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Deadly Force
What a SWAT team did to Cheye Calvo's family may seem extreme. But decades into America's war on drugs, it's business as usual.

By April Witt
Sunday, February 1, 2009

Payton swung his big, goofy head onto the bed, worked his snout under a pillow and gave a gentle bump. The mayor's wife, nudged awake, opened her eyes and smiled. Payton, the couple's playful No. 1 dog, was letting her know that he and his timid little brother, Chase, needed their morning walk. As the mayor's wife stirred, the two black Labs -- known collectively as "the boys" -- panted and bounded round the bed gleefully. "Get up! Get up! Get up! Get Up!" the boys seemed to be saying. They did this every morning. Inside this sunny red-brick house on a well-tended corner lot in the tiny town of Berwyn Heights in Prince George's County, the family routines were precise from thousands of loving retracings; and they almost all revolved around the boys.

After six years of marriage, Trinity Tomsic and her husband, Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye (sounds like "Shy") Calvo, still hoped for children. As the couple waited, the boys were more than a balm; they were a shared joy. Cheye, 37, and Trinity, 33, had even bought this quaint little house because it had a fenced yard with an expansive lawn where the boys could romp -- dog heaven. On this morning, Tuesday, July 29, Trinity fed the boys by 5 a.m., then planned to take Chase running before walking Payton. Running was the one activity at which shy Chase bested Payton, who had long ago been slowed by a leg injury. "Chase knew we were going to go running before I even had my tennis shoes on," Trinity later recalled. "I don't know how he knew. He just always did."

Trinity snapped Chase in his running harness, then reconsidered. She was a finance officer for the state of Maryland. She had a stack of crucial reports awaiting her approval. Maybe she should just leave for the office now. "I came very close to telling him that we'd have to run later," she recalled. But Chase looked so ridiculously excited that Trinity couldn't stand to disappoint him. "He was jumping up and down, up and down, like, 'We're going to go running! We're going to go running.' It was the best thing to see him so happy."

And so, they ran out from their tidy house with the pretty mailbox made to match, down familiar streets where they knew neighbors by name and habit, past the home of the sweet old man who always joked when he saw them running: "They went that-a-way." They ran until Trinity tired, and Chase looked back at her with an expression she read as, "Mom, could you speed it up?"

"It's so important to me that we ran," Trinity says now. "I would feel so terrible if, on that last day, the thing he loved most I bailed on because I wanted to get to the office a few minutes early."

***

Payton and Chase spent the day outside together in their fenced run. Weekdays in good weather, they'd loll there until they heard the R12 bus grinding down Edmonston Road -- bringing Trinity's mother home to feed them dinner. Then Payton, 7, would jump up on the fence and bark until Chase, 4, who copied everything Payton did, joined in. On this day, Trinity's mom, Georgia Porter, surprised the boys. She got home an hour early, pulling into the driveway at 5:30 p.m. in the used Toyota she'd bought two days before.

Down the street, a stranger sitting in a parked car noted that a lone female had just arrived at the residence.

Unaware they were being watched, Georgia fed the dogs, then knelt beside the lush organic vegetable garden that Trinity tended meticulously. Georgia, feeling celebratory, wanted to make their favorite summer pasta dish for dinner. She picked cherry tomatoes with one hand while tossing a ball to Chase with the other.

It had been a year since Georgia, 50, had left her lifelong home of Price, Utah -- widowed, jobless, feeling defeated -- and moved in with Cheye and Trinity to try to begin again. It had been hard leaving her rural home, her beloved horses and mountain views, to commute three hours roundtrip daily -- by bus, then Metro, then bus again -- to a job in Takoma Park for a commercial floor estimator. She felt proud of her new used car and what it signified: She was, finally, moving ahead.

The dogs followed Georgia inside. Maneuvering around the kitchen as she cleaned and chopped vegetables, Georgia had to keep stepping over them. She didn't mind. Georgia had bought Chase as a puppy as a surprise gift for Trinity and Cheye. Georgia, who is Greek by heritage, thought of herself as both dogs' "yaya," Greek for grandmother. "They were always right there with me when I cooked," she recalled. "Dogs who are loved like to be right by their people."

At about 6:30 p.m., Cheye came home. He had just one hour to change into shorts, take the boys for their evening walk, change back into business clothes, eat, then head to the town center to chair a community meeting. He'd be gone before Trinity got home. At 33, Cheye had become the youngest mayor ever elected in Prince George's County. It was a part-time job that paid an honorarium of $150 a month. Cheye -- once voted "most school-spirited" in the class of '89 at Riverdale's Parkdale High School -- turned out to be a natural. A policy wonk, he had a passion for the minutiae of local governing. For weeks, he'd been drafting and redrafting a letter laying out precise arguments on why the state should crack down on a developer who had fouled Indian Creek. Tonight, mayors and council members from three neighboring towns were coming to sign Cheye's letter. Cheye was upstairs changing, thinking through the key points of his letter, when the dogs began barking downstairs.

