Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor pinned by neck, chained to floor grid by Jackson County MPs, lawsuit says
A former Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor on Tuesday filed a federal complaint alleging the excessive force of three Jackson County sheriff’s deputies, including one who pinned him by the neck in a jail cell and then helped him handcuff to a floor grid.
The lawsuit names the county and the three deputies of the sheriff’s office – Brady Bjorkland, David Dalton and Michael Hammond – as defendants.
Juan A. Sancho, 43, who goes by Tony, was arrested early on April 18, 2019 by Ashland Police.
Sancho, who now lives in Los Angeles, was living in Ashland at the time and had no criminal record. Matthew Rowan, one of the attorneys representing Sancho, said Ashland Police approached Sancho as he was walking alone on Main Street downtown and suspected he was under the influence of the ‘alcohol.
Rowan said his client was returning home after a social event with fellow theatergoers.
Sancho, who has appeared on television and on stage, played roles in the 2019 ‘Mother Road’ festival productions and “The Comedy of Mistakes” a bilingual adaptation of “The Comedy of Mistakes” by Shakespeare.
Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said in an email to The Oregonian / OregonLive Tuesday that officers responded to a citizen report of a man who passed out by the side of the street. When they approached Sancho, he “stood up and tried to walk away, apparently very drunk,” O’Meara said. O’Meara said Sancho “couldn’t or wouldn’t” provide information about a sober adult who could help him.
“The police had no choice but to place him in preventive detention and when they tried to do so, he resisted,” said the chief.
Rowan said camera footage carried by police from the initial encounter shows Sancho was not incapacitated or passed out. The lawyer said the footage captured police telling Sancho they were planning to take him to rehab.
The video also shows Sancho telling officers he was two blocks from his home; he provided his address.
Sancho was arrested on a charge of resisting arrest and taken into custody in Jackson County Jail in Medford.
Sancho’s trial and prison security video shed light on the next few hours Sancho spent in custody. Rowan provided the video to The Oregonian / OregonLive.
Sancho was handcuffed behind his back and was able to move his hands to the front of his body so he could urinate, according to the complaint filed in US District Court in Medford.
He knocked on the cell door to get the attention of the jailers. Sheriff’s office workers entered the cell to move his hands to the back of his body, the lawsuit says.
Sancho again moved his arms to the front of his body. Prison security video captured what happened next. The video has no sound.
It shows Sancho knocking on the cell door again and, barefoot, backing up towards the back wall of the cell. He reaches for the wall, then raises his hands with open palms and appears to be saying something to someone on the other side of the closed door.
Rowan said his client was trying to get the attention of his jailers because he didn’t know why he was being held. “He didn’t know why he was in jail,” Rowan said. “No one would tell him. Need money check out a lender with no credit check loans.
Video shows Sancho had his back against the wall at the time. Bjorkland, Dalton and Hammond then rush into the room, grabbing Sancho and forcing him to the ground, according to the footage.
Dalton kneels Sancho to his side and back several times while lying on the floor, the video shows.
Meanwhile, another MP identified in the lawsuit as Bjorkland places his knee on Sancho’s neck and upper back for nearly a minute, according to the video.
Sancho does not seem combative. At one point, Sancho’s body appears to be going limp.
While the three men hold Sancho down, a fourth jailer is seen entering the cell. She is not identified in the trial. In the video, we see her putting on disposable gloves. She seems to be laughing in response to something one of her colleagues says.
Sancho is then handcuffed behind his back again and Bjorkland again places his knee on Sancho’s upper back to hold him down as Hammond stands up, the video shows.
Two minutes and 11 seconds after entering the cell to detain Sancho, the jailers leave. Sancho is seen lying face down on the floor as they exit, his hands cuffed behind his back.
About a minute later, he gets up, walks to the cell door, and turns around so his hands can knock on the door. He knocks on the door for about two minutes, shows the video.
When he seems to have someone’s attention on the other side of the door, he walks away from the door and moves to the center of the room and kneels. This time Hammond and Bjorkland return to the cell, forcing Sancho back to the floor and handcuffing him to the metal grid, the video shows.
Rowan said the liquid seen flowing under the grill was human waste. “You can see it floating,” he said.
Sancho appears to be calling the men as they exit.
According to the trial, he was locked at the gate for 21 and a half hours.
Rowan said none of the jailers returned to the cell to check on Sancho.
“Throughout this time, the plaintiff was alone and posed no threat of harm to anyone,” says Sancho’s lawsuit.
Sancho suffered bruises to his wrist, knee and elbow, the costume says.
Bjorkland completed basic prison officer training in 2018, according to the state. Dalton has worked in the sheriff’s office for 22 years. State records show Hammond is a veteran of the agency as well. He was first hired in 1996 and worked for 10 years before resigning in 2006; state records show he was rehired in 2008.
Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler declined to comment on his agency’s treatment of Sancho or whether his agency has opened a criminal or internal investigation into the allegations.
“We take all allegations of abuse of force seriously and investigate them,” he said, declining to say more due to the lawsuit.
The Oregonian / OregonLive has solicited comments from Bjorkland, Dalton and Hammond. None of them immediately responded.
The news organization also sought comments from the county council and county commissioners. None of them immediately responded.
Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert said Wednesday morning that she was out of the office and had not seen the video. She said Rowan informed her of the allegations about a week ago. She said she would reconsider the matter when she returned to the office next week.
Nataki Garrett, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, released a statement Tuesday saying she was “personally horrified” by the alleged treatment by Sancho.
“My husband and I have known him for many years as a father and a member of the exceptional artistic community,” she wrote. “I hope the legal process will resolve this issue and, if proven correct, will hold those involved accountable for their actions.”
Rowan said the coercive tactics used by Jackson County jailers echoed those used in the arrest of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis policeman knelt around Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.
“What happened to George Floyd was horrible,” he said. “What happened to my client was horrible.”
“I would point out that in my client’s case, he was actually being held alone and secure,” he said. “In this particular case, the police intervene to fight with him.”
“He was treated as less than a human,” Rowan said. “He was treated like an animal.
Ashland city records show that the allegation of resisting arrest was ultimately dropped.