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Transcript

Episode 06: You in the Red Shirt

Note: Serial is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Ira Glass

Previously on Serial.

Mary Casa

In your experience as a police officer, can you smell raw marijuana in a bag inside someone's pocket?

Michael Amiott

Yes.

Judge Gaul

I probably put more people on probation than any other judge in this courthouse.

Sarah Koenig

Really?

Judge Gaul

Yeah, because I can always put them in prison later, right?

Man

He had nothing to do—

Troy

I don't think he had anything to do with that officer.

Brian Ratigan

He doesn't want to be a rat. He doesn't want to rat on your guy.

Craig Weintraub

Apparently, he has.

Police Officer

How can you help us do that?

Moderator

What's the solution?

Samaria Rice

How can I help y'all do that?

Sarah Koenig

From This American Life and WBEZ Chicago, it's Serial, one courthouse told week by week. I'm Sarah Koenig.

I was talking to this guy, Kevin, forty years old. He'd been busted for giving someone at his college a marijuana cookie. He'd offered it as a nice gesture. Really, just hey, have one. He thought the guy understood what it was, wink, wink. But he didn't, and it all went wrong. Kevin ended up with a felony conviction. Well, another felony conviction. The case sounded absurd. There had been a trial over this cookie. That's funny, right?

I went to talk to Kevin, the cookie baker, in the hallway outside the courtroom in the Justice Center right after the verdict. Not funny. He was in what my mother would call a swivet, cracking angry jokes but also desperately upset, half-crying. Kevin said he'd been a drug dealer when he was young, but he'd changed. He was in school, volunteering in his community, trying to start his own business.

Doing well, and now this—what Kevin called felonious childish stupidness. It got him kicked out of his college, and it also triggered probation violation on a case from a few years earlier. Kevin had been just two months shy of completing that probation. He was almost done. And now this.

I'm sorry, I said. This is a rough day. He said, it's all right. It's all right. It's all right. I'm starting to get used to it, actually.

Kevin

It started, probably, about sixteen, seventeen. Like, it was like, once you're in it, can't—it's like I got roots here. It's like a bad relationship I can't get out of.

Sarah Koenig

You've got roots here in this building.

Kevin

Man, yeah. The justice system.

Sarah Koenig

So far in this series, we've talked a lot about the system aspect of the justice system, how the machinery of it works or doesn't. Now for the rest of the series, we want to look at the criminal justice system a whole other way. We want to follow people who are like Kevin, people who feel like they have roots in the system, who've been in it for years and who've been shaped by its machinery.

Probably nothing we've reported so far would be news to them. They know it. I know it's pretentious to say this, but I keep thinking of this Russian word, чувствовать. It means to feel something, almost sensually, to the point where you can taste it. You know it in your bones.

So now, we're going to follow people out of the Justice Center, out into the world, into their normal lives. The guy we're going to start with, his name is Jesse Nickerson.

Back in the summer of 2016, before we got to Cleveland, there had been a police scandal with a satisfying twist, if I'm allowed to call it that. Two officers had arrested this guy, Jesse Nickerson. And instead of taking him back to the station, they drove to a city park, took off Jesse's handcuffs, and one of the officers, a guy named Denayne Dixon, six foot four, former linebacker in the Arena Football League, challenged Jesse to a fight. Jesse squared off with Denayne Dixon for a second, but then he took off. He ran into the woods. The officers eventually found him, cuffed him. Jesse said they beat him. The officers said he hurt himself. The story made the news.

Gary Norton

Absolutely sickened. Absolute sick. Shocked, sickened.

Sarah Koenig

That was the mayor talking to a TV reporter. This all happened in East Cleveland, not to be confused with the east side of Cleveland. East Cleveland is its own small city bordering Cleveland. Seventeen thousand people, it's got its own city government, and its own police department.

And it seemed, refreshingly, as if those entities were taking responsibility for what happened, and swiftly, no excuses. Both officers were fired within days. The police chief referred the case to state investigators. The county prosecutor's office sought criminal indictments. One officer pleaded guilty to a couple of misdemeanors, the other, Denayne Dixon, pleaded to a couple of felonies. We went to Denayne Dixon's sentencing at the Justice Center.

Ashley Kilbane

He is the front line of our criminal justice system. That's who the public sees.

Sarah Koenig

That's the prosecutor, Ashley Kilbane.

Ashley Kilbane

Your Honor, when you have somebody who's a public official who not only assaults a member of the community, but then tries to cover up, cover it up by turning off the body cam—

Sarah Koenig

A police officer convicted for bad behavior on the job, already unusual in this courthouse. And here, Ashley Kilbane was arguing forcefully for the harshest possible punishment. She was pitching consecutive sentences, meaning the sentence for each crime would run back to back. The judge, Nancy Fuerst, invited Officer Dixon to speak.

Nancy Fuerst

Do you have anything to say, sir? Want to stand up?

Sarah Koenig

And he did. He apologized. He said, I understand I was put in a position of authority, and I was entrusted with the public's trust to make a difference, to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. And then he said, I had no intention of assaulting anyone.

Denayne Dixon

It was a tactic that I had seen done before—

Sarah Koenig

It's difficult to hear, but he says it was a tactic I had seen done before. You know, take a guy out of cuffs and get him to stop running his mouth or whatever. Officer Dixon's lawyer told the court that Dixon had told him the same thing, quote, "which is kind of disturbing." Other than that, no one remarks on this kind of disturbing information, just lets it go. The judge sentenced Denayne Dixon to two years in prison, and it was over.

