Event Cut Short

Pinal County's sheriff investigates a raid at outdoor arts fest GLOW, and apologizes for officers' behavior

On the evening of Saturday, Sept. 9, musician Gary Mackender was preparing to lead his band The Carnivaleros in a performance at GLOW, an outdoor arts festival that celebrates the full moon.

Several hundred audience members sat expectantly in chairs at the Triangle L Ranch near Oracle, and the moon was shining, on schedule (see "All A-GLOW," Performing Arts, Sept. 7). But around 10 p.m., the concert was short-circuited by a brigade of Pinal County sheriff's deputies.

According to numerous eyewitnesses, including Sharon Holnback, the ranch owner and artist who organizes GLOW each year, the lawmen strode toward the stage along ranch pathways lit up for the festival with Christmas lights. They shouted that they were shutting down the "illegal gathering" and that everyone had to leave, astonishing the GLOW-goers, a docile group of mostly middle-agers, families with young children and a few elders with walkers and wheelchairs.

Mackender responded with an announcement of his own.

"The Gestapo have arrived. Here's your tax dollars at work, so I guess we have to leave," he said from the stage.

At that, a couple of deputies jumped onto the stage, pulled Mackender's arms behind his back and handcuffed him. Then the deputy shoved him off stage and "slammed him against a horse trailer," Holnback said.

A deputy grabbed the microphone, she said, and yelled at the audience, "You have 10 minutes to get off the property. We're going to arrest everyone and tow everyone if you don't leave. This is an illegal event."

Christine Baines, an audience member, was surprised. "I thought it was a performance at first. I'd never seen a real officer behave like that.

"When they threw him to the side of the stage, I first realized it was real. There were children who were crying. One little boy asked his father, 'Is he going to get hurt?'"

The audience roared disapproval, shouting, "Why?" but the officers continued to bark orders at them to leave. Amidst mass confusion, Holnback said, the estimated crowd of 400 rushed headlong, "in a mass exodus," for their cars.

Special GLOW vans that had driven the elderly and disabled to the festival were not permitted back onto the ranch, Holnback said, and those people had to hobble back over the dirt paths to the road as best they could. Hundreds arrived back at their cars at the same time, and a massive traffic jam ensued.

"It was totally out of control," she said. "They jeopardized everyone's safety."

Five days later, the situation was reversed. It was a sunny morning at the Oracle Community Center. In place of Mackender, Pinal County Sheriff Christopher Vasquez stood in front of an angry crowd, which included some of the people pitched out of GLOW. And instead of shouting at the citizenry as his deputies had done, Vasquez apologized for his underlings' behavior and said GLOW should not have been shut down.

"The buck stops here," Vasquez told the gathering of some 75 people on Sept. 14. "I accept full responsibility for the actions of my officers. That's why I'm up here apologizing.

"I'm accountable. I will look into this. Any wrongdoing will be dealt with."

Vasquez said he had already assigned two officers, Cpl. John Ellsworth and Sgt. Phil LeBlanc, to investigate the episode at the ranch. And as of that morning, he'd pulled the lead officer in the incident, Cpl. Randall Snyder, off regular duty and out of uniform, sidelining him to desk duty pending the results of the probe.

"What happened that day is not the norm," said Vasquez, who's up for election in November. "We'll do what we have to do, whether it's training or disciplining our officers, and make sure it doesn't happen again."

Vasquez said disciplinary measures could range from a verbal reprimand to a letter to outright dismissal, though he didn't think it was likely anyone would be fired.

No one was charged in the incident. Mackender was kept handcuffed by the officers for about 20 minutes, he said, during which time they would allow neither his wife nor his drummer to speak to him. He was never read his rights, he said.

"Cpl. Snyder asked me if I was going to continue to incite the crowd. I said, 'No,' and he took off the cuffs," he recalled. "I think we all know who was actually inciting a potential riot, and it wasn't me."

Vasquez also stressed that Holnback had done nothing wrong. The artist, who runs the 50-acre ranch as a bed and breakfast, had met in late August with the county Planning and Zoning Department to let them know about her annual art party. Vasquez said he still doesn't know why planning staff didn't inform the sheriff's office of the big event, as they usually do in such cases.

