The Matthew David Stewart Shootout: An “Illegal Assault” by a “Gang of Thugs”?

Editor’s note: The following is a lightly-edited transcription of an interview with Erna Stewart, sister-in-law to Matthew David Stewart whose home was invaded by Ogden police over allegations of marijuana possession. Erna has been the family’s spokesperson in the months following the shootout.

Libertas Institute: For the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with the events surrounding Matthew’s shootout, please give a brief summary.

Erna Stewart: The night of January 4, 2012, Weber Morgan Narcotic Strike Force entered Matthew’s home while he was sleeping, and Matthew awoke to the sound of breaking glass. He acted instinctively, later saying that he thought he was being robbed. He was naked, so he threw on a robe. He said that the police officers fired first, but I’ve never had a chance to talk to him outside of him being recorded at the sheriff’s compound. He said they fired first, and it kind of exploded after that.

Matt got hit in the arm, in the crook of his elbow first, so he took the belt of his robe off and tied it around his elbow. He then tried to escape out the back window of his house and move to the shed. That’s where they captured him. In the firefight, Matt was wounded several times, and so did many of the officers. Jared Francom lost his life. Matthew was arrested and then the legal process against him started.

LI: Many people have responded to this story saying that Matthew shouldn’t have fired, because these were police officers. He should have known, either by seeing their gear or by hearing them shout “Police! Search warrant!”, that it was the police. How do you respond to these criticisms?

ES: I don’t know if he ever realized that it was the police. Maybe towards the end. I don’t know. First of all, several neighbors have stated that they never heard any shouting from the police. They hid the police cars across the street behind a church, so there weren’t any flashing lights visible. They weren’t fully in uniform, either. Some of them had something on them that said police, but mind you it was after 8:30pm in the dark, Matt was sleeping with the lights all off.

But Matthew never stuck his head around any of the corners to see who he was shooting at. He was just kind of sticking his hand around the corner and providing some defensive shots. Even in police testimony, they only said that they saw a hand or a shadowy figure. They themselves couldn’t identify Matthew until after the shooting had stopped. So how are we expecting Matthew to identify them, when they couldn’t identify him?

LI: Do you think it’s sensible to send multiple officers into a home at night to punish an individual suspected of possessing (but not distributing) marijuana?

ES: No. The reason why I think that is A) Matthew was not distributing. He wasn’t inviting little kids over to smoke. He wasn’t hurting anybody. It was for his person use, with no threat or harm to the community. B) It’s a waste of taxpayer money to go in and breech somebody’s home like this when it’s an alleged non-violent offender. C) We already have a SWAT team for the more dangerous behavior. D) If we’re going to be doing it, we need to do it right and follow policy.

I’ve known right from the start that the warrant was obtained illegally. We have proof, whether anybody wants to admit it or not. If you’re going to enforce the law, you need to lead by example and obey it yourself.

Let the punishment fit the crime. He wasn’t hurting anybody. Why go in and make this giant thing with guns and potentially harming neighbors with little kids in the house next door.. why create all that risk for somebody who isn’t hurting anybody, including themselves? The war on drugs really needs to end. It’s ridiculous.

LI: With multiple stories coming out of Ogden regarding drug enforcement raids gone bad, is it your impression that officers are too “trigger happy”?

ES: I don’t want to call it trigger happy… I think they’re scared. When you have an officer of the law who is scared to go out and do their job humanely and with compassion, it can be very, very dangerous. I think they do this, and make these types of mistakes. Then you have the Weber County attorney Dee Smith deeming it justified, so there are no ramifications.

It’s a horrible combination. You have scared officers with an attorney who is more than willing to overlook their mistakes.

LI: A recent survey we conducted showed that 53% of Utah voters oppose the imprisonment of individuals for the simple possession of marijuana. Do you suspect that there are any changing trends regarding public opinion on this issue?

ES: Most definitely. I think growing up it was common for my friends to smoke marijuana. As these people grow up and realize that nobody is going on a murder spree because you’re high on marijuana, or anything like that, and they realize that there are some real health benefits that can come from ending the prohibition… these people grow up and are able to influence policy and restore some common sense. I support stopping prohibition and I think more and more people do, too.

LI: Four Weber police agencies have now formed the Tactical Operations Group, which is basically SWAT-lite. Leaders in TOG have said that Matthew’s case is the “new standard” and these non-SWAT officers are now gearing up even more when serving a warrant. Do you think that increased militarization is the proper response in the wake of the shootout? Or do you think that Matthew’s case is a call for more peaceful tactics and better investigation?

ES: When I read that article, I remember thinking that it was the complete opposite direction of where we needed to head. Right from the start, we’ve called for more peaceful options. Whether they want to admit it or not, there are more peaceful ways that these laws can be enforced without violating people’s civil rights.

