GULFPORT -- John Mark Stahl, the man former Sheriff Mike Byrd assaulted after his arrest in 2012, is out of prison, but says he mostly stays at home for fear of retribution from those still angry about what happened to the four-term sheriff who was convicted on charges related
to the assault on Stahl.
"I don't trust any police at all anymore," the 53-year-old said in an exclusive interview with the Sun Herald this month. "I know there are good ones. I've seen them. I've encountered them.
"...But for every good one, there seems like there are two bad ones," he said. "And I don't mean criminally bad like selling drugs. I'm talking about their treatment of people. You are strong-armed first and then (they say) 'it's for our safety and yours.' Well, if you are the one who has me on the ground with your knee in my back and my neck, I'm not feeling very safe."
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Stahl is suing Byrd, Jackson County and other unnamed deputies for violating his civil, constitutional and human rights when one deputy kicked him in the face with his boot and Byrd twice kicked him in the groin after Stahl was taken into custody for stealing a Jackson County patrol car in June 2012.
Stahl is seeking more than $50 million in compensatory damages and more than $500 million in punitive damages along with costs to cover attorneys fees and trial costs. He is demanding a jury trial.
Stahl's attorney, Michael Crosby, filed the suit in U.S. District Court.
"In this case, the sheriff and his deputies, in front of not only his own officers, but officers from another state, intentionally and recklessly violated every constitutional principle he swore to uphold when he outrageously kicked Stahl, and explained to him that the law is irrelevant, that he is going to do whatever he wanted to make Stahl's life horrible, without any concern for his sworn duty," Crosby said. "Because the evidence demonstrated his outrageous conduct (in videos), it was a simple matter, to him, to simply destroy the evidence. Most of the time, that works. This time it did not."
According to the lawsuit, Stahl suffered "cruel and inhumane" treatment, assault, battery, humiliation and mental and emotional distress when an unnamed deputy kicked him in the face and Byrd twice kicked him in the groin after he was in custody and in handcuffs at the time of his June 18, 2012, arrest. The suits says Byrd was "enraged" because Stahl had stolen a deputy's patrol car.
The suit alleges the unlawful use of force under the authority of law was a known pattern of practice within the ranks of the Sheriff's Department and Jackson County that was "condoned and encouraged."
Stahl was arrested on charges accusing him of stealing sheriff's Deputy Christopher Goff's patrol car.
The Sun Herald reached out for comment on the suit from attorneys for Byrd and Jackson County, but neither responded.
'I'm being abused'
Stahl said he is not trying to excuse what he did by filing a lawsuit.
"I'm not trying to minimize my part in this," he said. "That is not what this is about. For me, it's about the way I was treated. The way I was treated just wasn't necessary. The way I was treated was not human. I told them on four or five occasions I surrender and still I'm being abused."
A federal judge sentenced Byrd to six months house arrest and six months probation for knowingly engaging in misleading conduct, or witness tampering, in Stahl's case. As part of his plea, Byrd admitted twice kicking Stahl and later ordering a sheriff's captain to delete his patrol car's dashboard camera of Byrd attacking Stahl at the scene of his arrest.
In addition, Byrd admitted ordering a computer technician to wipe clean Byrd's office computer so that authorities could not retrieve any emails Byrd had sent. Byrd also admitted directing the technician to drill a hole in the bottom of the computer to destroy the computer hard drive.
Byrd never released any information about the stolen patrol car or Stahl's arrest. The Sun Herald learned of the incident and later interviewed Stahl while he was in custody in Rankin County in August 2014.
Stahl estimated he led authorities on a 17-mile vehicle chase.
By the time Byrd got to the scene, Stahl said he was standing handcuffed, facing a patrol car. He said Byrd kicked him in the groin, then backed up a little and kicked him again.
"I took a couple of deep breaths," Stahl said about the incident. "My knees buckled, but I didn't go down to the ground."
After Stahl was placed in the back of a patrol car, Stahl said Byrd told him, "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 has consistently said he deserved some type of punishment, but said, he did not "deserve the physical punishment that I got."
Stahl later pleaded guilty to felony charges of taking away of a motor vehicle and felony fleeing in a plea deal with the state. He was sentenced to jail time, a term of three years, for the incident.
Stahl said he stole the patrol car as he, a recovering addict, relapsed following three years of sobriety. The only other felony conviction on Stahl's record was possession of a controlled substance.
People in power
Since his Sept. 26, 2014, prison release, Stahl has been living with his mother in Jackson County. He's also suffering from cirrhosis and is hoping to receive a liver transplant.
He said he doesn't get out much because he fears someone might want to exact revenge on him for what happened to Byrd.
"I don't fear Mike Byrd, but it's the people I don't know," he said. "I don't know if somebody is going to walk up to me in a store and chew me out, punch me in the head or shoot me. I wonder if my family is going to be pulled over and harassed. It's tainted my view of people in power."
Stahl, who for 20 years worked as a welding specialist at Ingalls' shipyard, said he will forever be grateful for those who ensured Byrd was held accountable for his actions.
But, he said, "They need to do this more often with more officials. You know, people are given power and they are abusing their power. Nobody is checking the checkers."
He said he'll always remember Byrd telling him he would use his power to send Stahl away forever.
He said he still feels "fear" every day.
"And that bothers me," he said. "I'm not a scared person and I have enough intellect not to be scared but this (fear) overrides it. If he had his way, I was going to prison for the rest of my life and he told me I was not out of his reach no matter where I was. Just because you have a badge doesn't mean you can do anything you want to do. You shouldn't have to fear them."
In addition to the conviction in Stahl's case, Byrd pleaded guilty to a state charge of felony intimidation of a witness in a case District Attorney Tony Lawrence prosecuted. A Jackson County grand jury had indicted Byrd on 29 felony charges and two misdemeanor offenses in the state's case. In exchange for Byrd's plea, the state dismissed the remaining charges.
In that case, a judge sentenced Byrd to six months of house arrest followed by probation. The sentences ran concurrently.
As for Byrd, Stahl said, he'd like to send him a message: "You got caught. You finally got caught."