A man in Crawford County, Mich., was arrested and charged with felony assault with a deadly weapon on Sunday after he called authorities about a trespassing suspect on his property, his wife tells TheBlaze. There are also serious allegations being made about officers demanding that video footage of the incident -- taken by the man's wife -- be deleted.
Thomas Donald, a military veteran, was reportedly out hunting with his 11-year-old son and armed with an "unloaded" single-shot .410-gauge shotgun (his son chose to use a crossbow instead) when he confronted a man riding a dirt bike on his 10 acres of land. The man and his son then reportedly escorted the trespasser to the front of his property and told his wife, Heather, to call the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to file a "recreational trespass."
What happened when the Crawford County Sheriff's Department arrived shocked them both, though Sheriff Kirk Wakefield tells TheBlaze quite a different story.
In an exclusive interview with TheBlaze, Heather Donald recounted what happened from the couple's perspective. Her husband, Thomas, declined to speak with us on the advice of his attorney and due to the charges against him. His attorney also declined an interview request.
When officers with the Crawford County Sheriff's Department arrived on the scene, Heather says her husband held up the "open shotgun" with his left hand while holding the shell in his right hand to indicate the weapon was not loaded and assure officers he was not a threat.
The officers apparently didn't see it that way. And while Heather later would start recording the incident, it should be noted that there is no footage available to show the moment deputies confronted Donald.
One of the deputies, identified by Heather as Shawn Schnoor, "fumbled" with his pistol and trained it on Donald, ordering him to get on the ground. Heather told TheBlaze it took her husband longer than the officer wanted because he has a badly injured back but he moved as fast as he could. Donald was handcuffed before police made their way to talk to the trespassing suspect.
Realizing how quickly the situation had gotten out of control, Heather said she began filming the scene on her cellphone camera.
In the video provided to TheBlaze, Heather can be heard asking why her husband is being arrested.
"Because we pulled up and he had a handgun -- or excuse me, a rifle," one of the deputies says, before being corrected by Donald. "A shotgun."
Crawford County Sheriff Wakefield told TheBlaze that detaining the man was the correct thing to do because he had a gun and they didn't know "who was who" at that point.
The deputy makes no mention of an alleged assault in the short video while explaining why they had detained him. Under Michigan law, openly carrying firearms is legal, except at certain locations -- and being on your own private property isn't one of them.
When asked if they would take the handcuffs off, he replies: "Not right now. He's under -- for our protection." Heather said the deputy seemed to abruptly stop short of declaring her husband was "under arrest."
Moments before the short 36-second video ends, another officer tells Heather she "can" stop filming. When she refuses, he informs her they need to take the cellphone as "evidence" and they move to take it from her.
"No you won't!" Donald can be heard shouting, while still in handcuffs on the grass.
"Yep. Ma'am you're going to be under--" one of the officers says before the video cuts off. Heather told TheBlaze the last word of that sentence was "arrest."
Heather says she turned to walk away from the officers, but put the cellphone on the railing of her front porch after she was threatened with obstruction of justice charges. The deputies then allegedly confiscated the phone temporarily, but returned it to her before they left.
"They never told me why they needed my phone for evidence," she added.
Blaze editor Jason Howerton discussed this story with Editor in Chief Scott Baker on today's BlazeCast:
Recovering the footage
Heather told TheBlaze the officers later ordered her to delete the video footage she captured of the arrest. She said she complied.
However, the couple was able to recover the deleted video using recovery software, she says. The command to delete allegation has not been proven true, and Sheriff Wakefield could not confirm or deny the report because the deputies in question were not in the office and available for questioning.
If the officer took the phone for evidence, it was likely to see if any footage of the alleged assault was recorded, he claimed. The sheriff also said he doesn't believe his deputies ordered Heather to delete it.
Heather provided the following screenshots that allegedly show the recovery software used to retrieve the video in question:
Sheriff Wakefield sees this incident quite differently.
