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Part Two

Is This Man Crazy?


Whether Church is mentally ill or just a jerk or some combination of the two, his problems with the VA seem to have accelerated after, he says, he was denied treatment at the VA on July 7, 1998, and ended up at St. Mary's Hospital on suicide watch for two days. According to VA records, Church did not have an appointment with the doctor he sought there, and did not go to the McGuire emergency room, which is available to all veterans all the time.

Church says he avoided inpatient treatment because he has been hospitalized at the VA numerous times, for stays lasting from four days to two months, but that conditions were awful. He claims to have been handled roughly, put in four-point restraints, overmedicated, allowed to sit in his own urine and feces, and to have received other harsh treatment from caretakers. However, he admits that at times, "I was like a rabid dog."

At about 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 23, 1998, he went to the VA again. He was suicidal, he says. Church says he felt he had to "either go to the VA or die. And I knew that even if I went to the VA, I was going to catch some sh—." He sees his actions as a cry for help.

His trip to the VA that day ended with the trip with the VA police to the federal courts building on Main Street. The police called ahead, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Flannery had the complaint ready.

In custody, Church's case proceeded slowly. At his first hearing late that Friday before Magistrate Judge David G. Lowe, Church was advised of the charges and his rights, then ordered to be held in custody until a detention hearing the following Monday. He was charged not only with trespassing and assaulting VA police officer Fred Williams, but with two counts of making harassing telephone calls.

According to court records, it was to be the first of half a dozen hearings that, combined with the government's request for a competency examination and Church's refusal to plea bargain, kept him in a Warsaw, Va., federal prison and Northern Neck Regional Jail until his trial 131 days later.

During his more than four months in confinement, Church says, he was allowed only one hour of sunlight a day, and let outdoors only once, on Christmas Day. "Just the fresh air — it was like the best taste I ever tasted."

The Nov. 4 federal indictment against Church charged him with four offenses; most seriously, assaulting an officer ("while resisting arrest Church twisted and broke Officer Williams' thumb"). Church says Williams broke his thumb when he slammed Church into a wall during the arrest. Williams, in various court documents, claims Church grabbed and bent his thumb twice during the arrest, breaking it at some point.

Church also was indicted on charges of trespassing and making harassing telephone calls. "Since Sept. 1, 1998, Church has placed 377 telephone calls to various locations within the Medical Center, totaling 18 hours and 37 minutes," the indictment states, noting that an Oct. 15 call lasted 18 minutes and 32 seconds even though Church had been told "that the telephone number was a police emergency number for the hospital that he should not be calling except for emergency purposes."

Church says he had a right to call the VA, and that the phone-call charges were "piled on" in an effort to lock him up as long as possible. The phone-call charges were dropped before his March 3, 1999, trial on trespassing and assaulting Williams.

The trial did not go well for the prosecution. It began with Judge Robert E. Payne scolding Assistant U.S. Attorney Flannery for not filing a prosecution motion and witness list until the day before the trial. Payne also appears to have been nonplused by the number of witnesses the prosecution intended to call. "Now, I don't have any intention in a case like this of having 15 witnesses testify," Payne says in the trial transcript. "Who are the ones you are going to put on, your best ones? Let's decide who they are and get going with them. The bottom line is that he was wrestling with the police officer and he twisted his thumb. ... For that we are here in federal court, taking up the time of 13 people."

"Your honor," Flannery replied, "it was a federal police officer who was injured."

"It doesn't make any difference," Payne said. "You know, there are ways to resolve problems like this short of bringing him to court."

Williams testified that Church showed up at the VA police office the day of the incident making nonsensical complaints and accusations. Williams said he told Church to leave or go to the emergency room, but that Church refused and began to walk toward an off-limits area of the hospital. Williams left the office, herded Church back, and told him to leave again. Church Williams testified that Church showed up at the VA police office the day of the incident making nonsensical complaints and accusations. Williams said he told Church to leave or go to the emergency room, but that Church refused and began to walk toward an off-limits area of the hospital. Williams left the office, herded Church back, and told him to leave again. Church attempted to enter the police office and Williams shoved him out, after which Church, Williams testified, began banging on walls and doors in the hallway, yelling, "Don't hurt me!" and "Don't hit me anymore!"

Williams testified that he called Flannery and "explained to her what had happened."

"I was instructed to arrest," Williams began to testify before being cut off by an objection. He next told the court he found Church outside in the VA parking lot heading toward the emergency room and informed him "that he was under arrest for trespassing and making harassing telephone calls."

