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Gay men targeted in Meridian Hill Park by fake cop, prosecutors say

Meridian Hill Park at night. (Joe Flood/Flickr)

A former elementary school teacher from Prince George’s County was arrested Thursday and accused of assaulting men in a D.C. park with chemical spray between 2018 and 2021.

Prosecutors say Michael Thomas Pruden, 48, pretended to be a Park Police officer five separate times when he went into Meridian Hill Park after dark and approached men in what is known as a place to meet for sex. According to court records, he told them the park was closed and they should leave, and then assaulted them with pepper spray.

The indictment in D.C. federal court charges him with five counts of assault on federal land and one count of impersonating a federal officer. A hate crimes sentencing enhancement alleges that four of the victims were targeted because of their perceived sexual orientation.

Pruden was acquitted by a jury of a similar attack in Alexandria federal court last year. In that case, prosecutors said two men were walking on Daingerfield Island on the afternoon of March 21, 2021, when Pruden, prosecutors alleged, approached, identified himself as a police officer, then attacked one man with pepper spray and a stick while uttering “an anti-gay slur.” At trial, prosecutors were not allowed to refer to the D.C. attacks.

A defense attorney complained to the Washington Blade in 2019 that plainclothes police were soliciting men for sex in Meridian Hill Park and then arresting them in sting operations.

“The U.S. Park Police receives complaints about lewd acts that occur within Meridian Hill,” a public information officer told the paper. “As with any other complaint of illegal activity, we then take actions to stop it.”

After his arrest last year, a Prince George’s County Public Schools spokeswoman said that Pruden had taught in the system since 2014. He was suspended at that time.

On Thursday he was arrested in Norfolk, according to the court records.