Georgia, talking on the phone as her pasta sauce bubbled on the stove, went to investigate. A man holding a big white box was on the front stoop. Georgia could barely see the man, who seemed, oddly, to be standing off to one side. She noticed a white van at the curb. Deliveryman, she thought. She motioned for the man to leave the box on the stoop.

"Boys!" Cheye called as he came downstairs into the kitchen a few minutes later. He grabbed their leashes from twin hooks. The boys raced to the appointed spot near the back door, sat side by side and waited for Cheye to snap on their leashes. Together they stared up eagerly, tails fanning the kitchen floor in unison.

"We had our routines, and they loved them," Cheye recalled. "They'd plop right down side by side. Payton always on the left, Chase on the right. I loved that little line."

Cheye loved security and stability. In childhood, his family had moved around a lot, primarily in Prince George's, and struggled financially. Creating peace, security and stability not just for Trinity, Georgia and himself, but for all the families of Berwyn Heights, was deeply satisfying to him. He subscribed to the broken-window theory of community-building: If you let little problems slide, big problems follow. People here seemed to like the order. Berwyn Heights enjoyed 30 percent voter turnouts for town elections, a full calendar of community events and one of the lowest crime rates in Prince George's. When one of Berwyn Heights' eight police officers knocked on a homeowner's door to make an inquiry, he just might find himself invited in to dinner. Cheye liked to think of the town, population 3,000, as a diverse modern-day Mayberry.

As Cheye and the boys took an evening constitutional, Cheye waved at the driver of every car that passed. He had a theory about waving; it is psychologically dissonant for drivers to speed if a smiling man walking two cheerful black Labs is standing in the street waving at them.

Close to home again, Cheye noticed an SUV parked on the left side with a man sitting at the wheel. Cheye waved at the man. Behind that SUV was one with dark tinted windows, and Cheye couldn't make out who was inside.

A few minutes earlier, he'd come across a car parked facing the wrong way on the street. It was in front of a fire hydrant. The motor was running, but Cheye couldn't see anyone inside the car. "That's three violations right there," he recalled thinking. "That's, like, $200 in tickets if you add them all up. I remember thinking: I hope an officer comes by here. We need to ticket that car."

But officers were already there, all around them, watching. And before they left that night, Cheye, Trinity and Georgia would wonder if they could ever feel safe again.

***

"Okay," Cheye said, as he reached his front gate and let Payton and Chase off lead. They raced ahead as Cheye stopped to lift the big white box from the front stoop. It was addressed to Trinity.

"Trinity must have ordered something for the garden," Cheye remembered telling Georgia as he came in the back door. He left the big box on a table in their book-lined living room and went upstairs to change.

It was past 7 p.m., but late sun still streamed through the large kitchen window as Georgia stood at the stove stirring her simmering tomato-artichoke sauce. Georgia turned, catching a glimpse of something out the window that sent a jolt of fear through her. Hooded, armed men, dressed in black, were fanning across the back yard. Still more men, crouching low, moved around the side of the house. Georgia's mind raced to make sense of the strange tableau. Was someone playing an elaborate practical joke?

One of the men spotted Georgia gaping out the window. He lifted his high-powered assault rifle and pointed it directly at her, she recalled. Georgia -- still clutching her wooden spoon -- threw both hands up in the air and screamed. "Cheye, I think it's SWAT!"

Cheye was sitting on the edge of his bed in his boxers. He was just about to put on his black dress socks, when he heard Georgia scream something that made absolutely no sense. He looked out a bedroom window to see armed, masked men running. He was still wondering if they were home invaders when he heard his front door shatter.

In the kitchen, Georgia spun to face the sound of the splintering door. Men in black burst through the front door and into the living room.

Georgia stood trembling in front of the kitchen stove. Payton, who had been stretched out in a corner of the living room farthest from the front door, his head resting near the threshold to the kitchen "turned toward the front door when I turned," Georgia recalled. "He didn't have time to do anything else." Almost instantly, men in black ran forward and shot Payton in the face, Georgia said. "They kept shooting," she recalled. "I didn't know how many times they shot Payton because there was so much gunfire."

"Down on the ground!" Georgia recalled someone screaming at her. She was too terrified to move.

Chase, always timid even when there was nothing to fear, did what he did best -- he ran. He ran away from the men in black, zipped past Georgia at the stove, Georgia recalled. The screaming, running men followed Chase, shooting as he tried escaping into the dining room, Georgia said. She watched in horror as men in black rushed the dining room from all directions. "I could hear Chase whimpering," Georgia said. Then she heard someone shoot at Chase again, she said.

Men kept yelling at Georgia to get down, but she couldn't budge. "Somebody pushed me on the ground, and they put a gun to my head," she said. Face down on the kitchen floor, Georgia felt someone yank her hands behind her, rip the spoon away and secure her hands. When she lifted her eyes, she could just see Payton's big head resting near the kitchen threshold. He wasn't moving.

"Where are they?" one of the men screamed at Georgia. "Where are they?"

She had no idea what he was talking about. Georgia says she felt the barrel of an assault rifle against her left ear. "Where are they?" a man demanded.

