He Cooperated with the Cops -- and is Paying the Price: The Ordeal of Mark Byrge

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American Fork, Utah —

When Mark Byrge had a minor traffic accident on a street in American Fork, Utah, he did the “responsible” thing by reporting the incident to the police. He has never stopped paying for that mistake.

Within a few minutes of receiving Mark’s call, a pair of American Fork cops arrived to document the damage to Byrge’s delivery truck from a collision with a tree branch that protruded into the street. Mark was cooperative – and he put up no resistance when the lead officer, Andres Gianfelice, placed him under arrest for an outstanding traffic ticket (as well as citing him for not providing proof of insurance).

Byrge submitted without complaint to his officially sanctioned abduction, including the demeaning injury of being shackled. He politely made a single request of his captors: Owing to several back surgeries and the implantation of a $50,000 Spinal Cord Stimulator (SCS), Mark asked that the officers cuff him in front.

While explaining his condition, Mark very slowly and carefully lifted his shirt in order to display an iPod-sized rectangular lump in his lower right back.

Neither Mark’s cooperation nor his explanation made an impression on Gianfelice.

“Don’t tell me how to do my job – put your hands behind your back!” barked Gianfelice, instructing his trainee officer, Jennifer Nakai, to apply the cuffs. Before being shackled, Mark called his wife Tina to tell her he was being arrested.

He didn’t disconnect the call – which means that Tina was able to hear everything that would happen over the next several minutes.

Despite the fact that he was obviously in pain, Mark placed his hands behind his back. Local resident Bob Cardon, on whose property the untrimmed tree was located, expressed concern over Mark’s treatment.

“Do you really have to handcuff him that way?” the elderly man asked the officers.

“Shut up, or you’ll be put in the car next to him,” snarled Gianfelice.

After Mark was stuffed into the back seat of Gianfelice’s cruiser, he leaned away from the cuffs, attempting to prevent any damage to the expensive medical appliance embedded in his back.

Ignoring Mark’s protests, Gianfelice shoved him against the seat to buckle his seat belt. As that happened, Mark later recalled, “I could actually feel it [the stimulator] breaking.”

“You stupid son of a bitch,” Mark gasped, “you just wrecked my back.” He didn’t know at the time that Tina was listening to this exchange over an open phone line.

Tardily realizing that he had made a terrible mistake, Gianfelice relented and used a “belly chain” to cuff Mark in the front. This allowed the officer to claim in his official report that he had “accommodated” Mark – but by that time irreparable damage had already been done.

The SCS was designed to send electrical impulses along Mark’s spine in order to neutralize pain receptors. This allowed him to ramp down his dosages of narcotic prescription pain medications. This, in turn, is what made it possible for him to run his courier delivery business, which required both the physical capacity to load and unload cargo, and the mental acuity to drive his truck and fill out paperwork. Without the stimulator, Mark would either be too crippled to lift, or too doped-up to focus.

Subsequent medical scans of his stimulator documented that it went inactive on April 18, 2012 – the day that Officer Gianfelice, after arrogantly dismissing Mark’s entirely reasonable request to be cuffed in the front, shoved him against the rear seat of his police cruiser.

As Gianfelice pulled away from the scene of the accident, Mark informed the officer that he needed to be taken to a hospital, and he eventually convinced the officer that the jail wouldn’t admit him without hospital clearance. When they arrived at the hospital, Gianfelice parked about fifty yards away – significantly, in one of the few spots concealed from security cameras.

By this time, Mark’s right leg was already convulsing – a tell-tale indication that the SCS had malfunctioned. Gianfelice dragged Mark out of the cruiser by his right arm and began walking him toward the hospital entrance. Mark’s right leg had seized up and was refusing to cooperate with his own wishes, let alone the demands of his captor. In his subsequent report, the officer claimed that Mark began “pulling” and “jerking” away from him.

The officer didn’t explain why a handcuffed man who was in obvious pain and who had asked to be taken to the hospital would “resist” being escorted to the emergency room. Nonetheless, in short order, Mark found himself face-down in the dirt of a nearby flower bed with Gianfelice on top of him, shouting the shared refrain of police and rapists: “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!”

“I’m not resisting – get off my back!” pleaded Mark. Indeed, given his physical condition, Mark didn’t have the ability to resist.

Gianfelice claims that the crippled, handcuffed man somehow managed to drag the two of them down to the ground. Mark reports that the officer threw him down and to the right. However they wound up on the ground, the officer – knowing that Mark had a back injury – drove his knee into Mark’s lower back, placing his entire body weight on the fragile and expensive piece of hardware embedded under Mark’s skin.

This incident was witnessed over the open phone line by Mark’s wife, Tina.