As the phone-call charges had been dropped, the second part of that testimony clearly annoyed Payne, and when jurors were out of the courtroom at various points in the trial, he made Flannery aware of his annoyance. "Draw the indictment the right way," he rebuked her at one point.

Later, Payne said it was clear to him that Williams was simply annoyed with Church, had "pursued a mission of his own" to get rid of him, and "tried to cloak it in a guise of officialdom."

On a motion from Church's court-appointed attorney, Charles Gavin, Payne dismissed the trespassing charge.

"This is a case of a law officer gone wrong and not being told to back down," Payne said with the jurors out of the courtroom. "That's exactly what happened here. And it was precipitated by an irritable, frustrating patient."

That was never in dispute. As Gavin mentioned in his closing arguments to the jurors on the remaining assault charge, "Nobody is going to dispute the fact that he is a pain in the butt and can be and has been, and that's exactly the reason for this entire mess."

It took the jurors less than half an hour to return a not-guilty verdict. Payne thanked them for their service, then spoke at length to Church: "Because of mistakes that were made by the officers and because of the fine job your lawyer did, you were acquitted. Now, I don't know what it is that you have got ... against the Veterans Administration, but whatever it is, don't count on the fact that you are going to be lucky again.

[image-1](Chad Hunt / Style Weekly)Church says some of his best therapy comes from riding his Harley cross-country."And what you did, even though that officer may not have been right in the way he did things, you were wrong in the way you acted. You were flat wrong and another jury might very well have convicted you of this charge.

"So you make sure in your dealings with the Veterans Administration that you act right and don't take it from this that you have some license to continue in the conduct that started this. In the final analysis, all this berating of people doesn't get you anywhere.

"It might be ... that telephone call charge you may be facing again if you keep it up. You have a chance to get your life on the straight and narrow and to act right. Please take advantage of it and take advantage of the good service that your lawyer did for you here today."

Church replied: "Thank you."

Exactly one year later, March 3, 2000, Church was in a car hurtling down the Friday afternoon streets of Richmond, trying to get to the federal courthouse before 5 p.m. again — except this time it was with local attorney Darren Hart to file an estimated $6.75 million lawsuit against Williams, VA Police Chief Wes Crickard, and Jim Dudley, director of the McGuire center, before the statute of limitations ran out at midnight.

The suit seeks $350,000 for five alleged rights violations (due process, illegal search and seizure, assault and battery, malicious prosecution, cruel and unusual punishment) and unspecified punitive damages, which Church pegs at $5 million. This is just the start, he says, adding he'll be suing other individuals and entities involved.

"These people are going to settle out of court. It's inevitable," he says. "Part of me does feel guilty because that's not what I wanted. I wanted an apology and accountability."

Williams, Crickard and Dudley were served with the lawsuit March 9. With 20 days to respond, the defendants had until March 29 to file their response with the court — Judge Robert E. Payne, again.

Assistant U.S. Attorney M. Hannah Lauck's response on behalf of the three defendants was a day late. It "should have been filed yesterday," Lauck notes and "apologizes" to Payne in her response.

But, she adds: "In his complaint, the plaintiff alleges that federal employees violated his constitutional rights during their attempt to arrest him. As such, although Church sues these defendants personally, he clearly does so about alleged violations which defendants took under the color of legal authority."

Lauck's filing adds the defendants "are in the process of requesting representation from the Department of Justice." Payne granted Lauck's request to move the deadline for responding to Church's complaint to May 8.

"I want peace on earth, good will towards men." And $500 million, Sean Church adds, so he can start his own Buddhist martial arts center, complete with dojo and tea house, for troubled youth. And the "all-pictorial" magazine, showcasing "twelve to 30 unknown photographers from all around the world" each month. And the worldwide "Peace Aid" concert. And ....

"I want everything," he says. "I'm entitled to that and I want every other veteran to be entitled to that, too." And he wants to be able to go to the VA without a canine unit escorting him around "on a consistent, harassing basis."

Sean Church looks at you from across the small table near a rain-gray window in the smoke-filled Fan coffee house. He looks crazy. He doesn't look crazy. Both. Neither. Yes. No.

A guy came in World Cup one time, Church remembers. The dude was unruly; drunk and belligerent. Church put a wrestling hold on him and hauled him out back.

"He's breaking down, crying," he recalls. "He just needed somebody to pay attention to him."

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