The victim, Jesse Nickerson, was not in the courtroom the day of the sentencing. But he'd been in touch with the county prosecutors throughout the case. He had told Emmanuel that at one point, they'd given him some advice that he found kind of disturbing.

Jesse Nickerson

The prosecutor and them, they told me—they're telling me to stay out of East Cleveland.

Sarah Koenig

Jesse said they told him, remember, Denayne Dixon's got friends.

Jesse Nickerson

They said, you know Denayne and them. You know, they have people. Just stay out of East Cleveland. They're like, we don't want to hear about something happening to you. Stay out of East Cleveland.

Sarah Koenig

Usually, these cases of police brutality, the ones we hear about, the government response is constipated. Months, sometimes years of stop, start, internal investigations, equivocating public officials, officers placed on desk duty. And then, it just peters out.

In Jesse's case, there was none of that. The officers who'd abused him had been fired, convicted, and sentenced. Jesse had gotten all the things, the rare things people say they want in cases like this. Jesse had won. And yet here he was, on high alert. This whole situation with the police, it was not over.

Emmanuel, he lived in Cleveland for most of the year we were reporting there. And this is one of the cases he began to look into. Emmanuel interviewed police and prosecutors, and he interviewed Jesse Nickerson. And that interview turned into a nearly yearlong—adventure is too happy a word—misadventure, I guess. A year watching Jessie negotiate the afterwards of his case, the push and pull of one man's relationship with the police in his town. Here's Emmanuel.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse Nickerson told me that he was sort of relieved that the officers who'd taken him to the park that night were black and not white. He feels like if they'd been white, he probably would have gotten shot. The first time we met, we went over to Forest Hill Park so he could walk me through what had happened. He showed me the spot where he'd hidden behind the tree, the place where he says the officers choked him until he blacked out.

Jesse Nickerson

They beat me right here. And look how far away it is from my head.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

We make it to the bottom of this big hill that he says the officers threw him down when Jesse stops, and he points at something through the trees.

Jesse Nickerson

Top of the hill, you see the police?

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Oh yeah, I see the police. Way, way off in the distance, Jesse spotted a cop car, a black Ford Explorer with police in block letters down the side. Jesse had been calmly and casually reciting details of this alleged assault. But now, he's uncomfortable.

Jesse Nickerson

That's the same truck I was in that night. Same—that's the same truck I was in when they did that to me.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

How do you know?

Jesse Nickerson

Because they only got one of them.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

It had been almost a year since the police took him to the park. And in that year, Jesse's had a persistent fear of retaliation, because it feels like everybody, especially the cops, know him as the guy who sent Officer Denayne Dixon to prison. Right after we see this police truck, Jesse turns to me and says, I got you as a witness in case anything happens. But then, when we make our way to the top of the hill and get to the truck—look, they're just eating lunch.

Jesse Nickerson

Eating Chipotle.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Who was that, do you know?

Jesse Nickerson

No, he—yeah, he's a good officer.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Is he a good one?

Jesse Nickerson

From the neighborhood.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Cool, cool.

Jesse Nickerson

That's the officer that they had on TV, doing the Instagram stuff.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse doesn't know this guy's real name. He says everyone calls him Nunu. A few months back, Nunu was sort of East Cleveland famous when he posted videos of himself messing around and singing in his police cruiser. Jesse tells me, Nunu, he's all right. Jesse relaxed a little. Jesse knows the East Cleveland police department, and they know him, partly because he's lived there all his life, partly because he's been arrested a lot.

When we met, Jesse was twenty-nine. He'd spent time in prison on drug charges as well as for aggravated assault and robbery. All of that had happened when Jesse was in his late teens and early twenties. He's had more minor run-ins with the police since then—weed possession, traffic tickets, nothing too serious. Anyway, he's not worried about Nunu.

The officer he is on the lookout for is a friend of Denayne Dixon's, an officer named Wilbert Nevels. He told me a story about Nevels that was still stressing him out. It happened about six months earlier. At the time, Denayne was out on bond awaiting trial for the incident with Jesse in the park. And Jesse had run into Officer Nevels on the street.

Jesse Nickerson

I was at Chipotle's on Coventry.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Coventry is a big busy road. Jesse and his girlfriend were heading back to their car after grabbing some food when an East Cleveland police car rolled up. It was Officer Nevels.

Jesse Nickerson

I was with my girlfriend, Ashley. He just approached the car like, yeah, what's up? What's going on with you? And he was like, holla at me. He was like, follow me.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Nevels wanted Jesse to follow him down to a quieter part of the street, presumably so they could talk in private. Jesse had no idea what this was about, but his girlfriend Ashley didn't like the looks of it. She was like, hell no. But Jesse told Ashley there's a lot of people around. Let's just see what he wants. So they drove down, pulled into a lot of the end of the street, and parked window-to-window, police rendezvous style. Nevels got right to the point.

Jesse Nickerson

Then he was like, shit what's up? You going to court on Denayne? Don't go to court on Denayne Dixon.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

He meant the criminal case against Denayne for taking Jesse to the park. Nevels was telling Jesse to drop the whole thing. Don't show up for court.

Jesse Nickerson

I'm like, shit. I'm like, all right. Like, I didn't know what to say. I was scared. He asked me, what's my number? And he called me later on that night with him and Denayne Dixon on the phone.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

What did they say?

