Bewildered Farmers Sue Fresno County for Overkill

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – A married couple claim Fresno sheriff’s officers destroyed their house by using it as a training ground for a teargas-wielding SWAT team, 50 vehicles, two helicopters, a K-9 unit and a fire truck — because an unarmed homeless man had been found in their closet.

David and Gretchen Jessen sued Fresno County and the City of Clovis on March 8 in Fresno County Court. They say the unconstitutional assault on their home was “excessive, unreasonable, violent, destructive … intrusive … unnecessary and unreasonable.”

The Jessens, who are farmers, say in their complaint that the sheriff and police used their house as a military battleground “because the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department and/or Clovis Police Department had found, by accident, the perfect location to conduct a training exercise on a rural home, on a dead-end street, in rural Fresno County, where ‘civilians’ were not present, ‘civilians’ were not going to congregate, ‘civilians’ were not going to observe or interfere with the military training assault on the Jessens’ home and the situation posed no risk of injury to the officers.”

In the lengthy complaint, David Jessen says it all started on June 11, 2016, when sheriff’s officers called him and said his house may have been broken into. He called his wife to tell her, then drove home and found four patrol cars in front of the house and officers scattered around the perimeter. One held a bullhorn and was yelling “come out,” and “hands up.”

An officer told Jessen that a homeless man had broken into his house after construction workers had kicked him out of a vacant house nearby. When asked if there were guns inside, Jessen said he had two unloaded shotguns and a loaded .357 magnum, all of them hidden so well that only he could find them.

The officer told Jessen the man had threatened to shoot anyone who came inside and asked him and his family, who had just arrived, to wait elsewhere. After taking his family to a friend’s house 10 minutes away, Jessen drove back to unload some farm equipment and found law enforcement cars lining the road to his house for a quarter of a mile, plus two ambulances, a fire truck, and two helicopters circling above.

“Bewildered and baffled” at the show of force, Jessen says, he drove away and was passed by a SWAT vehicle and a crisis negotiation motor home heading toward his house.

Several hours later, deputies told him he could go back home. On the way there, Jessen counted at least 55 law enforcement vehicles. After parking and walking to his house, a SWAT officer told him the “operation” was concluded, and a second officer handed him a card and said “‘we have insurance for this.’”

Jessen says he had no idea what the officers meant until he went inside and found his home destroyed. Officers had ripped out the wrought iron doors to their home office and laundry rooms, pulled the office wall off the foundation, teargased six rooms, flash-bombed two of them, shattered a sliding glass door, broken seven windows and destroyed more than 90 feet of fencing with a SWAT vehicle.

“The magnitude of the damage to the Jessens’ home was unreasonable and unjustified, needlessly implemented to capture a single, surrounded, unarmed, hungry homeless person who posed no danger to anyone,” the complaint states.

The Sheriff’s Department rebutted several claims in the lawsuit, through its spokesman, Tony Botti.

“Deputies responded to the home with the assistance of a Fresno Police K-9 unit and met with the homeowner as he arrived back at his house,” Botti said in a Tuesday email to Courthouse News.

“The homeowner attempted to open a door with his key, but was met with resistance.  Suspect [Chanley] Un relocked the door as the homeowner tried to enter. Un shouted out that he was armed and if anyone came inside he would shoot them. The homeowner told deputies he owned guns and some inside were not locked up.

“Deputies later searched the room where Un was hiding and found some of the homeowner’s loaded guns, which were within Un’s reach.”

Botti said the Sheriff’s Department had rebutted these claims in its original news release on the confrontation, in June 2016.

The Jessens say the only things the homeless person stole were an ice cream bar, some milk, and half a tomato, according to the complaint. The Jessens say the cops could have arrested the man with a single K-9 team. But due to the excessive use of teargas, they had to gut the home, remove all the carpet and drywall, and can no longer live there. The cost of the damage exceeds $150,000.

The Clovis Police Department did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

The Jessens seek compensatory and special damages, court costs and attorney fees.

They are represented by C. Russell Georgeson, with Georgeson and Belardinelli, in Fresno.