Officers Gianfelice and Nakai pulled Mark to his feet and escorted him into the emergency room. Once inside, Mark gasped out a complaint to the first nurse he saw:

“This officer just assaulted me. Please call for a third party officer to investigate.”

The nurse, who was legally obligated to report on an assault against a“vulnerable adult,” ignored Mark’s request. The officer responded by “check-punching” the handcuffed victim in the chest.

“What the hell are you doing?” Mark exclaimed, his patience long since exhausted. “Let me f****ng go!”

“Don’t use that kind of language!” snapped the nurse, suddenly alert to matters of decorum after being torpidly indifferent to the violence inflicted on Mark.

Gianfelice cited Mark for “disorderly conduct,” listing the offended nurse as a witness. Predictably, his report didn’t mention his act of criminal battery against the handcuffed victim. That crime, however, was documented by the emergency room’s security camera. Significantly, Gianfelice did not charge Mark with “resisting arrest.”

This was the only video record made of the encounter between Mark Byrge and the American Fork PD – despite the fact that the department takes extravagant pride in the fact that all 33 of its patrol officers are “wired” with VidCam units.

“The American Fork Police Department claims to be the first law enforcement agency in the country to outfit all of its officers with video cameras and microphones pinned to their uniform,” reported the Salt Lake Tribune in November 2007.

“We’ve been waiting. We’ve been looking for something like this to document the good work that police officers do,” explained Lt. Sam Liddiard.

Last October, Lt. Liddiard told KSL news that “any time an officer deals with someone, they’re required to be recording.” He offered unqualified praise for the video recording technology, insisting that the record usually cleared officers accused of abuse.

There were three wired officers involved in the encounter with Mark Byrge – Gianfelice and his trainee, Nakai, and their supervisor, Sgt. James Bevard. The officers either suffered an inexplicable simultaneous failure of their VidCam units, or they didn’t bother to activate them. Nor was a dashcam recording made by either of the police vehicles on the scene.

Shortly before Mark was assaulted by Gianfelice, he had visited a local clinic to have his SCS calibrated. He went back to the clinic following the assault and was told that the leads connecting the device to his spine had shifted, rendering it useless. The device had stopped functioning on the morning of April 18 – while he was in the custody of the American Fork Police.

Since that incident, “the patient’s pain as gotten worse and his right leg is now showing signs of possible Complex Regional Pain Syndrome,” observed Gary Child of the Utah Pain Relief Center in April 2013. CRPS is a serious degenerative condition that has left Mark unable to work – and is rapidly depriving him of the ability to walk.

Mark is a 43-year-old former football player and wrestler with a compact, muscular build and low center of gravity. He walks with the assistance of a cane as his right leg atrophies. Dark striations are inscribed in his right foot, ankle, and shin. His toes are splayed at wild angles owing to involuntary muscle contractions and spasms that convulse his right leg without warning or relief.

His body slowing cutting off circulation to his lower extremity “as if it is trying to break off my foot,” Mark explained to me. CRP Syndrome can lead to other severe complications, including major organ failure.

“There’s a good chance that this could be what kills me,” Mark predicts.

It should be recalled that Mark was entirely cooperative in his dealings with the American Fork Police Department. As Gianfelice admitted in his report, he had the option of cuffing Mark in the front, rather than wrenching his arms behind his back. Why was he so intransigent?

Mark points out that Gianfelice was accompanied by a trainee officer, which “always creates a temptation to show off, be a hard case, and put the citizen in his place.” An officer will be especially prone to strut and show off when the trainee is an attractive blonde female, like Officer Nakai.

Prior to the arrest, Mark and Gianfelice did exchange words. While the officer was taking photos of the accident, Mark suggested that he get a few of the protruding tree branch, which should have been clipped by a city maintenance crew.

”You sound like someone who doesn’t want to accept responsibility,” hectored the officer.

“Well, you sound like a city employee who’s worried about financial liability,” Mark replied.

The officer responded by ordering Mark into the cab of his truck – before ordering him out to arrest him.

As Mark attempted, unsuccessfully, to recover from the trauma inflicted on him by Officer Gianfelice, he filed complaints with the American Fork Police Department. He collected witness statements from several people who had been on the scene, as well as his wife and brother, who had overheard the incident over the open cell phone connection. He assembled statements from health care professionals about the damage done to him by Gianfelice’s assault. When the AFPD didn’t respond, Mark took his evidence to the Utah County Sheriff’s Office.

Mark’s persistence didn’t endear him to AFPD Chief Lance Call.

“You’ve run to every agency on the Wasatch Front,” groused Call when Mark contacted him to demand that action be takenr against Gianfelice. “I already investigated it – and I cleared the officer.”