Jesse Nickerson

He was saying, don't go to court.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Dixon?

Jesse Nickerson

Dixon was saying, don't go to court. He was saying that Nevels is going to make sure I'm cool in EC as long as I don't go to court on him.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

EC, East Cleveland. What do you mean cool in EC?

Jesse Nickerson

I don't know, he just said he's going to make sure I'm cool in the EC as long I don't go to court on him.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Nevels was interviewed by the county prosecutor's office, and he denied being on the line for that call. He denied ever telling Jesse not to come to court. He said Jesse asked him about Denayne. He got Jesse's number, gave it to Denayne, and that was it. But Denayne did call Jesse, and Jesse says he kept calling.

Jesse Nickerson

He was calling me to just check on me. What's up? What's up? We cool? Everything cool?

Emmanuel Dzotsi

How often, like every day?

Jesse Nickerson

Yeah. I mean, not like every—like once every two weeks or something. He was telling me to skip out of town. He was telling me all type of stuff.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse felt like there was a threat behind all of these calls, sort of an unspoken or else. When the county prosecutors found out about the calls, they were like, wait. Police officers are calling you and telling you to drop this whole thing? Yeah, that does not sound good. They made a plan. They had Jesse come into the Justice Center so they could record him calling Denayne. The prosecutors recorded two calls to Denayne. And on these calls, Denayne encouraged Jesse not to come to court, to get out of town. You don't come and they got to dismiss it, Denayne said.

Denayne Dixon

No face, no case. And even if they don't—

Emmanuel Dzotsi

These calls culminated in more felony charges for Denayne Dixon. In addition to the other charges for taking Jesse to the park, Denayne pleaded guilty to obstructing justice. Officer Nevels, though, Denayne's friend who Jesse says first approached him about dropping the case, Nevels stayed on the force. And so a year later, he's the focus of a lot of Jesse's concern about the cops. Jesse was sure Nevels had it out for him.

Jesse Nickerson

I still have to walk around, drive around out here with this other officer feeling like I done told something on him. I see him every day, he mugs me, stare at me, he look at me like—he look at me—he look at me with a look of evil, like he want to kill me.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

And how do you see him? Like, where do you see him?

Jesse Nickerson

I see him every day, like, everywhere. Stores, be fixing on the house, he ride past, like ride up and down the street, all day, everyday. Like, I see him. I see him. And every time I see him, he give me that look like, it ain't over with.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I asked the East Cleveland Police Department for an interview with Nevels, to ask him whether he still harbored a grudge against Jesse. But the department refused to make Nevels available. Part of me thought Jesse might be the last person the cops would mess with. I mean, the entire city of East Cleveland, and the cops are going to pick on the guy who got two of their own fired, who has a lawyer, and he's probably an automatic news story if anything happens to him? Why would they pick on Jesse?

But then, after we'd made our way back down to the parking lot, another police car appeared, a black squad car. It turned towards us, rolled lazily into the deserted lot where we were standing. We both watched as it got closer.

Jesse Nickerson

Look, that's Nevels.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

That's Nevels?

Jesse Nickerson

Yep.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I was suddenly aware of how alone Jesse and I were. It was the middle of the afternoon and nobody was around. Officer Nevels didn't speed up, he just headed towards us, his face partially hidden behind the glare on the windshield. When he got to us, Nevels made a deliberate circle around us, going maybe ten miles an hour.

Nevels was a bald, stocky black guy, and he didn't return our stares, didn't reciprocate the nod I gave him. He looked straight ahead, like we weren't even there. And then, he drove away. Maybe it was just a coincidence he showed up. Maybe not. I watched Jesse shift his weight back and forth, one foot to the other, and build a theory in his head.

Jesse Nickerson

Listen, them other officers that was white there, they both knew who I was. They called and told him that we was down here.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

But you told me that guy, one of those guys up there, he's like a good cop. He's a good guy.

Jesse Nickerson

Yeah. I'm saying he's good because I know him, but these officers are good to who they're working with, who they're out here in the field with. That's who they're loyal to. Like, I said he was probably about to come down here. He came right down here. He came right down here. Like, I'm ready to leave now, because I'm thinking—he know my car, he know my car.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Do you think he's going to try and pull you over on the way out of here?

Jesse Nickerson

I don't know. I don't know what he's going to do. It just—look, it's just scary. It scares me. It scares me.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

All right, so you want to get out of here?

Jesse Nickerson

Yeah.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Yeah. By that point, we were both ready to get out of there.

A quick word about the city of East Cleveland, because everything that happened to Jesse happened in a city that doesn't function like a normal city. For example, when I first started reporting about the East Cleveland Police Department, I couldn't get any official information about property crimes or violent crimes, basic stuff. I couldn't get the homicide solve rate or even the number of homicides. After asking a bunch of times, the city's law director told me flat out that the city simply, quote, "does not compile crime statistics."

When I asked for disciplinary records for officers, complaints and reports, I was initially told by city officials that the department could not supply those records because it had apparently destroyed them, in direct violation of the city's own record retention policy. After much badgering and a call complaint, the city coughed up disciplinary records for just three of the eighty-five officers that have worked in East Cleveland the last two years.

