GULFPORT -- John Mark Stahl says Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd kicked him twice in the groin and a deputy put "a boot in his face" and "stomped (him) on the head" when he was arrested in June 2012 for stealing a deputy's patrol car.
By the time Byrd arrived at the arrest scene, Stahl said, he was already handcuffed, standing and facing a patrol car. He said Byrd told him the incident embarrassed him and his deputies and he kicked Stahl in the groin, then backed up a little and did it again.
"I took a couple of deep breaths," he said. "My knees buckled, but I didn't go to the ground," though he said a deputy was holding him up against the patrol car at the time. After he was placed in the back of a patrol car, Stahl said, "he (Byrd) said he was going to use every bit of influence and power that he had to make sure that I spent the rest of my life in prison for embarrassing him, his office and his officer."
Stahl said agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation have interviewed him about his capture and he made the same allegations to them. The Sun Herald asked to talk to Byrd directly, but his public information official, Cherie Ward, sent a written response, saying, "Sheriff Byrd said the case remains under investigation and he cannot discuss it."
Byrd has come under fire in the last two years, first after a shooting at the Narcotics Task Force of Jackson County went unreported and resulted in an indictment against a deputy. Byrd has also been sued by a former Ocean Springs aldermen who claims Byrd targeted him and others for arrest. A grand jury is hearing evidence in a case with links to Byrd.
Case against Stahl
Stahl, 50, is in the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County serving the remainder of a six-year sentence for possession of a controlled substance after he violated the conditions of his probation.
His probation was revoked, records show, as a result of his June 2012 arrest on charges of DUI, motor vehicle theft, failure to yield to blue lights and sirens, disorderly conduct, felony pursuit and aggravated assault on a police officer, all in connection with the theft of deputy Chris Goff's patrol car.
Stahl has pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor DUI charge. The Sheriff's Office investigated the case.
A grand jury has since heard evidence in the case and indicted Stahl on three charges: taking possession of or taking away a motor vehicle, fleeing or eluding a law enforcement officer in a motor vehicle and aggravated assault on a peace officer.
He is accused of assault for allegedly attempting to hit Goff with the patrol car.
With Stahl's attorney, Michael Crosby, present for the interview, the Sun Herald last week talked with Stahl by phone regarding the events leading up to and following his arrest in the early hours of June 19, 2012, on Airport Boulevard in Mobile County, where the pursuit ended. The pursuit started late on June 18, 2012.
"The feds came to me (in the Rankin County prison) and told me they were waiting on me to get there so they could talk to me because they were investigating the sheriff for other practices of physical violence and things at the (Jackson County) jail," Stahl said.
He said he has suffered permanent injury from the wounds he said Byrd and deputies inflicted after his arrest.
Stahl admits to stealing the patrol car but said he never assaulted anyone.
"My client immediately realized his mistake, and tried to give up," Crosby said, "but rather than accept his peaceful surrender, the sheriff unleashed his rage and unrestrained physical assault without regard to the severity of permanent damage inflicted on John or with any concern of how his permanent injury might affect his ability to care for his family."
Crosby said Stahl also signed a medical release form so the FBI could look at those records.
Stealing the patrol car
Stahl said he was a recovering addict who had been sober for three years but had relapsed, and he decided to drive June 18, 2012, while impaired.
He said he ran the vehicle he was driving into a ditch in Jackson County. After he wrecked, he said, he started walking toward a friend's house to see if he could use a phone when he saw a deputy driving up.
According to the incident report requested by the Sun Herald, with most of the information in it redacted, the incident was reported at 10:56 p.m. at Saracennia and Coda roads. Stahl said he saw the deputies approaching his wrecked car, and he turned around and walked back toward his wrecked vehicle. "They wanted me to put my hands behind my back," Stahl said. "They wanted to arrest me. They assumed I was DUI. Alcohol was on my breath.
"I was telling them I didn't want to do that because I didn't want to go to prison because I'm on probation. I just got scared and the officer (the deputy) had left his car door open and the car running, and I just jumped in the car and took off."
The report says Stahl was armed with a knife.
Crosby said Stahl put the knife to his throat before jumping in the patrol car and driving away.
Byrd did not release information about the theft of the patrol car when it occurred.
Stahl estimated he led authorities on a 17-mile chase, ending up on Mississippi 614, which turns into Airport Boulevard in Mobile County at the Alabama line. When he got near the state line, Stahl said, he saw three Mobile County sheriff's cars blocking the road.
He said he was hoping to get to Mobile to call an attorney, but admits he was "confused."
He said he stopped when he saw the roadblock. He said he used the patrol car's radio to let deputies know he was going to surrender.
When he tried to get out of the car, he said another Jackson County patrol car pulled up beside him, blocking the driver-side door. He said he decided to pull up a little more so he could get out, but a Jackson County car rammed the rear of the car he was in, and "the car went into a ditch."
He said he was then pulled out of the car and thrown down in the dirt. "I told them I was surrendering. I didn't actually resist," he said.
In addition, he said, "I told (a deputy) I was sorry for taking the car, at which time he told me it was too late for all that. Then I got a boot in the face. I literally got a boot in my face and the officer stomped on my head. When I was snatched up, I was picked up and put up against the (deputy's) car, facing the car, at which time the sheriff arrived."
He said it wasn't long before Byrd kicked him in the groin.
"It's true I deserve some punishment for what I've done, but I do not deserve the physical punishment that I got," Stahl said, adding he feels "sad that things are still this way in this day and age."
"I mean, I think an officer should be held to a higher standard," he said. As for Byrd's alleged actions, he said, "He took it more as an embarrassment to him and his department than it was reacting to anything that happened. He should be held to the highest (standard) of all. There shouldn't be any propensity for anything other than the highest level of moral and ethical standards."
Stahl said he was taken to Singing River Hospital, then to the Jackson County jail.
Report lacks details
The Sun Herald requested a copy of the incident report from the Sheriff's Office in December, and received a report with the names of all deputies involved redacted except one assisting officer, Bruce Nevels. The indictments name Goff as the deputy whose car was stolen. Also redacted were any details typically found in an initial incident report regarding what happened. Ward wrote on the report: "investigative materials removed -- not public record."
In addition, the Sun Herald asked to listen to and record the dispatch audio involving the pursuit. But Ward wrote back on Byrd's behalf in December, "We received your request to listen to and record the dispatch audio involving the pursuit of John Mark Stahl on June 19, 2012. The case is pending and evidence is not public record. Your request is denied."
Stahl said he's hoping his story about what happened after he was taken into custody has some positive effect.
"I would like truthfully to see something, something come of it where people wouldn't be in as much fear of treatment such as mine " he said.