Police abuse claim eyes federal level;Suit last in three-year-old case
Emily Heffter Staff Writer
(LA VERGNE, Tenn.) -- Three years after he accused a white police officer of mistreating a black suspect, Rey Collazo is looking hopefully at the last legal card he has to play -- a pending federal lawsuit.
The former restaurant owner and Puerto Rico native has made almost every move he could since an afternoon in April 1998, the day he said he looked out the window of the Mexican restaurant he owned and saw La Vergne police officer Tim Stone beating a handcuffed African-American man up against a car. He said his arrest a few months later by the same officer was harassment.
Since then, he has spent almost $ 10,000 trying to get someone to do something about the discrimination he says has plagued three of his 15 years in La Vergne. He has lodged complaints, so far fruitless, with everyone from the media to the police chief to the county grand jury, and he has filed a stack of lawsuits. Still open is a federal lawsuit he filed against Stone, officer Ed McKenna, La Vergne and the city Police Department claiming civil rights discrimination in his arrest.
A series of legal dead-ends could have to do with the reputation Collazo wears around Rutherford County the way he wears Hawaiian shirts. A bunch of dismissed lawsuits on a person's record can follow him into legal investigations, courtrooms and city government officials' offices.
His past makes some people wonder whether he is a citizen who cried wolf.
'When you're right, you fight for your rights,' said Collazo, now a full-time college student. 'I'm a firm believer in that.'
Collazo's name pops up in court records all over the county, and not only in reference to his complaint about Stone and the Police Department. He sued his neighbor in small claims court, then didn't show up for his trial. It was dismissed. He sued again and won.
He sued the Hardee's restaurant in La Vergne for demoting him from general manager. He changed his mind about the suit, and it was dismissed.
'Unfortunately that's not admissible in court,' said Greg Oakley, an attorney who represents La Vergne. 'There's no question that he is a very litigious person.'
The complaint Collazo filed with the city about the beating he says he witnessed never made it to Stone's personnel file. Police Chief Butch Morris testified in court in November 1999 that it did not exist. However, the city produced it for this newspaper when asked. Since Collazo filed the complaint, both the captain he spoke with and the chief who signed his complaint have been fired.
He tried asking city officials for an apology. They wouldn't issue one, but the mayor vowed to get to the bottom of a possible 'racist issue' in the city.
Morris declined to comment last week, and Stone did not return messages left for him at the police station.
The day after Valentine's Day in 1999, Collazo said he found a racist threat written on a $ 5 bill taped to the door handle at his restaurant. He later called the FBI and the Rutherford County district attorney general, who sent the complaint to Memphis Assistant District Attorney General Perry Hayes.
Collazo went before La Vergne's city council at its February meeting, passed out thick packets of legal documents and color copies of the $ 5 bill. He asked the members: What are you doing about this problem?
They moved onto the next item on the agenda with little discussion, but Collazo said a couple members of the board told him they were still 'looking into it.'
'I think they're just saying that to give me an answer,' he said.
Alderwoman Sherry Green said she thinks the board's hands are tied when a lawsuit is in progress.
'Once he takes it there, we don't have anything to do with it,' she said.
Two weeks ago, Collazo took his problem of the $ 5 bill to the grand jury.
'The grand jury was my last step to obtain legal action against him under' Tennessee law, he said.
The grand jury didn't indict Stone, and Hayes stopped his investigation.
'When it was presented to the grand jury, that kind of settles it for me,' Hayes said. He said people's reputations can follow them into court in their home counties.
'I guess that's the idea of getting somebody else to look at it,' he said. 'I have a fresh set of eyes.'
Now Collazo is waiting for a court date for the federal lawsuit.
'His credibility is in question for a number of reasons,' Oakley said, and added: 'This whole thing is about him being in custody for less than half an hour.'
Of all the lawsuits he has filed, Collazo said the one with the city is the most serious.
'They could say that I cried wolf all they want to but I know for sure that the truth is the truth and the facts are the facts,' he said. 'I will not settle with them out of court.'
REY COLLAZO TIME LINE
Some dates in Rey Collazo's fight with La Vergne
April 30, 1998 -- Collazo says he sees a police officer, Tim Stone, beating a handcuffed African-American man up against a car.
May 18, 1998 --Stone and another officer come to Collazo's house and issue a citation to him for letting his dog, a chow, run loose. Collazo and Stone get into a shouting match, and Collazo said Stone threatened him, promising, 'I will get you' and shouting the racist rallying cry 'white power' as he walked toward his car.
July 27, 1998 -- Officers Stone and Ed McKenna arrest Collazo at his restaurant. The warrant is signed by Cassondra Lowery, a court clerk who also worked part time as a police dispatcher. A judge later invalidates the warrant, and Collazo is acquitted.
Feb. 15, 1999 -- Collazo says he finds a $5 bill taped to his restaurant door with a racist threat on it. Over the next several weeks, he calls the FBI and takes his complaint to Rutherford County District Attorney General William Whitesell, who cites a conflict of interest and sends the complaint to Memphis Assistant District Attorney General Perry Hayes.
May 5, 1999 -- Collazo files a federal civil lawsuit against Stone, McKenna, the La Vergne Police Department and the city of La Vergne claiming civil rights discrimination in his 1998 arrest.
Feb. 9, 2001 --The grand jury declines to indict officer Stone. Hayes ends his investigation into Collazo's claims.
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