East Cleveland couldn't even give me records of officers who'd been publicly disciplined. Not for a cop who sexually assaulted two women with a sex toy he found in their car during a traffic stop. Not for a cop who's now the second-in-command who pleaded to tax crimes after running an illegal cigar business on the side. And not for Denayne Dixon, who pleaded guilty to taking Jesse to the park.

No disciplinary records whatsoever. It felt like East Cleveland had given up on basic governance, and not just in an administrative sense. I got the same feeling driving around the streets. Things are pretty bad there. One day, a local took me down a street called Terrace Road. We passed a thirteen-story apartment building, half a block long, completely gutted. No windows, like something out of I Am Legend, debris everywhere. Then, the guy I was with told me, watch this.

Driver

Pay attention right now.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

At this point, he swerved off the road, up over the curb, and started driving down the sidewalk. Jesus.

Driver

See that?

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Yeah, wow. He did this to get around the potholes in the street, dozens of them. I say potholes, but really, we're talking about craters, some almost four feet wide. Underneath us were scores of tire tracks from other drivers who'd done the same thing.

Driver

Because I've got to pay for this car if it gets broken driving down that street.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

East Cleveland got to this point partly because of decades of mismanagement and corruption, but also largely because of straight up structural racism. East Cleveland is a black city. It's ninety percent black. And like many black neighborhoods in cities, it's been a victim of blockbusting, white flight, job loss, and a collapsing tax base. The poverty rate here is forty-two percent. East Cleveland is the poorest city in the state of Ohio.

After the incident in the park, when Denayne Dixon challenged Jesse to a fight and Jesse ran and got hurt, after that whole thing became public, Jesse decided he wanted to sue the police department. He hired a lawyer named Scott Ramsey. And Scott Ramsey approached the city to talk about that. And he was surprised to find that East Cleveland was very open to him. He got a meeting with the mayor, and the mayor apologized for what happened to Jesse—didn't try to soft pedal it, said what the officers did was wrong. But then, Scott Ramsey says, when he and the mayor got to the subject of a possible lawsuit—

Scott Ramsey

There was an attitude that you can file suit if you want, and you can get a judgment if you want. You may get a big judgment. But it's just going to go into this stack over here that aren't getting paid.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Being such a poor city has countless disadvantages. But it does have this one advantage. When a person sues, you can turn your pockets inside out and show there's nothing there. You can't lose what you don't have, right? Scott Ramsey knew East Cleveland didn't have insurance, didn't have much in assets. He knew the money just wasn't there.

He told me in a normal city, Jesse could get something like $100,000 to $250,000. But he didn't want Jesse to join the stack of East Cleveland's unpaid lawsuits. And there is quite a stack—judgments unpaid, others stuck in a labyrinth of appeals. So Scott Ramsey and the city of East Cleveland skipped the lawsuit. Instead, they made a deal. The city cut a check for Jesse for $25,000 and called it a day. At least, the lawyers called it a day. The cops on the other hand, well, you'll see. More after the break.

Sarah Koenig

Before we get back to Jesse, I'm going to tell you about the case of Arnold Black, because it'll help you understand some of what's going to happen to Jesse, and also because the case of Arnold Black is crazy. I don't want to reach for another descriptor. It starts out crazy and then it gets more crazy.

First, a caveat. Arnold Black sued East Cleveland. I read the court transcript, I interviewed his attorney. There was a trial, but East Cleveland, the defendant, did not defend itself. They did not offer evidence or witnesses. They did not cross-examine anyone. So what I'm going to tell you is one-sided, which doesn't make it untrue. Everything I'm telling you now was testified to under oath in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, and again, was not challenged by the city. Here's the story.

This guy, Arnold Black, he's forty-four at the time. He's driving down Euclid Avenue in the middle of East Cleveland. It's nighttime. He'd done a landscaping job near where his mother lived, and he'd gone over to her house afterwards for dinner. And now, he was heading home. He was driving his truck, a green Chevy Silverado. He's got equipment in the back, weed whacker, leaf blower, a lawnmower. And the cops pull him over.

One uniformed officer in a cruiser, the other officer is a detective in normal clothes driving his normal car. The uniformed officer, Jonathan O'Leary, tells Arnold to get out of the truck, pats him down, cuffs him. They take Arnold Black to the rear of his truck, sit him down on the bumper. The cop in street clothes, Detective Randy Hicks, aggressively searches the truck, rips out the inside door panels.

In court, Arnold Black testified to the following. He said Detective Hicks started asking him about drugs in East Cleveland, and he told him he didn't know because I don't sell drugs, I don't do drugs, and I don't live in East Cleveland. He said he was looking for a kilo of cocaine, and he said to me that I wasn't in the right truck. Evidently, Detective Hicks was looking for a drug dealer in a green truck, but Arnold wasn't him, and that annoyed Hicks. He said, you messed my night up.

Arnold thought Detective Hicks seemed off, drunk probably. He keeps asking Arnold about drugs. Arnold is saying, why you keep asking me that? Then, wham. Detective Hicks punches Arnold in the face. Arnold testifies that he then starts to kind of slide off the bumper. Officer O'Leary props him up. Detective Hicks hits him again in the head. These were hard hits, hard enough that three years later, Arnold Black would need brain surgery to drain the fluid and blood from his skull. Even now, he can't remember things properly, his speech is slowed, he has trouble controlling his anger. His mother and fiance say his personality is changed.

