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Trisha Farkarlun's strip search: Was it revenge for accusing police of rape?

Twin Cities attorney Jill Clark is representing Farkarlun in a suit that accuses Hennepin County jailers of assault, battery, an improper strip search, and planting narcotics
Nick Vlcek

"Damn women tonight," said a sergeant at the Hennepin County jail's intake entrance.

The deputies standing around with him agreed. "They're terrible tonight."

"Who is it? Some newbie or one of the usual?"

"I don't know her," replied a dark-haired female Minneapolis police officer standing with them. "But she says she already has a lawsuit open, or something like that."

"Any tips you want to give?" the officer asked the deputies. "I don't know how to do a strip search really. I've done one."

No one could offer much advice—one said she had only performed two strip searches herself.

"You guys don't even get trained on it?" asked a deputy, surprised.

"No, so we don't get trained on it so I have no idea."

"We'll get her down to one layer of clothing and see what happens."

Deputies led in a stout, dark-skinned woman with short braids, her hands cuffed behind her back. They forced her up against the hard gray wall.

"Are you going to beat me up?" the prisoner asked.

"No," said a female deputy. "You're going to get searched like everybody else."

"I want to speak to my lawyer," the prisoner demanded.

"Face the wall!" the sergeant commanded as the prisoner was shoved against it.

"Down!" demanded the sergeant, as they threw her to the concrete floor and held her. "Now are you going to cooperate or not?"

"Yeah," the prisoner said. "What am I under arrest for?"

"I don't know. That's not our concern."

The deputies untied her shoes, whipped off her socks, and yanked down her jeans.

"I request females on me—not no males," the prisoner pleaded.

"You got females on you," one of the male officers said.

Two of the deputies were women, and the other four were men. Three Minneapolis police officers stood in the doorway of the intake room watching the action.

The deputies stripped off the prisoner's long johns. Then they uncuffed her and pulled her shirt over her head, briefly exposing part of her butt and leaving her in only a pair of boxers and an undershirt.

Some of the deputies frisked her. The others searched through her mislaid clothes. No one found anything. Then the two female deputies and the female officer took her away to finish the strip search.

A few minutes later, the three female officers came out of the room with the search's yield: a breath mint.

"A mint?" asked the sergeant. The room erupted in laughter.

"You know, they put a mint on the pillow, you know, at a hotel," the sergeant joked. "You know where the mint was, right? Did you get that one?"

The deputies brought the prisoner a set of orange jail scrubs. While she changed, a few of them walked off the adrenaline from tackling her.

"I love that floor," the sergeant said. "That floor makes it all worthwhile."

   

JUST AFTER BAR CLOSE in late July 2007, Trisha Farkarlun and her girlfriend, Tracy Winters, were driving back from the Gay '90s nightclub to Winters's house in north Minneapolis. Farkarlun asked Winters to give her friend a ride somewhere. When Winters told her she didn't feel like it, the two started bickering.

"It was a petty argument," Winters admits.

The spat continued after they got home. By the time the sun started to rise, they were loudly squabbling in the yard. Someone called 911.

Minneapolis police officers Paul Gillies and his rookie partner MiQuel Barnes responded to the scene at 6:19 a.m.

Still hot from the argument, Farkarlun started giving lip to Barnes. The officers cuffed Farkarlun and put her in the back of the squad car to run her driver's license. When it came back with no warrants, they uncuffed her and let her go. Farkarlun walked down Vincent Avenue North toward Golden Valley Road to catch a bus.

Farkarlun would later claim that the officers caught up with her a few blocks down Vincent Avenue and dragged her into a nearby alley, where she says she was held down and raped.

Winters went looking for Farkarlun and found her on the ground in tears. Farkarlun told Winters that the officers had raped her. By 6:59 a.m.—just under a half-hour after the police left Winters's house—Farkarlun and Winters were at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale seeking treatment. When Farkarlun said she was raped by police officers, the hospital called Internal Affairs.

Internal Affairs Officer Sgt. Troy Schoenberger and his partner showed up to visit Farkarlun in the hospital a few hours later.

"I understand you went through a traumatic incident this morning, and we want to ask you a few questions about it," Schoenberger said in the hospital room. "I know some of these questions are going to be uncomfortable, but it's important that we get as much information as we can to make sure that we can find out what exactly happened and hold anyone that might have done this accountable."

 

"No," screeched Farkarlun through tears. "I don't want to do this.... They said they're going to hurt me and they got my name and address."

"Honey, they understand that," a nurse chimed in. "But this is the only way they can help you."

"The fact that this happened to you is something that we want to make sure doesn't happen to somebody else," explained the other officer. "And I know that puts a lot of pressure on you, and I want you to understand that we know that."

Farkarlun calmed down and told the officers her story about being held down and raped. The officers questioned her for about a half-hour in the hospital, asking Farkarlun to reveal every graphic detail. Then they left.

Gillies and Barnes were brought downtown for booking that afternoon.

Schoenberger investigated Farkarlun's accusations and found that the GPS tracker in the officers' squad car put them at another part of town at the time Farkarlun claimed they raped her. The officers didn't even have dirt on their uniforms.

Schoenberger reported his findings to the Minneapolis city attorney's office, which on August 1, 2007, charged Farkarlun with a gross misdemeanor for filing a phony complaint.

Farkarlun says she found out about the charges from watching a story about it on the news. "I was shocked," says Farkarlun. "I was shocked and scared."

   

TWO YEARS LATER, prosecutor Judd Gushwa of the Minneapolis city attorney's office addressed a pool of jurors in Judge Tanya Bransford's courtroom in the Hennepin County Government Center.

"DNA, GPS, testimony, traffic stops.... The evidence is going to show that officer Gillies and officer Barnes did not commit a rape and in fact were nowhere near the location the defendant stated they were," Gushwa explained in his opening argument.

He called an expert witness to the stand who testified that in the half-hour between when the officers had left Winters's house and when Farkarlun had arrived at North Memorial, they had logged two traffic stops.

The nurse from North Memorial who administered the rape kit also took the stand. Based on her exam, she told the court that she couldn't determine whether Farkarlun had been sexually assaulted.

"There were numerous bruises on the patient, but a lot of things didn't add up to me," the nurse testified.

The officers had voluntarily submitted their DNA twice, and neither man had matched the fluids swabbed from Farkarlun.

The court called Officer Gillies to the stand. A longtime veteran of the force, he was popular enough to attract a crowd.

Gillies told the court that Farkarlun was irate when he and Barnes arrived at the house that July morning. She threatened to assault Winters, so they put her in the squad car to cool off. Farkarlun agreed to grab her clothes and leave. That was the last he saw of her.

"Did you rape the defendant, Trisha Farkarlun?" asked Gushwa.

"No," replied Gillies.

"Did you see anybody else rape Trisha Farkarlun?"

"No."

Jill Clark, Farkarlun's attorney, tried to raise reasonable doubt, but it was a losing fight. The prosecution called witness after witness to testify against Farkarlun. Over the course of the nearly three-week-long trial, Gushwa made clear that the officers could not have possibly raped Farkarlun.

"She expected [internal affairs] to go out and look at it," Gushwa told the jurors in his closing statements. "She expected them to do all those things while at the same time knowing it didn't happen, and that's what the evidence tells you."

In the end, it took the jury only one hour to convict Farkarlun of filing a false complaint against the officers.

Judge Bransford said that Farkarlun seemed to earnestly believe she had been raped, but the case against her was too strong. Bransford sentenced Farkarlun to two years of probation and 20 days of community service.

   

SHORTLY AFTER 1 A.M. on September 30, 2009, Farkarlun was a passenger in a Dodge Neon driven by Winters in downtown Minneapolis when a police cruiser turned on the flashing lights.

Minneapolis police officers Chao Lee and Mark Lanasa approached the Neon from either side. Peering through the windows, the officers spotted an open can of Olde English 800 resting in the cup holder.

"Step out of the car," they told Winters.

The officers told her that they had watched on surveillance cameras as one of the passengers in her car sold drugs near the Gay '90s nightclub earlier.

The officers pat-searched Winters and found nothing. They asked her to sit in the paddy wagon.

Next the officers pulled aside another passenger, Montrell Gardner. They had asked Gardner if he had any drugs on him. Gardner fiddled nervously in his sweater pockets, then admitted to having a bag of marijuana on him. A pat down found two small bags.

 

While her friends were being searched, Farkarlun sat in the car alone. One of the officers came back and told her to step out of the vehicle. The officer pat-searched her and found nothing. Then he asked her to take off her shoes and socks. There was nothing there either. The second officer came over and pat-searched Farkarlun again. Nothing.

Not satisfied, the officers brought Farkarlun to the First Precinct Police Station in downtown Minneapolis. At the precinct, Farkarlun says she was searched repeatedly by officers.

"I had to be searched over 10 times," says Farkarlun. "And that's no exaggeration."

But the officers found nothing. Still not satisfied, they brought her to the jail to be strip-searched. A video of the incident documents what happened next.

After the strip search was over and Farkarlun had changed into jail scrubs, the deputies put Farkarlun's clothes in a gray bin. They told her to take the bin down to the jail's property room to be inventoried.

When she arrived, the jailer working in the property room took a quick glance at the bin and pulled out an eighth of marijuana—roughly $50 worth.

   

WHEN FARKARLUN WAS finally allowed her one phone call, she rang Clark, the lawyer from the false complaint suit, to tell her she'd been arrested.

Farkarlun was released from jail in the early afternoon and met with Clark that day.

Clark requested the footage of the strip search as well as the surveillance cameras that had recorded the alleged drug dealing. She received the footage of the strip search right away, but was told there was a technical malfunction and the alleged drug dealing had not been recorded.

The video of the strip search clearly shows that the officers didn't follow the rules, Clark argues. The footage shows both men and women peeling off Farkarlun's pants, long johns, and shirt, in violation of the procedure manual, which states: "Strip searches shall be conducted only by custody staff of the same gender."

The number of people present during the search is also not common procedure, says Christie Needleman, a criminal defense attorney from Baltimore who has tried similar cases.

"Normally it would be a one-on-one situation," says Needleman. "Or no more people there than is necessary for security."

In February, Clark filed a federal lawsuit against Hennepin County alleging that Farkarlun was illegally strip-searched. The suit also accuses the deputies of planting drugs on her clothes.

Farkarlun says she overhead officers at the First Precinct talking about her false complaint trial.

"I just knew something was funny," she says. "I thought they were just going to take me in the alley or something."

   

THE POLICE AND JAILERS give a starkly different account of what happened on September 30. In official reports, Officers Lanasa and Lee say they saw a suspicious group of people crowded around the intersection of Fifth Street and Hennepin Avenue.

They went to the nearby First Precinct to get a better look through the surveillance cameras aimed at the intersection. Through the monitor, they saw a woman—later identified as Farkarlun—drop something on the ground. Then a stranger picked it up and made "hand-to-hand contact" with her.

The officers reported that they saw this same sequence repeated several times before Farkarlun and Gardner headed to the dark Neon. That's why the officers pulled them over.

"She wasn't arrested because she was targeted," says Minneapolis police spokesman Sgt. Jesse Garcia. "She was arrested because of her behavior."

On February 17, assistant Hennepin County Attorney Toni Beitz submitted an answer to Farkarlun's civil suit. If Farkarlun was injured during the search, the response argues, it was a result of her resisting orders. Beitz also says that there was nothing improper about the strip search, though she would not elaborate. Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Kevin Lindsey also filed an answer denying the allegations on behalf of some of the deputies. None of the officers or jailers involved would comment.

Garcia says that Farkarlun has already proven herself to be an unreliable witness, which is why no one should believe her now.

"She has absolutely no credibility," Garcia says. "I spent some time in the court watching, and I stand by this: She has no credibility."

   

AFTER HER ARREST, Farkarlun was charged with a misdemeanor for loitering with intent to commit a crime. The Hennepin County Attorney's Office dropped those charges late last year.

Clark offered Hennepin County and the deputies a chance to settle the strip-search case out of court, but they declined. Clark and the county attorneys are scheduled to meet with a judge later this month for a pretrial hearing.

 

Before the rape allegation, Farkarlun was enrolled at the Minnesota School of Business studying law enforcement. She has since dropped out. Now she has no permanent address. She flinches whenever she sees police cars drive by.

"I'll never have my life back," she says.


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