Arrest by St. Petersburg police left homeless man paralyzed, lawsuit says

The family of a homeless man has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of St. Petersburg after they say an arrest by two of the city’s police officers left him paralyzed and a double amputee.

The lawsuit, filed in Tampa federal court on Monday, says Heriberto Sanchez-Mayen, 61, is seeking damages in excess of $75,000. The lawsuit names the city of St. Petersburg and police Officers Sarah Gaddis and Michael Thacker as defendants.

According to the lawsuit, Sanchez-Mayen was not secured to a seat in a jail transport van, so a sudden stop sent him flying and knocked him unconscious. Sanchez-Mayen sustained injuries to his cervical spine, which paralyzed him and resulted in the amputation of both legs above the knee, the lawsuit states.

Neither officer has faced any discipline, and both are still employed at the St. Petersburg Police Department.

“The St. Petersburg Police Department denies the claims and trusts in the judicial process,” the agency said in a statement, which referred questions to the city attorney’s office.

The attorney’s office for the city did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to the lawsuit, Sanchez-Mayen was “unlawfully detained” and placed under arrest by Gaddis on June 8, 2023, for trespassing on private property on the 200 block of 15th Street North. The lawsuit claims it was a warrantless arrest.

Body camera footage provided by the police department shows Sanchez-Mayen sleeping on a cardboard box in an open green space before he is woken up by Gaddis.

In the video, Gaddis appears to recognize Sanchez-Mayen, as she addresses him by his first name and asks what he’s doing there. “Oh, I fell asleep,” he replies. “You know, you’re trespassing out here,” Gaddis says to him. Before he responds, Gaddis tells him to gather his belongings and meet her at her police car so she can write him a ticket.

Sanchez-Mayen walks with Gaddis to her police car when she stops to ask him a question. “You got everything that’s yours? You’re leaving your beer cans behind.”

“That’s not mine,” Sanchez-Mayen says.

“Yeah, right,” Gaddis says with a laugh. “That’s the one you always drink.”

The two walk to Gaddis’ police car, and she shows Sanchez-Mayen the sign that says “no trespassing,” which he says he didn’t see.

Sanchez-Mayen then asks if Gaddis is going to give him a ticket.

“I’ve decided that you’re actually going to go to jail today. I’ve had far too many problems with you,” she says.

“No, please,” he responds.

Gaddis is seen on video calling for a police transport van. That’s when St. Petersburg police Officer Michael Thacker arrives.

While putting chains around Sanchez-Mayen, Thacker says: “After a certain amount of these crimes, you should be a felon.”

Gaddis agrees with him in the video. “He keeps coming in contact, doesn’t change his ways. What can we do?” she says.

“A year in jail would probably settle it,” Thacker says.

Officers load Sanchez-Mayen into the police transport van, which had no seat belts or safety restraints, the lawsuit states. They are shown on video throwing the rest of his belongings into a nearby dumpster, apart from his cellphone and a couple of documents.

According to the lawsuit, Thacker then drove the van in a “reckless manner” at an “unsafe rate of speed” and made a hard stop for what lawyers believe was a red light.

A video recording provided by police shows Sanchez-Mayen slide across the bench he was sitting on, fall and hit his head on the metal partition that separated him from another man being transported.

Thacker noticed on his video feed from the back of the van that Sanchez-Mayen was lying facedown on the floor, but did not pull over, according to the lawsuit. He continued to drive to the Pinellas County Jail.

When Thacker arrived, he opened the doors and noticed Sanchez-Mayen’s body was limp. Thacker started to shake him vigorously and said “wake up” several times.

When Sanchez-Mayen doesn’t wake up, Thacker is shown on video trying to lift him to wake up him. When that doesn’t work, Thacker grabs Sanchez-Mayen by his feet and drags him out of the van.

Video footage shows that in the course of dragging Sanchez-Mayen out of the van, Thacker moved his head, which caused Sanchez-Mayen to strike his head on the bumper and again on the ground.

Shortly afterward, video shows that Sanchez-Mayen was attended to by medical personnel and taken to a hospital by an ambulance.

“They knew what they were doing,” said Daniel Faherty, a lawyer representing Sanchez-Mayen. “They were going to teach this man a lesson. They took the law and justice into their own hands.”

Sanchez-Mayen has been charged with several misdemeanors dating back to 2019; most of those including open container, panhandling and trespassing — charges that Faherty says target homeless people.

“A lot of us are one paycheck away from finding themselves like Heriberto,” Faherty said. “With the economy being what it is, people are living paycheck to paycheck. It is a struggle out there. And to know, if you do become homeless, you end up being treated like this? It’s insulting.”

According to the lawsuit, Pinellas County dismissed the criminal trespassing charges against Sanchez-Mayen because the property where he was arrested didn’t have “no trespassing” signs in the proper places.

Elsa Hernandez, Sanchez-Mayen’s sister, said she drove 18 hours from Pennsylvania when she got the call that her brother had been hospitalized “at the hands of officers who should have been protecting him.” Hernandez said she wants to seek justice for what happened to her brother.

“Before this incident, Heriberto was a kind, happy man who made friends everywhere he went,” Hernandez said. “Now, he’s in a rehabilitation center (in Pennsylvania) where he’ll probably live for the rest of his life. He is unable to work and unable to take care of himself. I hope no one else has to go through the pain my brother has been put through.”