The officers put him in the cruiser, take him back to the East Cleveland Police Department where the jail is, and they put him in a room that Arnold's attorney calls a storage locker. East Cleveland police called it a holding cell. Tomato, tomahto, no one can decide what this room is called. But whatever it is, it is not a proper jail cell. No bed, no toilet, no window, no water. It's got a bench, a few old lockers, the tall kind, and some cleaning supplies—brooms, mops, buckets, like that. They lock Arnold in there. That's according to his testimony.

And now, the timeline of all this is a little unclear. The police and county records say one thing, the trial transcript says another. But if we go by the records, at least, this began on a Friday night.

Arnold says he could hear people talking and hollering and walking around. He could hear keys. I knocked on the door and was screaming. Like, I told him I had to use the bathroom. And I said, anybody? Anybody? No one comes. Arnold pees in a locker.

Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Eryka, is getting worried. Where is he? She was supposed to hear from him. She was calling around to friends. She calls the hospital.

Sunday comes. Arnold says an officer opens a door to the room and asks him, does anyone know you're in here? Arnold says, no. The guy says, shhh and points to the ceiling. There's a microphone up there. He says, step back. They won't pick up whispers.

Then, he takes his own cell phone from his back pocket. Arnold gives the guard Eryka's number. The guard dials the phone, hands it to Arnold, and tells him to make it quick. Arnold tells Eryka, the cops beat me up. I'm in East Cleveland Jail. Come get me.

Arnold says a bit later, that same guy comes back and tosses him one of those little milk cartons, like from a school cafeteria. Eryka arrives, asks to see Arnold. Now, this is according to her testimony. The cops at the reception window kind of look at each other for a while. Finally, someone says, he's under investigation. You can't see him. He's under investigation. She feels like something's wrong, like they're lying to her. She calls Arnold's family.

Arnold's brother, he took the stand at trial, too. Arnold's brother says, he goes to East Cleveland, and they tell him Arnold's in Cleveland Jail. So he drives over to Cleveland, where they tell him there's no Arnold Black here. And he's like, I was just—they just told me to come here. They check, check again. Nope. He goes back to East Cleveland again, where they again say, we don't know what to tell you. He ain't here.

It's now Monday, day three of the storage room. Arnold is in terrible pain from his head injuries. He can't sleep, really. He's hungry. In court, Arnold said that aside from that one little milk carton, they gave him nothing to eat or drink. The pee in the locker is stinking.

He's intensely anxious. He's worried the cops are going to do something to Eryka because he called her. He feels like the room is closing in on him. Finally, again, if I'm reading the records right, on day five, he's put in a van and taken to the county jail at the Justice Center.

He's held there a couple days until Eryka comes to get him, pays his bond, $250 bucks. When she sees him walking out of the county jail, she says his head is so swollen, he looks like he's wearing a helmet. She takes him home. Sometime later, Arnold gets a letter in the mail telling him he's been indicted by a grand jury for possessing crack cocaine. I was like, charged with cocaine, Arnold said. I never had no cocaine. How can I get charged with that?

In the police report, Officer O'Leary claims he found a baggie of crack under Arnold's tongue, and also that he had a baggie of marijuana. I'll point out that the East Cleveland detective who testified about the crack before the grand jury, Eric Jones, was at that time part of a cabal of East Cleveland cops who were shaking down drug dealers, stealing their money, and falsifying evidence. He's now in federal prison. But I digress.

In any case, the prosecutor could see the circumstances of Arnold's arrest were shady. She'd been told about the beating. This file was going to be trouble. They dropped the charges.

Arnold hires a civil rights lawyer, Bobby DiCello. He sues. He sues the City of East Cleveland, he sues the police chief, Ralph Spotts, he sues Officer O'Leary, he sues Detective Hicks. He's asking for $35 million dollars.

Bobby DiCello seeks a settlement from the city on behalf of Arnold Black. DiCello gets much the same pitch Scott Ramsey got when he sought a settlement for Jesse. There's only so much we can afford. DiCello's response, though, very different. Here's Bobby DiCello.

Bobby Dicello

We heard, as the chief defense, why are you doing this? We don't have any money. Don't you see we're poor? Don't you see our poor city's streets aren't very good? Don't you see that we're in a state of what's called financial or fiscal emergency, where the State of Ohio was running our books and has to authorize every expenditure? You can't get paid.

Here's what we can do. We can give you 50 grand. Would you be happy with 50 grand? Would that be good enough? And I would respond, let me get this straight. You guys beat up my client, put them in a locker, a storage locker, made him pee in there, and by the way, fed him nothing except a carton of milk for four days and you think I'm here just for 50 grand? Really?

Sarah Koenig

I'm going to ask you to bear with me a little longer here, because this story gets better/worse. As they prepare for trial, DiCello finds out there was dash cam footage of the arrest that shows detective Hicks beating Arnold. And they also discover that that same raw video was later edited by the police, altered so as not to show the beating, and—listen up here—that the police chief and the mayor knew about it.

They discovered that the East Cleveland police did this all the time. In fact, they discovered that nothing that happened to Arnold Black during the time he was secretly in East Cleveland's custody was unusual. Police in East Cleveland routinely pulled people over and roughed them up. That'd been the practice for decades, routinely held them in jail for no reason, routinely altered evidence. The police chief routinely told officers to keep quiet about abuse to avoid lawsuits.