The thing that I’ve noticed, especially in Matthew’s case, is that police officers are more interested in “getting their guy” and getting them prosecuted, getting their money, seizing assets, whatever else. I just feel like, why couldn’t they try and find other ways? If the crime is possession of drugs, why not have them do therapy, or provide different options to work off some of their time, etc.

It’s just out of control to bust in somebody’s home over a drug addiction.

LI: A recent op-ed about the shootout by Libertas Institute’s president called the shootout a “nighttime home invasion.” You have called it a “home invasion raid.” One study shows that such drug raids occur 100 times a day throughout America. Some have objected to calling it an invasion when police obtained a search warrant, making the action legal. How do you respond to that?

ES: Sure, they might have a warrant. But maybe they had a misprint on the warrant that sends them to the wrong address. Or they might have bad information. Or they might do really poor investigative work. And then they’ll knock in your door, and you’re going to be just as mad as we are.

Take Eric Hill’s case. The cops were looking for a guy who had come home from his military post to try and see his dying father. The guy had never even lived in the house, and so the police show up and violate Eric’s rights and scare his family half to death. Now they’re traumatized and have no faith in the system. All for what? There was a warrant in that situation. It doesn’t change anything. It’s just a piece of paper.

My whole point is that you don’t have to be doing anything illegal to suffer from stuff like this. You might upset somebody who then calls the tip-a-cop phone number, or you have an officer that didn’t want to properly investigate… you don’t have to be a criminal to be a victim of this.

LI: Shortly after Matthew’s death, the family posted a statement on Facebook which contained several comments we’d like to get your comments on. First, it referenced Matthew’s “long and courageous battle with a corrupt and arrogant judicial system.” Can you elaborate?

ES: To some it might seem like minor lies, but there were instances

Take, for example, Officer Vanderwarf and his search warrant. We all but proved that he lied to get it. The judge didn’t feel like it was a big enough difference to throw the search warrant out, mainly because they still had the informant’s word. But we know that the Officer went into Matthew’s backyard to obtain information for the warrant illegally. We know that they covered up Officer Francom’s divorce. There have been so many other things throughout this whole process that we just feel like they wouldn’t have to lie if they weren’t corrupt. So that phrase reflects our growing mistrust of our local government.

LI: Next up: “Unfortunately this system has become so perverted that those people that are in power that are in power are able to lie and justify their actions after purposely violating someone’s civil rights and the rights that were supposed to be protected by the Constitution of the United States of America.” Do you sense that this is a common thing or was it unique to Matthew’s case?

ES: I think the problem that we’re starting to face is that it’s dangerous to give the wrong people too much power. I don’t think it’s an isolated incident with Matthew’s case—it’s happening all over. It’s time to start back some of that power and elect some different people who can change things.

LI: Another line referred to “the illegal assault on his home by a gang of thugs.” What was the assault “illegal” in your view, and why call police officers “thugs”?

ES: We know that the search warrant was obtained illegally and had items in warrant that were not true. Since they did not obtain it legally, then the officers had no reason to be there.

As for the thugs… there have been pictures released showing that they weren’t in full uniform. They were in street clothes. One guy had a Cheech and Chong t-shirt on, one had a Corona baseball cap. They all had jeans and tennis shoes on. They testified on the stand that they do this in order to blend in, but then they can’t be shocked when somebody feels like they’re getting robbed, because they look the way that they do.

I get that they’re undercover, but they can’t be surprised by the result. If they’re going to go into anybody’s home, first of all I would like to see them do it only for violent offenses. That’s my biggest thing. Non-violent offenses do not need a home breach. Second, if they’re going to do it, they need to do it right and safe. Evacuate the neighborhood, or at the very least the next door neighbors. And then go in wearing a full uniform.

LI: You’ve touched on the appearance of the officers, but do you think the tactics used would also classify them, in your view, as “thugs”?

ES: Matthew’s attorney mentioned this in the preliminary—the fact that once shots are fired, somebody in the house yells to evacuate and get out of the house… well that didn’t necessarily happen that night. I don’t know if it was adrenaline, or if they were scared out of their minds, I don’t know. Mistakes were made, I’m very aware of them, and I feel like anything that could have gone wrong that night did.

LI: The Facebook statement also referred to “inhumane treatment at the Weber County Correctional Institute.” Can you elaborate?

ES: I don’t want to say that Matthew was treated any differently, but I have a sneaking suspicion that he was. We’ve heard some things from people in the same cell block saying that he was treated more harshly. The fact is, every single inmate in there is treated poorly, whether officers want to admit it or not—especially the people in maximum security. They may be “hardened” criminals, but those who haven’t yet been convicted should be treated as if they are innocent, until proven guilty. That’s not happening.

