesday following the incident, she had gone to the home of Donald and Carrie Green to take statements from them about what they saw. On the witness stand, Green told the district attorney she didn’t recall making statements to Croley that he was under the influence of prescription drugs. Croley contended that Green had told her Parrish was under the influence of prescription drugs. According to Croley, Carrie Green said she thought that because “[Aaron’s] eyes were wild,” when she saw him prior to the altercation.
Emphasis used to show added text: Carla and Aaron Parrish went up to the Sheriff’s Office on the Monday following the incident, to ask Sheriff Wiley Griffin why Aaron was treated the way he was.
Aaron Parrish said he didn’t want his conversation with Wendell Cofer to be recorded, as he didn’t want his words to be twisted. Cofer testified he asked Parrish how much he had to drink that night and received different answers. Cofer said Parrish at one point estimated he had drank 6-8 beers over a period of time on the day the incident occurred.
Verdict and sentencing
Photographic evidence used in the case included:
- Pictures taken by Macon Moore at the area the dance floor & dance pole were located, prior to the altercation
- Close-up photos of the places on Liz Croley’s arms and hands where she said she was bruised and scratched, and another photo of the bulletproof flak vest she was wearing over her Sheriff’s Office polo shirt that evening
- A cell phone picture taken by Carla Parrish of her husband’s face as they waited in the emergency room at Memorial Hospital. Also submitted as evidence were several pictures Mrs. Parrish took of Aaron Parrish’s eye and facial injuries taken in the days following the altercation. Some of the photos show blood pooling around Aaron Parrish’s pupils. There is also a visible bruise, several inches long, down the right side of his face.
Aaron Parrish was asked by Judge Chason whether or not he wanted to testify and Parrish chose not to.
Court adjourned for the day. The following day, Mulholland and Webster gave their closing arguments.
Webster told the jury her client did not strike Deputy Croley and noted that there was conflicting testimony surrounding the moments Parrish was being taken into custody, specifically whether or not Parrish attempted to grab Deputy Umbach’s gun. Webster suggested that the prosecution of Aaron Parrish for obstructing an officer was only done after Mr. and Mrs. Parrish went up to the Sheriff’s Office the Monday following the Bikefest incident.
Earlier in the trial, Cofer and Croley both stated that the investigation into Parrish’s actions began that Monday, as Bikefest ended Saturday night and Sunday was the first day any law enforcement working at Bikefest had a chance to rest since Bikefest began on Wednesday. Croley said she did witness interviews on Tuesday and warrants for Parrish’s arrest were taken Wednesday. Aaron Parrish went back up to the Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday to talk with Sheriff Griffin personally. After learning that there were warrants for his arrest, Parrish turned himself in that Thursday morning.
Webster also suggested that if jurors followed the defense argument that Parrish never struck Croley, was grabbed and forcibly taken to the ground, and did not attempt to grab any firearms, then he must have been targeted by the deputies. Mulholland questioned that thinking, asking what reason would there be for Aaron Parrish to be randomly picked out by deputies?
Mulholland appealed to the jury to convict Parrish on both counts. First, he said that the moral standards of Decatur County would be compromised if the jury found Parrish innocent. Then, Mulholland said that if Parrish was acquitted, that he would likely file a lawsuit against Decatur County, and by extension, its taxpayers, for wrongful arrest and injury.
After deliberating, the jury returned to the courtroom and unanimously voted to find Parrish guilty of obstruction of an officer. However, the jury returned a not guilty verdict on the charge of attempting to remove a law enforcement officer’s weapon.
The sentencing phase began immediately after the verdict was handed down. Judge Chason sentenced Parrish to three years to serve on probation, plus payment of a $1,000 fine to be paid in weekly installments of $30. Chason said that he would consider reducing the probation period if and when Parrish paid off his fine.