DiCello had found out about almost all this stuff from a most unlikely source, Detective Randy Hicks, the guy who beat Arnold Black. Hicks had walked off the job within days of Arnold's arrest, he said, as soon as he realized his bosses were going to blame everything on him. He'd been at the department for about fifteen years, head of the narcotics unit for six, had earned commendations. He wasn't a rogue cop, he said. He was doing what they'd all been taught to do in East Cleveland.

We asked the city's law director to respond to this story. She didn't. Neither did Officer O'Leary or Detective Hicks. The then mayor, Gary Norton, did respond. He said the characterizations from the civil trial are one thousand percent false. He said all he knew about the dash cam video was that, quote, "there was a gap in the tape," unquote. A gap. And he said he didn't know about the holding cell/storage locker at the jail, which was downstairs from his office. I just didn't know. I really didn't.

The then police chief, Ralph Spotts, also called us back. He said, ditto. There was no such culture of aggression within the police department, he said—no pattern of altering evidence or of hiding abuse. Mr. Spotts said Detective Hicks was just shifting blame for his own personal wrongdoing.

The civil lawsuit drags on. Years go by. But at no point does East Cleveland ever hand over discovery, not one piece of paper. Never mind the dash cam video or personnel records or logs from the jail, DiCello never even gets a police report. The city law director claims she doesn't know where anything is. They simply have nothing to hand over.

It's egregious enough, this refusal to engage, that the judge finally issues a ruling saying, OK, East Cleveland. You are now barred from introducing any evidence in trial. So we're going to have a trial, but you cannot defend yourself. You've forfeited that right. The city appeals this ruling. They appeal once, twice, they get denied.

In 2016, four years after Arnold's beating and arrest, they finally go to trial. And the only person who shows up for the other side, the only person, is former East Cleveland Detective Randy Hicks. No city law director, no police chief, no mayor, just Randy Hicks, all by himself. And he admits everything.

There's this extraordinary part of the trial transcript in which DiCello reads a long list of all the things officers in East Cleveland did, and Hicks confirms it. All of it. DiCello—number four, Officer Hicks was and his fellow officers were required by Chief Spotts to follow a custom of using violence in the city of East Cleveland which had officers using force on civilians to compel statements from them, to establish control, to instill fear and submission, and to show dominance during arrests and traffic stops. The judge—is that true? Hicks—yes, Your Honor.

A jury awarded Arnold Black $22 million in compensatory and punitive damages. A $22 million judgment. Victory, right? Not exactly, because—get this—the morning of trial, about an hour and a half before it started, the city's lawyer filed a notice of appeal with the Ohio Supreme Court. It's a notice saying, hey, we're planning on filing something with you guys. The city had assumed that the notice would stop the clock on the trial. And retroactively, it did. An appeals court later ruled that the trial should not have gone forward with that notice pending.

So now, as I write this in 2018, the verdict in Arnold Black's case has been overturned. Now, DiCello is the one appealing. He's not sure if he'll prevail. He might have to retry this case.

Civil lawsuits are supposed to lead to reform. That's the hope—that a city will fix the problems that are costing it a lot of money.

We talked to eleven attorneys who do civil rights cases in Cuyahoga County. One attorney said, yeah, bring it. I have no problem pulling the trigger against East Cleveland. The other ten attorneys, no way, they said. It's not worth it, said one. I have a business to run, said another. We heard, there's no reward. We heard, it's a bitch. We heard, I turn down any case that comes from East Cleveland, and it's heartbreaking.

In other words, Arnold Black is a cautionary tale, which makes DiCello nuts. He doesn't see it that way. And he says Arnold Black doesn't either. The city hasn't paid Arnold Black a dime, but he has gotten quite a bit of money as a result of the lawsuit, from a funding company that loans plaintiffs money based on likely verdicts. That's a whole financial industry, apparently. But more to the point, DiCello says, there's now a public record of how East Cleveland was running its police department. This case, this verdict was national news. Because it went to trial, I'm talking about it right now.

I asked DiCello, can you understand, though, how someone like Jesse Nickerson might not want to spend six plus years fighting the city, especially if they live there? DiCello said, yeah. But if a client did tell him that, he'd push back with a speech that goes something like this.

Bobby Dicello

We are the police of the police, by constitutional mandate. Thank god. This has got to be about, do you understand what's happening? Do you understand what the lives that are at stake here? It does impact us all. You're the guy who snaked out, who got out of the way of the bully for a few bucks. Good job. But did your community matter to you? And if the response comes back no, it doesn't, I don't want to do it, then I'm duty bound to listen to my client.

I get that. But understand what's going to continue. And we'll have that conversation, won't we, if we're responsible about it, like I would with my own brother or sister. Look bro, I get it. You don't want to be in the fight. But here's what's going to happen. The bully down the street's going to do this again and again and again. Can you live in that town?

Sarah Koenig

If you settle for peanuts like Jesse did, DiCello says, you're not going to get real change. You're going to get peanuts. And now, you're living in your same town along with the same people you're scared of. Right. And that's where Jesse is. Emmanuel is going to take it from here.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

About three weeks after we met up in the park, I wanted to check in with Jesse to see how he was doing, to see if he'd had any more run-ins with the East Cleveland police. At first, I couldn't get a hold of him. But I got through to his girlfriend, Ashley. She launched into a whole thing. Something had happened between Jesse and the police on the Fourth of July. The police had roughed Jesse up.

Ashley said Jesse wanted to tell me about it. He had a new phone. She gave me the number, which I dialed immediately. Ashley told me something crazy. She told me that you got beat up?