In addition to downplaying claims about orders to delete the video, he told TheBlaze the trespassing suspect informed police that Donald pointed a "loaded" gun at him and detained him at gunpoint until authorities arrived, which Heather says she and her husband dispute. The sheriff confirmed they have no other evidence of that and it is one man's word against another's.
Wakefield said the trespassing suspect was riding his dirt bike on a trail on Donald's property, but didn't realize he was trespassing because there was no signage. He said the trespasser was actually the "victim" in this case.
"You have to think, 'OK, how did this all happen?' You go back and you can see on the trail where the guy was riding his bike. We get out there and he's got the gun in his hand," he said. "What does that lead one to believe? When you point a loaded firearm at someone, unless you are in fear of your life, that's felonious assault."
Directly contradicting the sheriff, Heather told TheBlaze that they have "signage plastered on three sides up and down" the property. She also video recorded the area that the trespasser allegedly entered their property, where signs warning against hunting and trespassing are clearly posted. She provided the footage to TheBlaze:
In another video provided to TheBlaze, Heather explains the problems they have had with trespassers and "poachers" in the past.
"If somebody doesn't see that, they're blind," she said.
Felonious assault, according to Michigan state law, is defined as:
(1) Except as provided in subsection (2), a person who assaults another person with a gun, revolver, pistol, knife, iron bar, club, brass knuckles, or other dangerous weapon without intending to commit murder or to inflict great bodily harm less than murder is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 4 years or a fine of not more than $2,000.00, or both.
When asked if the trespassing suspect's word was enough probable cause to charge Donald with a felony, Wakefield answered in the affirmative. He also said that whether or not the gun was loaded doesn't matter. (Donald's wife claims his shotgun was unloaded and he never points a gun at anything he doesn't intend to kill, citing his military training.)
"We don't want to hinge this on whether or not the gun was loaded. The point is, he pointed the gun," Wakefield said.
The sheriff was dismissive when considering the incident from Donald's side, a man who allegedly encountered an individual he believed to be unlawfully trespassing on his property and contacted the authorities.
"Well, yeah. If someone is trespassing on your property, you need to tell them to leave. If they don't leave, you call the police," he replied.
Sheriff Wakefield also said his department has "had contact" with Donald before, but refused to elaborate. Heather said she and her husband have complained to the sheriff's department about trespassers on their land repeatedly, though it is unclear if that is what the sheriff was referring to.
When asked if Donald's decision to call authorities was evidence of a lack of criminal intent, the sheriff was again dismissive.
Donald was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon (felonious assault) "without intending to commit the crime of murder or to inflict great bodily harm less than the crime of murder." He faces up to four years in jail and/or a $2,000 fine. Police have also confiscated his shotgun and hunting knife and are holding them as evidence in the case, according to Donald's wife.
The man on the dirt bike was allegedly issued a citation for trespassing by a conservation officer but was not arrested.
Heather said her husband didn't assault anyone. She said Donald told him the butt of his "unloaded" single-shot shotgun was resting on a chair and his left hand was on the barrel while he pointed at the biker with his right hand.
However, an arrest warrant names Deputy Schnoor as the "complaining witness" to the alleged crime:
The couple is outraged because "this is a man who was openly carrying an unloaded shotgun on his own property, which is legal in Michigan, and it's even hunting season," Heather told TheBlaze.
In Michigan, it is legal to openly carry long guns, like a shotgun, other than at some specified locations. Per state law:
(1) Except as provided in subsection (2), a person shall not possess a firearm on the premises of any of the following:
(a) A depository financial institution or a subsidiary or affiliate of a depository financial institution.
(b) A church or other house of religious worship.
(c) A court.
(d) A theatre.
(e) A sports arena.
(f) A day care center.
(g) A hospital.
The law also goes on to exempt any person who "possesses a firearm on the premises of an entity described in subsection (1) if that possession is with the permission of the owner or an agent of the owner of that entity." In this case, he was the owner of the property.
"It's very disturbing," Heather said, "and all of this happened in front of my children. Police are supposed to be the good guys and, at least in this case, they didn't hold themselves to that standard."
This story has been updated.