"In the basement?" Georgia remembers saying. Some of the men thundered down the basement steps.

"It was a question, 'In the basement?' Because, if somebody puts a gun to your head and asks you a question, you better come up with an answer. Then I shut my eyes. Oh, God, I thought they were going to shoot me next."

Upstairs, Cheye fell to the bedroom floor at the sound of gunfire. He heard: bang, bang, bang, bang, undecipherable shouts, bang, bang.

"Downstairs!" Cheye heard men call to each other as they began to search the house. Then, more ominously, they yelled: "Upstairs! Upstairs!"

"I'm up here," Cheye recalled calling out. "Please don't shoot. Please don't shoot."

Somebody ordered Cheye to come down. He stood gingerly and peered down the stairwell. "I remember turning and seeing the barrels of two shotguns pointed at me," he said. "I don't know what kind. I'm not a gun person."

"Turn around and walk down the stairs backwards," someone demanded.

So, he did. Clad only in his boxer shorts, the mayor of Berwyn Heights walked slowly down his staircase backwards, his open hands held high. Ever so slowly, he felt for each tread before lowering his weight. "Somewhere around the bottom half of the stairs, someone came to get me," he recalled. "They led me down, pulled my hands down behind my back, bound me with those plastic cuffs very tightly, then pulled me across the living room."

Cheye turned his head and saw Georgia facedown on the kitchen floor. She must be alive, he reasoned, because there was a man holding a gun to her head.

He saw Payton slumped on the living room floor near the threshold to the kitchen. "I knew he was bleeding," Cheye recalled. "I knew he'd been shot. Nothing was processing. I saw Georgia, Payton, blood. No Chase."

Men spun him around and forced him to kneel facing the shattered front door. Behind him, he could hear people ransacking his house. Drawers were yanked out. Cabinets opened and closed. Dazed and sick with terror, he also felt a dawning, helpless grief. All this, for what? Racking his brain for anything they owned worth stealing, all he could think of was Trinity's dual-chamber, rotating garden composter.

As Cheye knelt, bound and half-naked, on his living room floor, "no one spoke to me about why they were here," Cheye recalled. "No one said, 'Prince George's County police' or 'Prince George's County sheriffs.' They never made that kind of announcement, just simply didn't do it."

Out his ruined front door, Cheye could see that people were gathered on his front lawn. Some wore jackets with official-looking insignias as if they could be police officers in street clothes. "That was my first clue that these men might be law enforcement," he would later recall. "My thought was: If this were a home invasion, people wouldn't just be standing out there on the lawn. They'd be hiding."

It wasn't a home invasion. It was a raid by the Prince George's County Police Department and the county Sheriff's Office. Both agencies declined to discuss specifics of the raid for this story.

At one point, Cheye recalled, he noticed a familiar uniform in the growing crowd on lawn. Berwyn Heights police officer Pvt. Amir Johnson had been patrolling the neighborhood when he passed the mayor's house and saw officers dressed in tactical uniforms coming out the front door. He stopped. (Berwyn Heights and Prince George's police have overlapping jurisdictions within town limits.)

"The guy in there is crazy," Johnson remembered a Prince George's County officer telling him when he arrived. "He says he is the mayor of Berwyn Heights."

"That is the mayor of Berwyn Heights," Johnson replied.

The detective looked very surprised, Johnson later recalled: "He had that 'Oh, crap' look on his face."

Alarmed, Johnson used his cellphone to notify Berwyn Heights Police Chief Patrick Murphy that, as improbable as it sounded, the Sheriff's Office SWAT team had apparently broken down the mayor's door, shot his dogs and confiscated a box containing 32 pounds of marijuana.

Murphy -- home gardening 54 miles away in St. Mary's County -- sat down, stunned. The 35-year veteran of law enforcement searched his memory for any clue he might have overlooked that the nice young mayor who loved his wife, those two goofy Labs and code enforcement could be involved with drugs. He couldn't come up with anything.

The chief told Johnson to go find their department's second-in-command, Det. Sgt. Ken Antolik, who was moonlighting a few blocks away from Calvo's house at the Blue Bird Driving School, to help him find out what in the heck was going on.

Inside the house, Cheye was starting to ask questions, too.

"Do you have a warrant?" he recalled asking more than once, until someone said:

"It's en route."

"I kept saying: 'This is a very terrible thing. This is just horrible.' The context in which I told them I was the mayor, I said, 'I'm the mayor of Berwyn heights, and I have to get to a community meeting tonight.' " Finally, one of the deputies, the men in black, nodded to the recently delivered big white box on the living room table and barked accusingly, "Do you know what is in this box?"

"A box," Cheye recalled thinking. "This is about the box?"

Someone shifted Cheye, his hands still bound behind him, into a chair. He could see blood pooling from beneath Payton's head. An officer picked up one of the boys' dog beds and used it to cover Payton's corpse. Cheye asked if they'd killed Chase, too, and someone said that they'd called animal control to remove two dead dogs.

"You shot my dogs," Cheye recalled saying over and over. "You shot my dogs. You shot my dogs. You shot my dogs."