What is happening is that they’re all in a cell, they each get maybe one hour every other day to come out, maybe shower, maybe make a phone call, and order the items they need. Imagine treating a dog that way. Your neighbor would call humane services and your animal would be taken away. So why are humans being treated this way, especially if they haven’t been convicted? It’s not right.

LI: Matthew’s mother told a reporter: “I’m not absolutely sure that it was suicide. I’m not. And I’m just going to throw that out there. Did he have help to kill himself?” Is this a legitimate concern the family has?

ES: There was concern, for sure, because Matthew was supposed to be protected by the people who hated him the most. They stuck him with the “cop killer” label, and then was supposed to be guarded by the officers who hated him? So who guards him from those guardians? Nobody.

It was a legitimate concern for us, but there’s a lot of emotion behind it, and it reflects the growing mistrust that we have with anybody. We don’t trust the government. It’s terrible.

LI: How do you think that trust can be restored, if at all?

ES: I don’t know. I would like to think that trust could be restored, but I have had very few people ask me my stance on all of this. Weber County attorney Dee Smith has never once tried to make an appointment with Matthew’s family members to talk to us about anything. He’s been condemning the whole time, without making any effort to talk to us. We didn’t get that kind of treatment.

We mistrust of government doesn’t stem only from the night of January 4. It started there, but it grew and got worse in light of how we’ve been treated since that time.

LI: Would moving to another location, having a fresh start, lead to more trust? Or is this a more systemic thing that isn’t specific to Ogden?

ES: I think the only way is to maybe move to a podunk little town where I knew the Sheriff and saw him helping little old ladies to their car instead of bashing down doors. Maybe. But I think this is all part of a growing trend, and big cities are only going to get worse. That’s what I’m trying to continue this fight. The war on drugs or terrorism isn’t about “serving” and “protecting” people. It leads police to fight the very people they’re supposed to be helping.

LI: Do you feel that police are held to a different standard than individuals are regarding the proper use and level of force?

ES: The standard between civilians and police officers are highly different, and I don’t think that’s right. We need to have more people looking at situations where police officers have used force to see if it was absolutely necessary and justified. And if there was another way to resolve the problem without the use of violence, then the officer should be charged criminally. Why aren’t officers whose shootings were ruled unjustified being charged?

LI: How do you feel that media coverage has been with Matthew’s case?

ES: Right from the start, it was really brutal. Very one sided. That’s why we decided that we needed to start addressing the media and using it to get our own message across. The media was out to hang him, especially with the rumors that were coming out. After the shooting happened it was claimed that Matthew had a bomb in his house. Then there were reports that he had child pornography on his computer. Then they found a photo of Matthew dressed up as Saddam Hussein for Halloween 6-7 years before and people started throwing around the “terrorist” label… it was really out of control. We couldn’t let the media railroad Matthew like that, so that’s why we began to speak out.

LI: Some officers have harassed members of the family in social media. Do you feel that this behavior is indicative of the relationship between officers and citizens?

ES: First, I would like to throw this out there to the officers: we have felt your pain right from the start. Second, nobody in Matthew’s family, or any of his supporters that I know of, has verbally assaulted or harassed officers, or said hurtful things like they have. It doesn’t seem very professional to me, and I don’t think they’re winning anybody over by doing that. It’s heartless.

I know there’s a lot of emotion related to this case. I understand that. But this shows what I think is a growing realization, that maybe officers aren’t always as compassionate or service-minded as they once were.

LI: Where do you think blame ultimately likes for Matthew’s death?

ES: Had the home breach not happened, I think Matthew would still be home with us. I feel like the course of everything that took place, and the way the system was set up, Matthew saw that he would have a long fight, and I think he just ran out of steam. I think he didn’t see a great future for himself. He said from the beginning that he believed in the truth, and I think he saw that it wasn’t going to come out, so he chose to use the only power they left him with and choose the hour of his own demise.

LI: Finally, if you had the attention of the Utah legislature for two minutes, what would you say to them?

ES: I would want to look at each one of them in their eyes, and ask them: when did getting prosecutions become more important than saving somebody’s life? I feel like the path that Utah has taken is slippery and in the wrong direction. It’s time to get things back to a point where you regain the respect of each citizen. Save the state some money too—get these non-violent offenders out of prison, and stop spending so much money on police officers to go after them like this. There are so many different routes that we could possibly take, and as of now I’m not seeing anybody at the state looking into this. Listen to the people, because you cant ignore a whole community. I don’t do drugs myself. I feel like I’m speaking out out of passion, trying to get the government to pay attention to more than just one side.