“You didn’t talk to any of the witnesses or review any of my evidence,” Mark plaintively replied. “How can you `clear’ him just by reviewing his side of the story?”

“I told you `no’!” Call responded, hanging up.

“After this happened, I called the mayor’s office, even though it was after five o’clock,” Mark recounted to me. “I left him a message describing what Call said, and why I needed him to support an honest investigation.”

Unexpectedly, Mark received a reply the first thing the following morning.

“The mayor called at about 8:00 and left a message on my answering machine, telling me that he was going to have the Utah County Attorney’s Office conduct an investigation,” Mark relates. “The fact that this literally happened the first thing the morning after my call indicates that the mayor and other officials had been discussing what to do about my case.”

Before the county attorney’s office began its inquiry, Mark received another official visit from the AFPD.

“An American Fork officer showed up at our door – a really big guy I hadn’t seen before,” Mark attests.

“I’m here to tell you that if you pursue this it will not go well for you,” the officer growled at Mark, taking care to cover his badge with one hand.

“What’s your name?” Mark asked. “Are you threatening me?”

“You should just know that this isn’t going to go well for you,” the officer said, ignoring Mark’s question and turning to leave.

The official inquiry, which was conducted by Sgt. Scott R. Finch of the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, was the typical preordained exercise in validation. In his interview with Finch, Gianfelice repeatedly claimed that he “could not recall,” “could not remember,” or “could not recall from memory” several critical details of the incident.

Among the matters that eluded the memory of this trained observer was whether “he was shown anything that would indicate Mr. Byrge had a back injury”; whether “he or someone else did the handcuffing of Mr. Byrge”; whether “he handcuffed Mr. Byrge in front initially or if he was cuffed behind his back at first”; or if “any other citizens [were] present or approached them at the scene of the accident.” He offered the unqualified statement that Mark “did not complain of injury when they were on the scene.”

Two witnesses one the scene – Bob Cardon and Jason Wilde – testified that Mark complained of his back injury. This was confirmed by two witnesses who overheard the encounter via cell phone.

In his initial statement to Sgt. Finch, Gianfelice claimed that “he will evaluate or estimate a person’s flexibility and size and help them out by handcuffing them in front” and that he told Mark “he had a belly chain and he would allow Mr. Byrge to be cuffed in front.”

After Finch provided Gianfelice with a copy of his report “to refresh his memory,” the officer changed his original story, admitting that he did initially cuff Mark behind his back before transferring the cuffs to the front. This is the crux of the issue: Gianfelice ignored Mark’s pleas to cuff him in front until after the damage had been done, then he lied about doing so during the subsequent investigation. He did this despite clear and detailed warnings about what this would do to the victim.

In the original reports from Gianfelice and Nakai, Mark was described as “not combative.” In their revised versions, he was described as “out of control, angry, loud, and yelling.” Significantly, in her initial account of the “scuffle” at the hospital, in which Gianfelice wound up with his knee in Mark’s back, Nakai said she “was not sure what caused Mr. Byrge to fall” because “she was on the other side of the car” – yet despite the fact that she didn’t see what happened she insisted that this was caused by “Mr Berge jerking his arms away and he lost his balance.” She conceded that Gianfelice might have used a “touch-push” to deal with a supposedly uncooperative detainee.

Despite these abundant and crucial self-contradictions, Finch pronounced the expected benediction on his fellow officers, concluding that “After conducting this investigation I believe the officers’ actions were legal and responsible.”

Charged with “disorderly conduct,” Mark – who was forced to represent himself — attempted to obtain sworn statements from officers Gianfelice and Nakai.

“Sgt. Finch said that this wouldn’t be necessary, because they were sworn officers already under oath,” Mark informed me. “But all of my witnesses were required to make sworn statements under penalty of perjury. And then when I attempted to enter the officers’ statements as evidence in my trial, I was told that they weren’t admissible, because they hadn’t been made under oath. So I was deprived of any opportunity to demonstrate that the officers had contradicted themselves – which meant that I had no defense.”

Fully disabled and unable to make a living, Mark is pursuing a civil rights case against the AFPD. He is also a candidate for the Utah State Legislature.

“My campaign is going to focus entirely on abuse of power by public officials, especially the police,” Mark told me. “I’m in constant pain, and my body is literally devouring itself. I want to do anything I can to prevent this from happening to somebody else.”

Meanwhile, the assailant who left Mark an invalid, Andres Gianfelice, is receiving a salary of $83,682 a year as part of a 33-officer force patrolling a city of 21,000 people with a negligible violent crime rate. Officer Nakai, one year after finishing her probationary term, is drawing an annual salary of $63,932 – a pretty decent rate of compensation for a job open to anybody with a GED and a capacity for casual sadism.

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