ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO/AP) – Criminal charges have been filed against the St. Paul man whose arrest earlier this week was caught on video and posted on YouTube.
Thirty-year-old Eric Ronnell Hightower has been charged with aggravated stalking, making terroristic threats, and fourth-degree criminal damage to property, according to the complaint filed in Ramsey County.
Officers responded to a call from Hightower’s ex-girlfriend on Tuesday afternoon. She claimed he was threatening and harassing her. Police say he had harassing her for days before she called police. She told officers he had threatened to kill her.
In one of the messages the woman played for officers, Hightower was heard exclaiming, “You’re about to get your mother ****ing head blew the **** off!”
Interview With Hightower’s Ex-girlfriend
The woman said when she first saw the video of Hightower’s arrest, she felt bad for him.
“But I realized, like, this is what I go through every day,” she said. “He’s kicked me before, kicked me on my legs, my back…and I go through this all the time. Now he knows how I feel.”
Officers said that one of the windows at the home where the woman was staying had also been broken out.
The criminal complaint claims that Hightower “assaults, threatens, and/or intimidates her daily,” and that the behavior has only gotten worse since their child died a few hours after being born. The complaint says he strangled her within the last few weeks.
The woman told police she left him in May following an assault, but the harassment has continued.
Hightower is currently being held at the Ramsey County Jail. He has on his record a previous conviction of violating a restraining order dating back to 2007, and has recently pleaded guilty to a third-degree assault charge. He is awaiting sentencing on that offense.
On Wednesday, video surfaced of Hightower’s arrest at the corner of Woodbridge and Milford streets in St. Paul. The video shows one of the arresting officers appear to kick Hightower in the throat while he’s lying down on the sidewalk. [NOTE: Linked video contains explicit language and violence.]
Later in the video, another officer arrives and the two are seen pulling the man’s hair and shoving the man face down onto the hood of the police cruiser.
The incident report from police lists the names of two St. Paul Police officers involved. It lists the primary reporting officer as Jesse Zilge and the secondary reporting officer as Steven Petron. Officer Zilge has been placed on administrative leave while the department investigates the incident.
Dr. Everett Doolittle – a former BCA investigator – is an ethics and law professor at Metro State’s School of Law Enforcement. He says he had a problem with the video when he saw Zilge kick Hightower.
“I couldn’t see any justification in the kick,” he said.
Besides the kick, however, Doolittle said Zilge acted within his rights.
“You match resistance, use only as much to achieve your goals. Any more is punishment, and we’re not allowed to punish,” Doolittle said.
He thinks the officer’s actions will hurt other officers and their relationships with the community.
“When somebody does something like that — and the community looks at it and they see it as heavy handed — then every officer that’s out on the street trying to do his job is affected,” Doolittle said.
Doolittle said Zilge could face suspension, lose his job, and possibly his law enforcement license.
Zilge has one disciplinary action in his personnel file since joining the force in 2009. He was given an oral reprimand for improper procedure. But police files made public Thursday didn’t include details of what led to the reprimand.
Zilge’s file also included seven commendations, including two letters of recognition from Chief Thomas Smith. No details were available on those, either.
The president of the St. Paul Police Federation gave out a statement Thursday concerning Hightower’s arrest, saying police are thoroughly reviewing the situation and that the public should not rush to judgment.
“Once this process is complete, we believe the facts will show that a good cop was in a dangerous situation with a known dangerous individual,” the statement said.
During his first appearance in Ramsey County District Court on Thursday, Hightower’s bail was set at $35,000 and he was ordered to have no contact with the woman.
Attorney Susan Johnson, who represented Hightower in court, said Hightower needs medical care for injuries he suffered during his arrest.
Hightower’s attorney going forward, Seamus Mahoney, said Hightower will plead not guilty.
Mahoney said Hightower was complaining of ear pain, saying an officer sprayed a chemical irritant into his ear as he was being put into the squad car. He was also suffering from headaches and had swelling on his upper sternum, where he was kicked, Mahoney said.
“As the video shows, he was punched in the side of the face by the cop, who bounced his head off the fender of the car,” Mahoney said. “As he was thrown in the squad car, apparently an officer Maced him again.”
Hightower has a criminal record that includes 2007 convictions for petty theft and violating a protection order. This June he pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor of obstruction of justice and interfering with a peace officer. He also is awaiting sentencing on a count of third-degree assault for an August 2011 incident in which he punched a man in the face, knocking out his two front teeth.
Talking from jail, Hightower told the Pioneer Press he and his friends were on their way to a park when an officer jumped out of a squad car and ordered everyone onto the ground. The officer singled out Hightower and began spraying him with a chemical, he said.
While on the ground, Hightower said, he continued to ask the officer why he was being arrested, but the officer wouldn’t say.
“He sprayed me in my face again. I was laying on my side. I was hocking up the stuff, it was choking me and he ran towards me, kicked me in the chest, kicked me in the chin,” Hightower said.
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