Jesse Nickerson

Yes. A couple days ago.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

How did this happen? Start from the beginning.

On the Fourth of July, Jesse's street threw a block party. Neighbors put out road cones and closed off the street. About seventy people came out. Jesse says it was the usual—kids playing basketball, people grilling, fireworks. Jesse and his friends helped set it up. This party went on all day and into the evening. Around midnight, East Cleveland police showed up.

Setting off fireworks without a permit is illegal in Ohio, and you can't just block off a street. So the police said it was time to clear out. People started heading home. Jesse says he and his friends were dragging their feet, messing around with a basketball, giving the cops some attitude, when quite abruptly, a police officer, an older guy, yelled through the crowd. You in the red shirt, get the fuck out of EC!

Jesse Nickerson

I look around. I look down at my shirt. I was like damn. I'm the only one with a red shirt on.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse and some of his friends confronted the officer.

Jesse Nickerson

A couple people that we're having words with East Cleveland. We telling them, like, man, what is y'all doing? We ain't doing nothing. It's a holiday. There's about forty kids out here. So we just tell them, like, listen. We ain't doing nothing wrong. One officer was like, yeah, shut the fuck up. I'm like, who the fuck you talking to, ho ass—

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I'm not sure if there's such a thing as the opposite to staying out of East Cleveland, but stepping up to an East Cleveland police officer and talking like this might be it.

Jesse Nickerson

They both, as soon as I said that, they rushed me.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Emmanuel Dzotsi

There's body cam footage from three different officers. A lot of it is blurry and dark, but I've watched it over and over. According to a police report, Jesse spat on an officer. But you can't see that on the body cam. Instead, it seems as if the police just honed in on Jesse. There's a crowd of people, but Jesse seems to be the one they want. In the body cam footage, you see Jesse and some of his friends talking back to the police officers.

Jesse is in the rear of the group. At one point, he starts to back away, puts his hands in the air like, fine, forget this. I'm out of here. And just then, one of the officers rushes in, bypasses all the other guys standing in front of Jesse, and grabs him. Another officer grabs Jesse, too. They cuff him, drag him towards the police car. The police seem frantic. The crowd of people in the street is screaming at the officers, cursing them. The situation feels like it could boil over.

[SHOUTING]

Once they get to the police car, it's so chaotic you can't tell exactly what's happening. But there's a thud, which is maybe Jesse slamming into the car door. Then, he starts screaming, my arm, my arm!

Jesse Nickerson

My arm! Bro, my arm, my arm!

Emmanuel Dzotsi

His shoulder was injured. Jesse is lying on the ground on his stomach, twisting away from his hurt shoulder, his head almost underneath the tailpipe. And a cop—he seems to know Jesse, or at least Jesse's name—starts telling him to get up.

Police Officer

Stand up, Jesse.

Jesse Nickerson

[INAUDIBLE].

Police Officer

Stand there. No Jesse, don't [INAUDIBLE]. You're on camera, sir. You did it to yourself, Jesse. You fell. We watched you fall on your own.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

It's not clear whether the officer is saying this because Jesse hurt himself trying to squirm away from the cops, and now the officer's trying to make sure that fact gets recorded on the body cams or whether the police got rough trying to shove Jesse in the car and now they're trying to cover for themselves. Ten minutes later, EMTs arrive. They take Jesse to the hospital, where he spends the night.

The next morning, Jesse wakes to find five misdemeanor tickets on the blanket of his hospital bed—failure to disperse, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, assault, and menacing. When I talked to Jesse on the phone, I could hear how much he wanted to fight back. But also, I could hear how vulnerable he felt.

Jesse Nickerson

It's like every time I get approached, I got to expect these people to put their hands on me. That's how I've got to look at it now. I've got to prepare myself for that. I'm preparing myself for that.

I know they're going to, every time. It ain't failed yet. It ain't failed it. I thought it was over with, but as you see, it's not. It's not over with. It's not over with. I thought—and it's my fault, 'cause I shouldn't have went through with the situation. I shouldn't have went to court and all that shit, 'cause—

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Wait, you don't—what do you mean you shouldn't have gone? You think you're regretting it?

Jesse Nickerson

Yeah, hell yeah. 'Cause you see what's happening now. I'm not doing shit, but I'm getting harassed for, I feel, for me, sending them officers to jail. So I regret it.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

It feels like you don't see an end to this. You think this is going to be—even if all—

Jesse Nickerson

This is—look. This is the beginning. This is the beginning.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse went to East Cleveland's courthouse about a week later for his arraignment on the five charges for the Fourth of July. The courthouse is just one room in East Cleveland's small City Hall, where almost every city department, including the police department, is packed into a squat two and a half story building.

I caught up with Jesse before court started, right outside the courtroom. Jesse's lawyer, Scott Ramsey, couldn't be there that day. But he told Jesse no big deal, just plead not guilty. Don't talk too much. Nothing serious is going to happen today. Jesse was in good spirits, laughing and joking. He took it in stride when one of the bailiffs told him the ripped jean shorts he had on, those weren't going to go over too well in the courtroom.

Jesse Nickerson

I got to get some pants. Yeah, they ain't going to let me come in.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse quickly went home to change and then came back. We took our seats, and the court got started. The judge began to spin through the cases. Mostly they were small, traffic tickets and stuff.

Judge

So have you ever had an Ohio license?

