Milwaukee Police who broke into a building on the south side in 2010 described a herpetological home of horrors – hundreds of crocodilians, pythons, anacondas, turtles, and various other exotic animals living in cramped, dark and sordid conditions.
Owner Terry Cullen saw a different horror: his missing, damaged or destroyed buildings and personal belongings, his animals in danger, his reputation in the reptile world unfairly tarnished because the police overreacted to something that she did not understand and her rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. violated.
Finally cleared criminal charges, Cullen prosecuted the two officers who investigated and executed the search warrant – Lt. Phil Simmert and retired MPD Captain Paul Felician – seeking $ 4.4 million in damages. The city of Milwaukee, also named as the defendant, was subsequently excluded from the case.
A federal jury recently heard both sides of the story – from Felician’s account of attempting to move a 30-foot snake to Cullen’s dismay over how police broke parts of his buildings and ruined property when his assistant offered to let them in.
It was the first jury trial at the Milwaukee federal courthouse since restrictions were imposed on the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.
In his final submissions, Cullen’s attorney, Mark Murphy, said the defendants’ conduct “was intentional, in some ways criminal, but expect you to just believe them” because they are police officers.
â€œBut now you are the police of the police,â€ Murphy said. “You decide for the community what the fourth amendment it’s worth it. “
In the end, the jury agreed with Deputy Prosecutor Jenny Yuan that, as excessive, unnecessary, and wrong as the defendants’ decisions might seem in hindsight, they were reasonable at the time.
The defendants were also not responsible for other agents who may have violated Cullen’s rights. The six-member jury deliberated about three hours before delivering a verdict Thursday night after four days of testimony.
SWAT for the Chinese alligator?
Prior to the raids on three Cullen properties in May 2010, an Illinois woman told police she met Cullen at a reptile show and visited him in Milwaukee two months earlier about ” a possible internship in his non-profit establishment. She said he had a Chinese alligator and other endangered species.
Simmert obtained a search warrant for the properties to search for the animal and other specific species he believed were illegally held, although he was aware of Cullen’s work, licenses and permits.
On the day of the raid, Simmert called Jane Flint, a longtime partner and girlfriend of Cullen, who lived at the 2323 S. 13th St. property. Although she offered to come home immediately and let the police in. and secure four dogs inside, Felician instead ordered a tactical team to break down the door.
Officers shot dead two of the dogs before realizing the unexpected extent of the reptile collection in the building and stepping back to wait for more help.
Elephants in the room
Jurors never heard of the dogs, or the other elephant in the room, which would have explained why the police brought in a SWAT team in search of a Chinese alligator that Cullen publicly presented as “the most endangered crocodilian in the world “as part of its conservation activities.
The Illinois woman also accused Cullen of sexually assaulting her while visiting him in Milwaukee. This was the real objective of the investigation. Cullen has been charged but never convicted of this, or a dozen counts of animal abuse and violations of endangered and alien species regulations.
Each party requested that the trial be quashed even before the testimony began. Cullen’s attorneys said the execution of the dogs was critical evidence of the unreasonableness of the raids. But US Magistrate Judge Nancy Joseph ruled that the mention of the dogs – which were tackled in a separate lawsuit by Flint against the city that has settled down – might be too damaging and blocked her. She rejected a defense request to quash the trial on the basis of this decision.
Yuan objected to Murphy’s opening statements suggesting that the military-style raids were based solely on the fact that a Chinese alligator was at the 13th Street location.
She said Simmert and Felician knew Cullen was a suspect in a sexual assault and that he would be arrested if he showed up at 13th Street, which was a factor in how they conducted the search warrant . She wanted to be able to say that they were “investigating other cases as well,” but Joseph concluded that, like the dogs, this could be detrimental and ruled that the defense could only say that the officers had other information.
There was even a debate about how to refer to the Illinois woman when testifying. Simmert said “tipster” was inappropriate. Cullen’s attorney suggested “informant.” The judge ordered that the woman simply be called to testify.
30 foot snake
Cullen and Flint said the large number of animals was due to the fact that they had been temporarily moved to Milwaukee from Illinois, where another facility was damaged and could not keep them, and most would be transported to the Dragonwood Conservancy property in Cullen, Florida at the end of May 2010.
During their testimony, officers admitted that they never expected to find so many animals, in such crowded conditions, and quickly realized they were over their heads. But they say the decision to seize the 200, not just those specified in the warrant, in two locations was made after consultation with wildlife, zoo and animal control officials, and after a department inspector Neighborhood Services declared the building on South 13th Street uninhabitable.
They said they had concerns for their own safety and that of the public.
Felician testified that officers had what turned out to be a stupid idea to kidnap a 30 foot snake. He said they placed a dog catcher noose around its head and slowly pulled it out of its cage, as five people grabbed it every now and then, unaware at the time that the snake had little strength when curled up.
â€œThen it started to twist and might have moved us all. It was pretty scary, â€he said.
Flint testified that she arrived at her residence after the raid began and cried and was handcuffed and placed in a police car. She was indicted as a co-accused on some animal treatment counts, all of which were subsequently dismissed.
She also testified that she had lived in the apartment inside the old South 13th Street library where most of the animals were found for years and wondered how it could be declared uninhabitable. Jurors saw photos of the living quarters that looked clean and normal.
He was also shown photos of his yard, which after the raid was littered with bedding, furniture and jewelry, and his bedroom completely ransacked.
She said Cullen’s Chinese alligator Moo-Shu was allowed to roam freely in the building’s second bedroom and used the tub as a potty. She said she never felt threatened by any of the animals.
Flint also got emotional when describing an 18-foot “very soft” reticulated python she had owned since 1981 named Doozie, who was often featured in Christmas photos and was caught during the raid and never returned.
Cullen claims police sent the animals to agencies such as the Milwaukee Area Pet Control Commission, which was overwhelmed and many eventually died. Some were sent back to zoos across the country which sent them to Cullen to be rehabilitated.
His lawsuit said in addition to the lost animals, personal property such as records and donations to conservation were lost in the raids, and that police needlessly destroyed doors, windows and caused flooding in their homes. properties.
Cullen did not return messages sent by his lawyer on Friday and his voicemail was full.