Sniff 'n strip: Dog blamed in Buckingham stops
Tony Kenney still remembers the number of vehicles that drove by the night he alleges police forced him to take off his clothes by the side of Route 20 and stand in his boxer shorts: six cars, two trucks.
Sarah Radford is still angry about being taken behind the Route 60 Convenience Store in Dillwyn and made to take off her pants, squat, and cough while a female dispatcher from the Buckingham Sheriff's Office shined a flashlight on her privates.
In both cases, the Buckingham Sheriff's Office has said the incidents didn't happen– or that Kenney and Radford stripped voluntarily– before finally settling on "no comment."
Kenney was driving north with his girlfriend toward the Scottsville Bridge around 11:30pm May 22.
On the Buckingham County side of the bridge, they stopped at a law enforcement checkpoint. Kenney says Investigator Michael Mabry asked to see his license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. It would be more than two hours before police allowed him to continue on his way, Kenney says.
According to Kenney, Mabry conferred with another deputy and asked Kenney to pull off the road. "They said, 'My dog just had a hit on the truck,'" says Kenney.
Kenney and his girlfriend were asked to step from the car while Mabry searched the interior. When Kenney protested, Mabry, according to Kenney, said, "I don't need your consent because my dog had a hit."
"They searched the truck 17 or 18 times," says Kenney, 29, a woodcutter. They also told him his license was suspended, which he says he didn't realize until that night. "I said, 'Fine, let me go,'" says Kenney.
Instead, he maintains, the deputies would not release him, and Deputy Mike Gordon threatened, "Keep your mouth closed or we're going to arrest you."
Then, Kenney alleges, Deputy Gordon said, "I need you to take your clothes off." Kenney says he removed his shirt, pants, and shoes, and says an officer shined a flashlight between his legs.
"I was embarrassed," says Kenney. "This is how slow the cars were– the officers had to tell people to move along."
Gordon did not return phone calls from the Hook.
Mabry says he does not recall this specific stop, but he flatly denies that someone would be strip-searched by the side of a road in Buckingham. "It's not done at all in Buckingham," Mabry declares. "There is absolutely no truth to that."
He adds, "There have been some extenuating circumstances," but not in which police would require removal of clothes on the side of the road. "That is totally untrue," he repeats of Kenney's allegation.
Buckingham Sheriff Danny Williams says strip searches could happen "as long as they are out of plain view of the public." In Kenney's case, Williams– who was not at the scene of the alleged incident– says things didn't happen the way Kenney claims and that Kenney was not told to remove his clothes.
"He didn't have a shirt on, and his pants were undone when he pulled up," says Williams. "The dog alerted on him, and when the officers said they were going to pat him down, he said, 'You don't have to do that. I'll take them off.'"
Williams also says that the initial stop occurred because Kenney didn't have a driver's license, and when the officers checked, it was suspended.
Kenney claims he did have his license, and that's what his girlfriend, Ellen Johnson, recalls. She was riding with Kenney that night as he drove her new 4Runner. "He showed them his driver's license," says Johnson, who says Kenney was wearing a white tank popularly known as a "wife beater." As for his pants being unzipped, Johnson says, "I don't think so."
Kenney believes his was a case of racial profiling because his girlfriend was carrying $1,800 in cash that night, he was driving a nice car, and he's black.
"Ma'am, I'm black," says Investigator Mabry, who worked 22 years in Richmond before joining the Buckingham force in July 2004. "That is furthest from the truth."
"The white guy," whom Johnson believes was Gordon, "asked Tony to pull off his clothes," she says. "I heard him ask him to take off his clothes. He had everything off. He'd even stepped out of his shoes."
She says she was carrying the large sum of money because she was in the process of changing banks. She estimates Kenney was undressed for 20 or 25 minutes.
"I was upset," she recalls. "I asked, 'What are y'all doing? He's standing in the middle of the road in his boxers with cars going by.'"
At 1:45am– over two hours after he stopped and after no drugs had been found– Kenney and Johnson were allowed to leave. He knows the exact time because he called his mother throughout the ordeal, and he produces cell phone records that appear to document the length of his detention.
Mabry says it's possible that someone could be detained for two hours while police search a vehicle. And Sheriff Williams says that Kenney admitted that he could have been somewhere people were smoking marijuana and had the scent on him or his clothes. "That's why the dog alerted," says Williams.
"At my mama's house?" asks Kenney, disputing the allegation. "I don't smoke or drink." And he says he was not around anyone smoking pot.
Kenney is not the only person claiming to have been strip-searched on the side of the road by Buckingham authorities.