Man

Yes.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

After about thirty minutes or so, Jesse got up, mouthed something to me, and then walked out of the courtroom. His phone had been buzzing, so I figured he'd left to make a call. Ten minutes went by and he hadn't come back. Then twenty, then thirty. Court finished, still no Jesse. Even stranger, his case had never been called. I tried his phone, but it went straight to voicemail. I called his girlfriend Ashley. No answer.

I searched the whole building, the hallways, the bathrooms, the parking lot. Jesse was nowhere. But why? I mean, Jesse, with his criminal history, had to know that not showing up for court might get him an arrest warrant. So why would he show up, take the time to go home and change clothes, come back, and then leave again?

I asked around. I asked anyone I thought might know what was going on. [INAUDIBLE]. He had, like, gold, he had like red sneakers on. Finally, a bailiff told me he'd seen Jesse walk out of the courtroom.

Bailiff

He came out of the court in the hallway. Two detectives approached him, and they was talking to him. And then after that, they handcuffed him and took him downstairs. I don't know what charges they charged him or why. So that's about all I know.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

OK. Jesse had been arrested. Now, I needed to find out why. I went to the police station. A stern woman at the window refused to tell me what he'd been arrested for. It's a violation of his privacy, she said, which, by the way, I checked. It's not. Then she told me, you'll have to talk to the chief of police. Was he in? No, she said.

A little later, I asked a different person at that same window, a young police officer I thought might be more helpful. Nope. He said he wasn't allowed to tell me what the charges were, even though I was a reporter. Department policy. Again, I checked. It's not. I knocked on the judge's door, thinking maybe they could help. But everyone was gone for the day.

Man

They left.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

They left?

Man

Yeah, yeah.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

And the clerk's office is closed?

Man

It closed. Yeah, it closed.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

OK. All due respect, it was three o'clock in the afternoon.

[PHONE RINGING]

Operator

Good afternoon. East Cleveland clerk's office, Orlando. How may I be of service to you?

Emmanuel Dzotsi

I made a bunch of calls to City Hall the next day. Soon, they seemed as sick of me calling as I was of asking. Did his arraignment happen already?

Operator

According to the files, yes it did.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Was there, like, a bond set?

Operator

We don't give that information out, sir.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

It should be public information, right?

Operator

Sir. We don't give that information out on the telephone.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

OK. And can I ask—

Operator

Thank you, have a good day.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Can I just ask why not?

Operator

Bye.

[DIAL TONE SOUNDING]

Emmanuel Dzotsi

After a while, I got Willa Hemmons on the phone, the city's law director. She didn't hang up on me or ignore my arguments about things being public record. She was nice, lots of polite mm-hmms. Willa didn't want to be recorded, but she did answer my questions. She told me Jesse had been arrested and charged with misdemeanors for a completely different case—that a week earlier, Jesse had yelled at and intimidated an officer. Instead of arresting Jesse then, the police had put a warrant out for his arrest.

After we'd been talking a couple of minutes, Willa asked if I could hold. She muttered something about there being some other details as I heard her ruffle through some papers. Willa said that after the arrest, Jesse had hit his head on the ground on the way to the jail, that he deliberately peed himself in the cell, that Jesse had been taken to the hospital for a psychological evaluation.

Jesse Nickerson

Literally, I'm just getting out.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Wait, so you just left the jail right now.

Jesse Nickerson

I just left the jail.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Four days went by before I heard from Jesse again. I started to ask him about the arrests, about what Willa told me. But Jesse cut me off. He said he didn't have time to get into that. He had something more important to tell me.

Jesse Nickerson

Listen, listen, listen, listen. When I was in the jail, they put me in a holding cell, right? It ain't nothing but lockers. There's no bathroom. So I'm in this room for two days where I have to be—where I'm forced to use my sock to wipe my ass, like, I'm some type of hooligan or something. I had to literally piss and shit in a locker.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

You had to pee in what?

Jesse Nickerson

I had to piss and shit in a locker room.

Emmanuel Dzotsi

Jesse was telling me that the police had put him in the very same room that Arnold Black had been locked in for days. The question was, would anyone care? Next time on Serial.

Sarah Koenig

Serial is produced by Julie Snyder, Emmanuel Dzotsi, Ben Calhoun, and me, with additional reporting by Ida Lieszkovszky. Editing on this episode from Ira Glass. Whitney Dangerfield is our digital editor, research and fact checking by Ben Phelan, sound design and mix by Stowe Nelson. Additional production from Kate Bilinski. Music clearance by Anthony Roman. Seth Lind is our director of operations. The Serial staff includes Emily Condon, Julie Whitaker, Cassie Howley, Frances Swanson, and Matt Tierney.

Our music is by Adam Dorn and Hal Willner, with additional music from Matt McGinley, Fritz Meyers, Nick Thorburn, and Wes Schwartz. Our theme song is by Nick Thorburn and remixed by Adam Dorn. Special thanks this episode to Melissa Georges, Ed Little, Eric Brewer, William Vodrey, Nancy Jamieson, Mollie Murphy, Chris Link at the ACLU, and Colleen Cotter at Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.

The art on our website was made by Martinez E-B. He created the mural for this episode and Moth Studio did the animation. Please check it out on our website, serialpodcast.org. That's serialpodcast.org. Or you can also sign up for our email newsletter and be notified when new episodes are released. Serial is a production of This American Life and WBEZ Chicago.

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