A 65-year-old gay man has filed a complaint with the Lewes, Del., police department accusing an officer of causing him to suffer a serious head injury and severe pain in his arm and back by throwing him onto the floor in the emergency department at Beebe Healthcare, a hospital that serves Lewes and nearby Rehoboth Beach.
Lewes is considered a close second to Rehoboth Beach as a popular seaside destination for LGBT people in the mid-Atlantic region, including D.C. and Baltimore.
Robaire G. Lizama, a former D.C. resident who lives in Lewes, told the Washington Blade he believes Officer Tyrone Woodyard targeted him for abusive treatment and an improper arrest because he’s gay.
“I don’t think he would grab a straight man, bear hug him and then body slam him to the ground and try to tell him he’s being arrested,” Lizama said.
Police arrest records show that the incident began on the evening of Jan. 25 shortly after Lizama accompanied a female friend to the hospital emergency room while she was experiencing chest pain.
Lizama said a nurse asked him to leave the emergency room and wait in the hospital’s lobby and waiting area after he became upset over what he thought was a slow response by nurses and doctors to examine his friend, who he thought was having a heart attack.
After exchanging words with at least one nurse, he said he obeyed the request to leave the cubicle where his friend had been taken and began walking toward what he thought was the waiting room area.
“As I was walking I didn’t know where the main waiting room was so I turned around and he grabs me and throws me to the ground,” Lizama said. “I hit my head on the ground and there’s blood all over the emergency room.”
Added Lizama: “He was on my back putting handcuffs on me and he couldn’t get them on right and I kept telling him it’s hurting me, it’s hurting. He kept saying, you know, quit resisting arrest. I said, ‘I’m not resisting. It’s my arm. You’re killing me.’”
To his shock and dismay, Lizama said Woodyard told him he was placing him under arrest for disorderly conduct, menacing and resisting arrest.
Charging documents show he was booked at the Lewes police station and appeared before a magistrate at the station through a closed circuit television hookup on the night of the incident. He was released on his own recognizance and ordered not to return to Beebe Healthcare or to come into contact with any of the hospital employees involved in the incident. He is scheduled to appear in Sussex County Court of Common Pleas in Georgetown, Del., on Feb. 27.
Woodyard states in an arrest affidavit that he and a hospital security guard were called by nurses to the emergency room after they reported Lizama became “disorderly.” His affidavit states that nurses reported Lizama became “even more disorderly” when he was asked to leave and go to the hospital lobby.
“As we were giving defendant commands to go to the lobby, we began to escort him by walking directly behind him,” Woodyard says in the affidavit. “At that time defendant turned around and lunged towards me in an aggressive manner. Defendant was inches away from my body. I instantly grabbed defendant in an attempt to place him under arrest, however he was pulling away which I then took him to the ground with assistance from Security Officer Peacock,” Woodyard states in the affidavit.
Lizama strongly disputes Woodyard’s version of what happened. When asked if he lunged toward Woodyard or said or did something in a threatening or aggressive manner, Lizama said “no.”
“All I did was turn around to see which way the lobby was,” he said. “And that’s when he grabbed me and then bear hugged me and threw me to the ground and I hit my head.”
Before being taken to the police station to be booked Lizama said he was admitted to the emergency department at the hospital for treatment of the injuries he sustained at the hands of Officer Woodyard. After undergoing X-rays to the head and upper body a doctor told him he was suffering from a condition of excessive fluid in the brain called hydrocephalus, he told the Blade.
He provided the Blade with a copy of his discharge papers from the hospital showing the hydrocephalus diagnosis and urging him to seek immediate treatment from his personal physician.
He said one doctor told him the hydrocephalus could be a pre-existing condition that many older people develop or it could have been brought on by the head trauma he sustained in the altercation with Officer Woodyard.
“Hydrocephalus may be congenital or acquired,” a report on the condition prepared by the National Institutes of Health says. “Acquired hydrocephalus develops at the time of birth or at some point afterward,” the NIH report says. “This type of hydrocephalus can affect individuals of all ages and may be caused by injury or disease.”
Lizama said his personal physician has since referred him to a neurologist for follow-up tests in connection with his head injury and the hydrocephalus diagnosis. He said he continues to experience leg and back pain caused by being thrown to the floor at the time of his arrest.
Lewes Police Chief Thomas Sell told the Blade he interviewed Lizama for nearly an hour as part of his investigation of Lizama’s complaint. He said he also interviewed at least three witnesses from the hospital who gave an account of the incident “pretty consistent” with the account given by Officer Woodyard.
Sell, who was named Lewes’s chief of police last June, said he personally investigates citizen complaints against officers in a department that has a total of just 13 officers. He said his investigation into Lizama’s complaint was continuing this week.
The Washington Blade has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the City of Lewes to determine whether others have filed complaints against Woodyard during his nearly 10 years as a Lewes police officer. Lizama said people he knows in Lewes have told him other citizens have filed complaints against Woodyard in the past.
However, the Blade could not verify any previous complaint against the officer had been filed, and Lizama and another person who believes previous complaints have been filed against Woodyard could not produce evidence to back up those claims.
Sell, meanwhile, said that under Delaware law, police records of citizen complaints against officers are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act on grounds that they are private personnel records.
Lizama acknowledged he did not accuse Woodyard of anti-gay bias in his written complaint against the officer, saying the matter was so upsetting to him he found it hard to deal with the issue of homophobia on top of what he believed to be overall improper behavior by the officer. But he said he deeply believes the officer perceived him to be gay because of “my appearance and mannerisms” and treated him in an abusive way because of a bias against gay people.
Lewes Mayor Theodore Becker, a longtime LGBT rights supporter, said Lewes has a long history as a welcoming place for LGBT people. He said he is not aware of any other complaints filed against Officer Woodyard.
Gay Democratic activist and Lewes resident Mitch Crane, who recently became Deputy Commissioner of the Delaware Department of Insurance, said he, too, was unaware of any LGBT-related citizen complaints against any police officer in Lewes.
“This is a very progressive city,” he said. “I have never heard of a case where a police officer caused problems for gay people.”
Lizama said he has never before encountered problems with the Lewes police and agrees that the city and police in general are LGBT supportive.
“What I’m saying is there is sometimes just one rotten apple in the barrel,” he said. “And he is that one rotten apple,” said Lizama in referring to Officer Woodyard.
Woodyard couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.