"Tony is the fourth person to complain about mistreatment in Buckingham County," says attorney Steve Rosenfield, who frequently handles cases for the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's pretty unusual for me to see so many cases from the same small jurisdiction."
One of those who contacted Rosenfield was Sarah Radford, a 20-year-old Piedmont Virginia Community College student– and daughter of a well-known minister.
She was in a car with four men headed to a job resetting merchandise at a Lowe's in North Carolina. They had just left the Dillwyn Food Lion around 11pm– she doesn't remember the exact night in May– when the car was pulled over.
The drug-sniffing dog was called, says Radford, and circled the car. The occupants were asked to get out, and "He sniffed all five of us," she says.
Two of the men were told they needed to be searched, and an officer patted them down, says Radford, while others were "tearing up the car."
She remembers a white van pulling up and a woman– not in uniform– approached her. "She said, 'You might want to come with me behind this building because a lot of clothes are going to come off,'" relates Radford.
"I said I wasn't taking clothes off because I didn't have underwear on," says Radford. "She said it didn't matter because they were all coming off."
Radford said the woman, a dispatcher, took her behind a convenience store and told her to take her pants off. "She told me to squat and cough," says Radford. "She's down there, and she said to cough harder."
Returning to the parked car, Radford says she asked why the males were patted down and she had to strip.
She alleges that Investigator Mabry came over and said, "Welcome to Buckingham." Mabry did not return subsequent phone calls from the Hook.
And then, says Radford, the woman who'd spotlighted her genitals came back and said she'd forgotten to check her pockets.
"It was humiliating," says Radford, "embarrassing and humiliating." After detaining the group for about an hour and a half, police allowed them to go– having found no drugs and writing no ticket.
"Hell, I'm still pissed about it," says Ron Lopretto, driver of the car and Radford's boss. "They tore my car all to hell, and I didn't get a ticket for nothing."
Lopretto says the stop made him late getting to the job in North Carolina. "To me, it was nothing but harassment," he says. "I called the sheriff six or seven times and never got a call back or an apology or anything."
Jim Radford, minister at James River Church, is still incredulous that his daughter was strip-searched behind a darkened building, and he and his wife immediately contacted the police. They met with all the officers involved. "They didn't apologize at all," says Radford. "They said they were following protocol."
When he asked the officers why Sarah had been forced to squat and cough, "They said they'd stopped a car and found drugs in a woman's vagina," recounts Radford. "They said there was a precedent."
Radford wants to be a supporter of the sheriff and his deputies. "I know Danny Williams, and I voted for him," Radford says, "but in Sarah's case, I did think her rights were violated." His reaction to his daughter being strip-searched? "I was angry," says Radford.
Sarah Radford contacted attorney Rosenfield, who wrote Sheriff Williams. "The sheriff wrote [Rosenfield] and said what I told him was false, that I misled him," says Radford.
Does the Reverend Radford believe his daughter was lying? "No," he says. "I don't. I think the account she gave was straightforward."
Sheriff Williams did not return subsequent calls from the Hook, and according to a dispatcher there, he instructed her to respond to press inquiries with "no comment."
The problem, Rosenfield believes, is relying upon a police dog that he can't cross-examine for probable cause. "The dog has had so many erroneous hits," he says. "Then upon searching by the deputies, drugs are not found. The dog is 0 for 4."
Lopretto and Jim Radford both say they were told the dog would sit to indicate the presence of drugs. "I watched him," says Lopretto. "He didn't." And when the five passengers had to get out of Lopretto's car and the dog walked around them, 'I didn't see him sit on anybody," Lopretto adds.
The fact that the officers did not find drugs, says Investigator Mabry, does not mean drugs were not there at one time.
Albemarle County spokesman Lt. John Teixeira explains his county's policy on strip searches: "You don't strip search people on the side of the road.
"For us, the policy is very specific with regard to searches," he says. Albemarle police may ask a suspect to remove a jacket and shoes, but "We would not have them disrobe to their under-shorts."
Is a lawsuit in the works? "A final decision has not been made," says Rosenfield. "I'd certainly like to know if others are out there."
And if suit is filed, "Any lawsuit ought to ask for injunctive release to stop this abuse by a dog not qualified for that function," says Rosenfield. "If it has such a shoddy rate of accuracy, then it would be abusive to continue to use that sort of law enforcement tool."
Five months after the incident, Tony Kenney wants justice. "I want them to know you can't do this to people," he says. "I won't go to Buckingham at night. I have to admit, I'm afraid."
Tony Kenney worried that Buckingham County deputies would charge him with indecent exposure after they made him take off his clothes at the side of the road.
PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER