On February 6, 1990, I was attacked, knocked to the ground and physically removed from the scene of a small plane crash near Delano, California, by a Kern County Sheriff’s sergeant. I have detailed the extraordinarily difficult time we had working with the Kern County Sheriff’s Office in two other posts, “Meet the sheriff! My first arrest” and “Ask a question, and you’re going to jail” and noted that my stormy and turbulent relationship with the sheriff’s department will be a prevailing theme of this blog. This is yet another of those incidents, and the only time in my career I was assaulted by a police officer. An added irony of this attack is that it happened after I drove a firefighter to the crash site because her truck could not continue on in the rain-soaked mud. I should point out that we worked scenes equally with three police agencies, the other two were the Bakersfield Police Department and the California Highway Patrol, and while there may have been an occasional conflict with those two agencies, they were not common and quickly resolved. This intimidation, threatening, assaulting and arresting news photographers thing was strictly a Kern County Sheriff’s issue.
Four years after this attack, I would be arrested by the sheriff’s office for refusing to leave the scene of a body recovery. I will detail that in a later post, as it is pretty involved and the case worked through the courts for two years before I won. The case file, which I have, is massive. But as my defense attorney prepared for that trial, we assembled a detailed record of sheriff department abuses against not just me, but other Californian photographers, to present at trial and show the jury that there was a clear pattern by the department. As part of that, I prepared this report on the airplane crash scene attack, which was part of the file we would present in court. Here is that report I wrote, verbatim and unedited:
“On Feb. 6, 1990, I responded with reporter Mareva Brown to a report of an airplane crash in the hills near Delano, Calif. Henry Barrios responded to the same site in another vehicle. We arrived at a dirt road which would access the accident. It was raining quite heavily and the road was mired in mud.
Kern County firefighter Heidi Dinkler arrived at almost the same time. She was driving a large fire engine which could not access the site due to the conditions. Firefighter Dinkler asked if I would drive her to the scene, as I was driving a 4-wheel-drive vehicle.
I agreed and after loading as much rescue equipment as we could into the back of the vehicle, we headed to the scene. About 200 yards from the plane’s location, the dirt road ended and our vehicle was not able to continue further.
We parked it there, and firefighter Dinkler and I began to run toward the crashed plane. Mareva Brown was not able to continue with us because her attire made it difficult for her to negotiate the deep mud of the area. I would estimate we were about 200 feet from the plane when we saw the scene clearly.
Firefighter Dinkler proceeded to the airplane. I did not follow her but instead located a hill to the left which would have allowed me to take overview photographs of the scene without approaching the airplane itself. I climbed to the top of the hill, which I would equate to a 3-story-tall building, and began making photographs from there with a 300mm telephoto lens. (See attached clip.)
A handful of people had already reached the scene. I remember them as being a crew from the Westar Air Ambulance and a few Kern County Sheriff’s deputies. As I took pictures, a deputy, Sgt. Drew Patrick left the plane and ran up the hill toward me, yelling to stop taking pictures and leave the hill. When he reached me I showed him my identification. He said he was not allowing pictures because he wasn’t “wasn’t going to allow any pictures of bodies to be taken” and that he wasn’t going to have “somebody’s family seeing this on the news.”
I told Patrick he didn’t have the right to make those decisions, and as I tried to take another picture, he struck me and knocked me to the ground. With a second camera and a wide angle lens, I shot several frames of Sgt. Patrick standing over me. (It would take some doing, but I can find these if needed.)
Sgt. Patrick then pushed me down the hill, causing me to fall a second time, and grabbed me by the arm and walked me out of the scene, around a bend where the rescue activity could not be viewed. At that point, we argued vehemently about my right to be on the hill.
Television media was waiting at that location, and deputies were not allowing them to go any further. I convinced a couple of the television cameramen to join me in defying Sgt. Patrick and returning to the area. They agreed and we walked past Sgt. Patrick back toward the scene.
At the scene someone else, I believe a firefighter, requested we remain away from the plane itself. This was a reasonable request, as it did not impede with our ability to view and record the scene, and we had no problems at that point.
Henry Barrios, however, had entered the area from another side, where he encountered a deputy who threw him out. Barrios was in the company of the owner of the property the plane had crashed on, and they were able to find a different location to shoot from.”
Executive editor Bob Bentley would write a letter of protest to Sheriff John Smith, but it was wasted paper and ink. I believe the editors never really comprehended what it was like working out on those scenes with these guys. The situation with the Kern County Sheriff’s Office was unresolvable, as it was in the 1980s and would remain that way for the rest of my career. This story has never been shared publicly, and you are seeing these photos for the first time.