At home in St. Mary's, Murphy dialed the cellphone of his second-in-command, now standing on the mayor's front lawn. Murphy's officer handed the phone to a Prince George's narcotics investigator, Det. Sgt. David Martini.

This is how Murphy later recalled their conversation:

"Martini tells me that when the SWAT team came to the door, the mayor met them at the door, opened it partially, saw who it was, and then tried to slam the door on them," Murphy recalled. "And that at that point, Martini claimed, they had to force entry, the dogs took aggressive stances, and they were shot."

"I later learned," Murphy said in an interview, "that none of that is true."

Martini said he was not free to comment for this article.

***

It was about 7:45 p.m. when Trinity turned her 1997 Suburu Outback with the kayak rack on top onto Edmonston. The road was so jammed with police vehicles that she couldn't reach her driveway. Assuming that the house had been robbed, Trinity abandoned her car and searched frantically for any sign of an ambulance.

"Is my husband okay?" she asked when Ken Antolik met her near her front gate. "Is my mom okay?

"Yes," he told her. "They are in the house.

Then it struck her. It was too quiet. She didn't hear dogs barking. She knew, even before she asked: "Payton and Chase?"

"I'm sorry," he said.

Trinity collapsed against his chest. A female officer eventually came and led her gently around to the back door. Trinity started in to find her husband and mother, then saw blood. There was so much blood. There was blood pooled near the door. Officers were tracking her dead dogs' blood all over the house. She backed outside.

"I remember sitting on the steps thinking, 'I'm never going to be able to live here again,' " Trinity recalled.

"I found something," Georgia heard a detective yell excitedly. The woman held a white envelope filled with cash. Inside, was $68. Across the front of the envelope were written two words: "yard sale."

The detective seemed crestfallen, Georgia said. Georgia, who had been moved, still bound, into the downstairs bedroom, says she overheard the woman saying something like: "It's my first raid, and we got the mayor's house."

Cheye, struggling to understand, pieced together questions officers asked him and comments he overheard. Narcotics investigators for the Prince George's police had apparently left that white box on his front step, then sent SWAT officers from the Sheriff's Office to retrieve it. The box contained marijuana. Officers from the two county law enforcement agencies had apparently been parked watching his house all day. Yet they had apparently done so little investigatory work -- they hadn't even taken 30 seconds to Google Cheye -- that they didn't know they were launching a paramilitary attack on an elected official's home until after they'd broken down the door and shot the dogs. Cheye was particularly disturbed when he discovered that narcotics investigators seemed to have known that criminals had been mailing drugs addressed to innocent people, in hopes of intercepting the packages before the addressees claimed them.

Yet, here he was, hands bound behind him, trying to convince county police that he and Trinity were not drug lords. "Look around," he tried arguing. "We own almost nothing but books. We live on 70 percent of our salary and bank the rest." Do drug lords tend organic gardens and store the decorations for the community's holiday parties in their garage?

In fact, the officers searching his house were unable to find any evidence of drugs other than the box they'd delivered. They didn't find gun caches or, aside from the yard sale money, stacks of cash. Cheye and Trinity didn't have a bong or hookah, not a single rolling paper, stem or seed. Cheye watched their search efforts grow halfhearted, he said.

Nobody seemed to know how to remove the plastic cuffs still binding his and Georgia's hands behind their backs. The deputies from the SWAT team who had put them on were gone. When Georgia and Cheye complained to detectives that the cuffs were cutting off their circulation, they said the detectives just shrugged. After awhile, the officer moved Cheye into the kitchen. From his new vantage, he could see into the dining room. Chase was lying dead in a pool of blood.

The scene at the house was so terrible and odd to Berwyn Heights officer Johnson that he planted himself in the living room. He couldn't see a search warrant posted anywhere. The mayor looked so vulnerable that Johnson wanted to make sure nothing even worse happened to him, such as getting shot. "Not that I didn't trust the police," Johnson would later say. "But I wanted to personally witness what is going to happen to my mayor, so if they try to say this guy went for a gun -- and he didn't -- it's not going to happen on my watch."

When animal control officers finally came for Payton and Chase, Cheye lost it. Payton's big head tumbled limply off the stretcher as they lifted it to take him away. "I roared," Cheye later recalled. "I broke down sobbing." Cheye had named his big boy for the late, great Chicago Bear Walter Payton, whose nickname was "Sweetness." Cheye's Payton ran more like a 350-pound lineman than like Walter Payton. But he was the sweetest, most wonderful dog Cheye had ever known, and strangers were taking him away forever. "My hands were still bound, so I couldn't get my hands to my face as tears just flowed down. I remember turning, and looking away."

Out on the back stoop, it seemed to Trinity that the detectives in their house had shifted into damage control. One pleasant woman, trying to make pleasant conversation, asked Trinity if she and Cheye ever planned to have children.

"All I could think was, Our dogs were our kids, and I can't believe you are asking me that," Trinity recalled. "I let it go and said that we were thinking about adopting."

