TAMPA — A Brooksville man has filed a federal lawsuit asserting that Hernando County sheriff's deputies beat him so badly his eyeball fell out of its socket, and that the deputies then tried to cover up their misconduct.
Michael Bratt, 49, and his wife, Marjorie Youmans, 43, say that deputies trespassed on their property, used a Taser on Bratt and punched him repeatedly after he was handcuffed. As Bratt lay dazed in his front yard, one deputy used his knee to crush his eye socket, causing Bratt's right eyeball to collapse into his cheek cavity, according to the lawsuit.
Law enforcement officials have said Bratt's aggression toward a deputy led to the 2009 confrontation. However, Bratt went on trial last February on charges of battery on a law enforcement officer in connection with the incident, and a jury found him not guilty.
His defense attorney in that case, Stephen Romine of Clearwater, said deputies were unable to explain on the stand how Bratt's face was beaten so badly. Bratt and Youmans had no prior criminal records in Florida.
"Where there's no rational explanation, you have to look for an irrational explanation," said Barry Cohen, the prominent Tampa litigator who is representing Bratt and Youmans in their lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Tampa. "And the irrational explanation here is that they were going to give this guy a beating he would never forget, and they were going to get away with it."
Bratt and Youmans are seeking an unspecified amount greater than $10 million.
Named as defendants in the suit are Hernando County deputies Louis Genovese and Steven George — both still employed at the agency — and Kenneth Van Tassel and John Gore, who have resigned and retired, respectively. They have not yet filed responses to the suit and could not be reached for comment.
Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Denise Moloney declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing agency policy. The Sheriff's Office itself is not a defendant.
It began with a noise complaint.
George drove to Bratt's and Youmans' rural property on Snow Hill Road about 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 26, 2009. A Christmas party had been under way at their home, according to their attorneys. Someone in the area had called in a noise complaint.
After speaking with neighbors, according to the lawsuit and Sheriff's Office records, George jumped the fence that surrounded the property and showed up at the couple's door. He did not use a call box at the front gate.
In a report on the incident, George said that Bratt came to the door and asked to see his badge, then became angry, saying he was trespassing. Youmans came to the door and started yelling at the deputy. George said in his report that Bratt shoved his wife back into the house in an attempt to end the altercation, at which point the deputy told Bratt he was committing domestic battery.
George said he radioed for backup, at which point Bratt grabbed him, pulled him into the house and slammed his head into a coffee table. George said that after a struggle in which Bratt was able to get a hold of the deputy's Taser and use it against him, he prevailed and handcuffed Bratt on the floor.
Bratt and Youmans tell a different story.
After George mysteriously appeared at their door and Youmans began yelling at him, the couple assert in their lawsuit, Bratt put out his arm to hold his wife back. George then screamed that a battery had taken place and began to try to force his way into the house, the lawsuit states.
George used his Taser against Bratt through the front door, the suit states, then burst inside and stumbled in the threshold, falling face-first on the tile floor. George began stating over the radio "in a complete panic" that he was "down" and requested immediate assistance, according to the suit.
George was later treated for a broken nose.
When other deputies arrived, Bratt was dragged outside in handcuffs, "thrown on the front lawn" and "asked if he liked beating up cops, or words to that effect," the suit states. Van Tassel and Genovese beat him, and the 300-pound-plus Genovese "proceeded to drive his knee into Mr. Bratt's face, shattering Mr. Bratt's orbital bone and causing Mr. Bratt's eye to fall into the cavity of his cheek," according to the complaint.
A fourth deputy, Gore, arrested Youmans for obstruction as she stood by screaming.
"I just kept praying that my husband would make it through, because the beating that he was taking was just so upsetting to see, and they didn't stop," Youmans told the Tampa Bay Times. "I thought my husband was going to die that night. I thought they were going to kill him."
She scoffed at George's report that her husband had battered her. "There was absolutely no domestic violence," Youmans said. "My husband put his arm in front of me because I was yelling and screaming."
In photos taken by deputies, Bratt can be seen on the lawn, his mouth open and his one good eye lolling skyward. The right side of his face looks like a Halloween mask, eye socket empty and gleaming with blood.
Bratt was treated at Tampa General Hospital and regained the use of his right eye.
Charges were dropped against Youmans, and Bratt was acquitted in a jury trial last year. Romine, Bratt's defense attorney, said deputies' accounts of the incident were riddled with inconsistencies, and none could explain the injury to Bratt's eye.
"That is what really makes this a problem for law enforcement," Romine said. "You've got a collection of officers there who will not take responsibility for that injury and say they don't know what happened."
After the incident, according to the lawsuit, the deputies involved had a "special meeting" to discuss the incident. Cohen and Romine said the deputies' reports offered distorted accounts of what took place in order to shield those involved.
George's Taser — which contained digital records that could have helped substantiate his version of events — was "unaccounted for for approximately five days," according to the lawsuit. When it was turned over to sheriff's officials as part of the investigation, the suit states, its data "appeared corrupted."
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.