"Sharon did everything she should have done," he said.

So how did things go so wrong on the ranch that night?

Friday night's GLOW attracted fewer visitors, but on Saturday night, with the crowds swelling into the hundreds, complaints were called in by "three or four" neighbors about parking, Vazquez said. Holnback said that about one hour into the event, a little after 9 p.m., an officer arrived.

GLOW-goers park outside the ranch on the side of Oracle Ranch Road, and the officer was worried that emergency vehicles could not get through. Holnback said she tried to defuse the problem by asking people to move their cars if they were blocking the road.

But the situation quickly deteriorated when the sheriff's department "called officers and police cars from all over the county," Holnback said. The gaggle of lawmen on the road started turning away party-goers before they ever got to GLOW, even forbidding Heather Hardy, the Carnivaleros' violinist, to enter, Holnback said.

Numerous speakers at the meeting said that a K-9 officer, whom they called the "man in black," spoke abusively to festival-goers. (Vasquez confirmed that two black-clad K-9 officers were among the eight officers responding, but he had not yet identified which of the two allegedly provoked the assembly.)

"I was one of the first ones who had any exchange with the officers," Karen Lombardi, a shuttle driver, told Vasquez at the meeting. "The man in black started mouthing off. He flashed a flashlight at the back seat of my car and said, 'We know about these parties, with drugs and alcohol.'"

But no alcohol is sold or served at the event. Now in its third year, GLOW is essentially a quirky art party. Local artists erect lighted sculptures on a desert sculpture walk, and musicians perform on a mainstage in a wash and in impromptu settings in the desert. Fire dancers dance; blacksmiths do demos of their craft, and a couple of self-styled "pie ladies" sell baked goods in the historic ranch house.

Darrel Klesch, who worked at the gate selling tickets, said the arriving officers were describing it as a "rave," a drug-fueled rock party. But as they left, having chased away the crowds, Klesch said he overheard them remark that it really hadn't been a rave at all.

Holnback said she invited the officers in, so they could see the peaceable activities, to no avail.

"I talked to Cpl. Snyder for 45 minutes," she said. "They never took the opportunity to evaluate the crowd."

(Cpl. Snyder is not permitted to comment pending the investigation, said to Pinal County sheriff's spokesman Michael Minter.)

Last year, after a complaint from a neighbor about music, officers showed up, suspecting a rave, Holnback said. But they toured GLOW at her invitation; she turned the music down, and the problem was resolved amicably.

This year, however, "the officers storm-trooped in," Holnback said. "It was very unprofessional. They started yelling at people, saying, 'The party is over. Get out now.'"

Vasquez told the crowd that even if the event had been a rave or an "outlaw biker" party, the responding officers handled the situation incorrectly. In the case of a problematic gathering, officers are supposed to divide a large crowd into much smaller groups, and have the groups leave gradually, "one at a time. And certainly not in 10 minutes."

Ironically, in an incident apparently provoked by concerns about road safety, the deputies "created more of a hazard," Vasquez admitted. "Absolutely, they made the problem worse."

The officer who handcuffed Mackender was undoubtedly angered by the musician's Gestapo remark, Vasquez said, but that didn't excuse his behavior.

"We are human, and our emotions can get away from us. But we can't let what people call us affect how we do our job."

Mackender was exercising his right to free speech, the sheriff noted.

"I do believe heavily in the Constitution, in the right to assemble, the right to free speech, the right to express anger at the government," Vasquez said. "We're here to defend the Constitution."

It could be weeks or even a couple of months before the investigation is complete, Vasquez said. The investigating officers will gather up all police reports and recordings of 911 calls from that night and interview as many witnesses as possible. GLOW-goers have already flooded the sheriff's office with angry e-mails and posted their comments on the ranch Web site ( www.trianglelranch.com ), but the investigators are hoping some GLOW-goers will come forward with photos or videotapes. Witnesses are asked to call LeBlanc at (520) 866-5171.

Connie Colter, Mackender's wife, took a picture of him in handcuffs, but Holnback said everything happened so quickly, she's not sure if any other images were made.

The meeting "was positive," she said, "They're taking it seriously. They're trying to make it right. We're going to work together. It's pointed out problems in the system."

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