***

Nearly four hours after the SWAT team broke down the front door, the detectives were ready to leave. Someone had figured out how to cut the cuffs off Cheye and Georgia. They had led Georgia outside to Trinity. Georgia was still so hysterical that she could barely speak.

Cheye says the lead officer at the scene, Prince George's Det. Shawn Scarlata, told him and Trinity that he could haul them all into jail because the box had been addressed to Trinity. But he said he wasn't going to as long as they cooperated. (Scarlata later said he could not comment on the case for this article.)

Johnson stayed to help Cheye lift the splintered door back into its frame and prop it there. There was no way to make the lock work. "I just felt so sorry for them," Johnson recalled. "I didn't know what to say. I told them I'd keep an eye on the house."

Cheye grasped Trinity by the shoulders. "Whatever happens," he said. "I don't want this to affect us." He was a romantic idealist. He had proposed to Trinity at the Jefferson Memorial. But he wasn't naive. This night had been so terrible, Cheye knew that it would change each of them forever in ways they couldn't predict. He felt only a determination not to allow this horror to creep inside their love.

Trinity, sobbing, said nothing could ruin their marriage, but they might have to move. She didn't know if she could live in this house. She didn't think she could stay in Prince George's County. They toured their home room by room. Everything they owned was thrown on the floor, a table or a bed. Their meticulous files had been dumped, the paper scattered. But the blood was the worst.

Exhausted, Cheye telephoned a friend and asked him to come over and help him scrub the blood off the floors. They had to do it for Trinity. It was after 1 a.m. when the two men stopped scrubbing.

Cheye dragged an air mattress into the living room so that he, Trinity and Georgia could huddle together through the night. Nobody slept. Somewhere out there was a drug dealer who might be thinking that they had his box of pot, and they couldn't lock their front door.

About 3:30 a.m., Cheye typed an e-mail on his Treo trying to explain why he wouldn't be coming to the office that morning.

"I'm on the Beltway," Cheye's boss, Rajiv Vinnakota, said, when he called at 7:30 the next morning and said he was on his way. "My only question is, 'Do I bring bagels?' "

Cheye earned his living working for SEED, a District-based educational foundation trying to expand its network of schools to several states. There was no way a drug raid on a mayor's house where police broke down the door and shot the family dogs wouldn't become news. Cheye's boss counseled him to get a lawyer, because innocent people go to jail all the time, and to be proactive about reaching out to the media.

Cheye felt confident that people who knew him and Trinity would know they'd never have anything to do with drugs. But what about everyone else?

As they talked, it dawned on Cheye that police hadn't just killed his dogs, terrorized his family and destroyed his once-happy, pretty home. They might just have ruined his life.

By mid-morning, Cheye had agreed to let a television reporter tour the house and had sent a mass e-mail to everyone he knew and the entire town of Berwyn Heights' mailing list.

"We try to make sense of it," Cheye wrote in the e-mail. "They invaded our home and killed our dogs! That above all else, can't be undone."

The Berwyn Heights annual employee-appreciation luncheon was scheduled for noon. Cheye went, feeling unsteady from lack of sleep and wondering if he were still in shock. He sat next to Murphy, who Cheye felt was acting cool toward him.

"I'm always highly suspicious because of all the things I've seen in 35 years in law enforcements," the chief later said. "Sometimes, I look at the priest in church, and I wonder what his thing is, which isn't all that healthy. But there's always a suspicion there. At the same time, I think I'm a pretty good judge of character."

Cheye, he concluded, couldn't have been the criminal the county detective had described on the phone.

As Cheye implemented his plan to let people know that they were innocent, Trinity labored to make their house minimally habitable. Her father -- Georgia's first husband -- flew in from Wyoming to help. One of the first things they did was throw away the blood-soaked dining room rug.

At bedtime, Trinity and Cheye stared at each other. Trinity had always gone upstairs first, leaving Cheye reading downstairs, Chase at his feet. Payton had always followed Trinity, crept onto Cheye's side on the bed, snoozed until he heard him coming, then jumped down guiltily. Now their hearts sank, not just at all they'd lost, but at how everything either of them said or did, anyplace they looked in the house, was a reminder.

They got into bed, but kept the lights on. Trinity was afraid now to sleep in the dark. After a few minutes, Cheye got up and turned off the fan. They wanted to be able to hear in case someone broke in again.

***

The first news reports on the raid at the Berwyn Heights mayor's house quoted spokesmen for the Prince George's police saying that the mayor and his family remained "persons of interest" in an ongoing drug-smuggling investigation. Police said they became aware of the box addressed to Trinity when a drug-sniffing dog had alerted them to it at a package hub, and authorities notified the county police. A police spokesman told reporters that Prince George's narcotics investigators had sought, and been granted, a "no-knock" warrant before searching Cheye and Trinity's house. Maryland law authorizes police to request a no-knock warrant, one intended to be served by force and unannounced, if they have a "reasonable suspicion" that evidence would be destroyed or officers' lives placed in danger if they knocked on a suspect's door and demanded entry.

Those same news reports quoted law enforcement officials around the region saying it was a known tactic of traffickers to ship a package containing drugs to an innocent stranger's home, planning to retrieve it before the recipient opened the box. In fact, law enforcement officials told reporters, recent incidents in College Park and Dunn Loring had been foiled when surprised innocents alerted police after opening the packages before the dealers could snatch them. Cheye was flabbergasted. Given that, how could the police who had broken down his front door with a battering ram, terrorized his family and killed his dogs not at least have considered the possibility, even the likelihood, that he might be innocent?

On Friday, Aug. 1 -- 71 hours after the raid -- the lead detective, Scarlata, returned to their home. He came alone. Cheye met him at the fence. The detective handed Cheye the warrant he had first asked to see while handcuffed in his living room. Scarlata also gave Cheye a list of what they'd confiscated in the raid. It consisted of a single item: the box police had brought there in the first place.

After the detective left, Cheye studied the document. There was nothing anywhere to indicate that Scarlata had asked the judge who signed it for permission to break his door down for a no-knock search. He hadn't presented the judge with evidence that anyone in the household was armed and dangerous. He'd basically said that police had intercepted a box of drugs addressed to Trinity, delivered the box and watched as it was taken inside.

The tomatoes still hung ripe and sweet in the garden. The sun still streamed prettily through the kitchen window. The thought still came to Cheye each time he walked through the kitchen: I need to fill the boys' water bowl. Then he remembered. Everything had changed. He left the water bowl unfilled where it had always sat. He left the leashes hanging on two hooks by the back door.

The first Saturday after the raid, during that happy stretch of time when Cheye would have taken his dogs on an extra-long walk looking for would-be speeders to wave at, there was now a void so large that he was only beginning to take its measure. Trinity was downstairs, still trying to right the house, when she heard a strange and terrible sound. She raced upstairs to find Cheye, sitting naked on the shower floor, letting the water stream over his head as he sobbed.

"I just want to walk my dogs," he told her. "I just want to walk my dogs."

Trinity's father had to leave Sunday afternoon to go back to Wyoming. He spent his last day with them scrubbing the front walk. He scrubbed until he'd erased the last traces of the blood that had dripped there as animal control had carried the boys away. In late afternoon, Cheye and Trinity were driven to a local ballpark where Berwyn Heights activists had organized a community rally to support them. Rally organizers presented Cheye and Trinity with a banner signed by hundreds of people who had written messages of support and encouragement. Speaker after speaker expressed certainty that the mayor and his family were innocent and outrage at the death of the dogs. Police Chief Murphy was angry that Prince George's police hadn't given him the courtesy of notifying him before their raid, allowing him to help them execute their search warrant peacefully and avert tragedy. "I never imagined, when I set out to protect people from the crooks and the criminals, that I would have to protect them from my fellow police officers," Murphy told the crowd.

Cheye thanked the townspeople he'd served for five years as mayor. "Injustice in this county, in this country, in this world happens every day," he said. "But people who experience it most often don't have the support, don't have the community, don't have the resources that we do."

***

Cheye and Trinity flipped channels waiting for the 5 o'clock news, certain that -- finally -- they would be officially cleared. It was Wednesday, Aug. 7, more than a week after the raid. Then-Prince George's Police Chief Melvin C. High and Sheriff Michael Jackson held a joint news conference to announce the arrests of a FedEx deliveryman and a second man alleged to be involved in a scheme to smuggle marijuana by shipping packages addressed to unsuspecting recipients, including the one to Trinity. Police refused to release their names.

Yet neither High nor Jackson apologized to Cheye, Trinity and Georgia or declared their absolute innocence.

The mayor of Berwyn Heights and his family "most likely, they were innocent victims" of the drug traffickers' scheme, High said. "But we don't want to draw that definite conclusion at the moment."

High and Jackson defended the raid on the mayor of Berwyn Heights as reasonable and restrained, given the information they had at the time. "In some quarters, this has been viewed as a flawed police operation and an attack on the mayor, which it is not," High said. "This was about an address; this was about a name on a package . . . and, in fact, our people did not know that this was the home of the mayor and his family until after the fact."

The chief and sheriff admitted to what Cheye had already deduced: They did not specifically seek a no-knock warrant before breaking down the mayor's door. Jackson said his deputies were justified in entering the house so forcefully because Georgia screamed when she saw them outside the house, and her cries could have alerted any armed occupants of the home to attack police or destroy evidence.

Deputies were justified in killing Payton and Chase because the dogs had "engaged" them, Jackson said, although he acknowledged under questioning that neither dog had bitten anyone.

Watching accounts of the news conference on television, Cheye grew livid. Not only had the brass refused to apologize or clear them, they were now blaming poor Georgia's terrified scream for the botched raid. They were saying dogs barking at masked men justified slaughter.

Georgia could not be consoled later that night. Was everything her fault because she'd screamed? Trinity held her close. She and Cheye tried to explain that the police were trying to get themselves out of trouble.

If they were ever going to reclaim their lives, Cheye was now certain, they were going to have to make the story of their exoneration bigger than the story of the drug raid on their home. Cheye held a news conference the next morning on their front lawn. As Cheye spoke -- "We have witnessed a frightening law-enforcement culture in which the law is disregarded, the rights of innocent occupants are ignored and the rights of innocent animals mean nothing." -- Trinity began to sob at his side.

By the next morning, the story of the nice attractive young mayor and his photogenic family who were terrorized by police was traveling the globe. Cheye turned on the radio at 5 a.m. to find the BBC leading off the world news with his story. As Cheye fielded interview requests from Paris, sympathy cards, letters and flowers arrived from all over.

Cheye opened the door one day to find a DHL deliveryman holding a box. Cheye froze.

"I'm going to need you to open the box," Cheye recalled telling the shocked deliveryman. "This may seem silly to you, and I'm not going to go into details, but I'm going to need you to open the box."

The deliveryman opened the box so Cheye could peer at the contents: a spray of roses.

***

Cheye and Trinity arranged for the frozen corpses of Payton and Chase to be transferred to a University of Maryland laboratory for animal autopsies. They were examined Aug. 11, and the veterinarian later issued a report consistent with Georgia's account and the physical evidence inside the family home: Payton had been shot four times, twice in the chest/flank region, once in the jaw and once in the neck. Chase was shot twice: once in his rear left legs, once in the chest. The shot to Chase's legs had been fired from behind. After the shot to his chest, he bled to death.

If angry dog lovers around the world puzzled over why police had behaved as they did, Cheye thought he was beginning to understand. Someone mailed Cheye a copy of a 2006 Cato Institute report, "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America." Trinity found the cover photo of a SWAT officer wielding an automatic assault rifle so unsettling that she asked Cheye not to leave it around the house. So, he made his way through the report as he rode the Metro to and from his office in the District. The report's author, a civil liberties advocate named Radley Balko, offered a context for the raid.

Americans have defended their right to privacy and the sanctity of their homes since Revolutionaries denounced British soldiers entering homes and businesses with impunity to search for contraband rum and tea and generate taxes for the British Crown. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable government searches and seizures. But civil libertarians argue that this constitutional protection has been seriously eroded in recent decades, largely as an unintended consequence of the nation's war on drugs.

In Balko's summary, paramilitary police units called Special Weapons Attack Teams, or SWATS, grew out of the social unrest of the 1960s. They were used to quell protesting migrant farm workers led by Cesar Chavez, then against urban rioters and in a shootout with the Black Panthers in Los Angeles. Balko writes: "Until the 1980s, SWAT teams and other paramilitary units were used sparingly, only in volatile, high-risk situations such as bank robberies or hostage situations. Likewise, 'no-knock' raids were generally used only in situations where innocent lives were determined to be at imminent risk. America's War on Drugs has spurred a significant rise in the numbers of such raids, to the point where in some jurisdictions drug warrants are only served by SWAT teams or similar paramilitary units, and the overwhelming numbers of SWAT deployments are to execute drug warrants."

Federal policies and funding stemming from the war on drugs gave local police financial incentives for making a high volume of drug arrests, even if they netted only users and low-level dealers, not drug kingpins, and spurred the military to arm SWAT teams with its excess military equipment. Laws allowing police to seize -- and add to their own budgets -- cars, cash, jewels and other items gathered during drug raids, even if nobody was convicted of any crime as a result of their search and seizures, became further incentive for police to use military-style raids against suspected drug traffickers, Balko argues. In a landmark 1995 case, Wilson v. Arkansas, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the longstanding common-law endorsement of the knock-and-announce approach to serving search warrants was enshrined in the Fourth Amendment. But it also recognized significant exceptions to the knock-and-announce approach. In a unanimous opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that police could enter a home unannounced under "exigent circumstances." Among them: if police had a reasonable belief that their safety would be imperiled by announcing themselves, if they were pursuing a fleeing suspect or if an announcement would allow suspects to destroy evidence. In the Berwyn Heights raid, police appeared to suggest that Georgia's terrified scream created the kind of exigent circumstance envisioned by the court.

Last year, Prince George's police deployed SWAT teams to serve search warrants more than 400 times, a police spokesman said. The department's narcotics unit now deploys its SWAT team to serve the overwhelming majority of its search warrants, Maj. Andy Ellis said. The Prince George's Police budget shows that the county expects to spend at least $2.5 million this year reaped from assets seized in drug raids.

Ellis, like police nationwide, defends the burgeoning use of paramilitary-style units to serve routine search warrants, arguing that the increase of force has been necessary to counteract more violent, and better armed, drug dealers. Prince George's SWAT officers recovered 241 firearms while serving search warrants last year, Ellis said. "Conducting narcotics is very dangerous work," Ellis said. "The officers who conduct narcotics search warrants never know what's on the other side of the door."

Civil libertarians argue that military-style raids escalate the level of violence in what could be routine police action, and are leaving a growing number of innocents terrorized, wounded or dead. "Botched raids are a staple of law enforcement," said Graham Boyd, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Drug Law Reform Project. "There is a never-ending stream of ruined homes, ruined lives and innocent people who are killed or terrorized." The Cato Institute Web site features an interactive map tracking hundreds of botched paramilitary police raids nationwide beginning in the late 1990s, including dozens of instances in which innocent people were killed.

Many victims of botched or abusive drug raids are poor minorities whom the public is unlikely to hear about or rally around, Boyd said. Legal immunity granted to police makes it difficult for victims to successfully sue for compensation, he said.

Cheye's reading and research on botched drug raids left him chilled. "This wasn't just about me and Trinity and Georgia anymore," Cheye said. "It was about my community."

Cheye decided that he would push the Maryland state legislature to require police to track, report and curtail the indiscriminate use of SWAT teams to force entry into people's homes unannounced to serve routine search warrants.

***

On a Saturday morning in mid-August, Cheye, Trinity and Georgia parked in a lot outside a pet store in Northern Virginia. They walked down a line of excited Labs available for adoption from a rescue organization, stroking noses, offering treats and asking the handlers about temperaments. Then they spotted a small black Lab who seemed calmer than the others, and they knew their search was over. He looked like Chase. Cheye went inside the pet store to try to buy the newest member of their family, Marshall, a leash and a toy. The woman behind the counter recognized him from the TV news and wouldn't let him pay.

"Marshall doesn't make us miss the boys less, but he steps into a void," Cheye later said. "I think we would have gone crazy if we didn't adopt him."

When the first chills of October came, Trinity lifted a jacket that had hung unused for months on a coat rack by the back door. One sleeve was spattered with blood. Another night, Trinity awakened to get some cold medicine and heard her mother having a nightmare. "Oh, no," Trinity heard Georgia murmuring. "Oh, no. Oh, no."

Georgia had suffered the worst violence during the raid. She was having the toughest time recovering. Outside by a garden bench, a flower pot stood testament to Georgia's state of mind. It was filled to overflowing with the butts of the cigarettes she had smoked.

She kept replaying in her mind the police claim that her terrified scream was their justification for breaking down the front door. She kept replaying the first awful seconds and wondering what she could have done to save Chase and Payton. Trinity and Cheye told her over and over that there was nothing she could have done, but consolation eluded her.

In that strange way that every loss in life evokes every other loss, the helplessness and self-blame Georgia felt the night she had lost her husband 16 years ago haunted her now. Bradley Porter, 37, was a helicopter pilot caught in heavy fog outside Price, Utah. He radioed the airport for someone to telephone Georgia to drive out and pick him up along with his passenger. By the time Georgia reached the distant field, Bradley had a new plan. He wanted Georgia to shine her headlights on power lines that ran parallel to the road. If he safely cleared those lines, he told her, he could follow the road to fly the helicopter in rather than leave it overnight where vandals might damage it. Georgia urged him to leave the helicopter until morning, but he insisted. So Georgia did as he asked. She maneuvered her car to light up the power lines, then watched as the helicopter lifted slightly. Investigators would later determine that one of the helicopter skids struck a knoll on the uneven, snow-covered field. Georgia watched helplessly as the helicopter flipped, crashed and exploded in flames, killing her husband and his passenger.

"I couldn't get to him," Georgia said. "For the longest time, I thought I should have tried harder to talk him out of trying to follow the road that night. It was just that terrible feeling. I could have done so many things differently."

Determined to recover for her children's sake, Georgia enrolled in college in Colorado, hoping to get her degree and become a veterinarian. But the science courses defeated her, and dissecting dead animals in the lab broke her heart. "I was sick of dead animals."

The lagging economy in Utah left Georgia with so few job prospects that she came to live with Cheye and Trinity to begin again. She thought she was finally making her way, and then the front door shattered.

Trinity took most of November off from work to reclaim the house. She cleaned every surface and reorganized every corner the raid had disturbed. She not only was no longer interested in moving; she was changing jobs so she could work from home. They were going to do what it took to be happy there again. "We love our life," Cheye said. "We love our marriage. We love our home. We are determined not to let it slip away."

They were also determined to hold the police accountable. Through a lawyer, Cheye, Trinity and Georgia have filed a notice of intent to sue the Prince George's County Police Department and the Sheriff's Office.

By the time, Cheye and Trinity hung ornaments on the Christmas tree in December, their sunny little brick home seemed almost as cozy as it used to, but different. Some damage couldn't be repaired. Georgia couldn't live in the house any longer and moved to an apartment in the area. Payton and Chase's ashes rested in a wooden chest, topped by their framed photo.

Cheye likes to sit near the chest on winter nights, Marshall at his feet, as he reads. Often, he sits up late researching Supreme Court rulings on police searches and seizures.

He's read the court's decision in one 2006 case, Hudson v. Michigan, more than once. In Hudson, the court found that even when police make a clearly illegal no-knock raid, the evidence they seize can still be used against a defendant at trial.

"In other words, police can do what they did to us with impunity" Cheye concluded. "There are no consequences, not for them."

April Witt is a staff writer for the Magazine. She can be reached at witta@washpost.com.

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