A shot in the dark

Police Take Wrong Man to Jail

by Drew Mackie

 In an unusual end to typical post-Thanksgiving dinner activities, 78-year-old Santa Barbara resident David Wass spent the night in jail. In Wass’s view, he merely emerged from his apartment to investigate a gunshot, then ended up detained under suspicion of being the shooter. Now, Wass is preparing a lawsuit against the police department for false arrest. Police spokesperson Lt. Paul McCaffrey, however, claims the arresting officers acted in accordance with proper police procedure. “We treated this matter very seriously,” McCaffrey said. “A lot of work went into getting to the truth of this matter.”

At approximately 9 p.m. on November 23, Wass was at his home on Oceano Avenue when he heard a discussion among neighbors escalate into an argument. The exchange ended with a gunshot, and Wass said he decided to check to see if someone had been seriously injured. “I became very concerned that there could be somebody dying at the curb,” he said. Upon leaving his apartment, however, Wass was ordered to stop — twice. “I didn’t stop at the first sound because I didn’t know who I might be facing when I turned around,” he said. The party approaching consisted of four police officers, who questioned Wass. What Wass did not initially realize — and what police reports would eventually reveal — is that Wass matched the description of the man who actually had fired a gunshot. “I told them they were making a mistake,” he said. “And I told them ‘And you guys want a raise?’”

Wass — a longtime activist in the Santa Barbara Green Party who may be most familiar as the host of the political show “The Next Step,” on public access Channel 17 — then spent the night in jail. In his words, the experience was dehumanizing and a lesson in the poor conditions citizens in jail must face. “They treat you as though you don’t have any rights,” he said. “Just a bag of blood and bones.” Wass charged that he was taken to jail without reason, since the police who arrested him already had a warrant to search his apartment when they returned after their initial meeting with him. He also said the police detained him in an unnecessarily rough manner: “They handcuffed me as I had seen so many times in the movies, [though] it hurts a lot more in real time,” he said. Finally, Wass said he spent his time in jail not knowing what he was charged with and unable to contact help, as he was not permitted a phone call until 5 a.m. and he found the phone system difficult to use.

Police reports, however, describe Wass’s behavior as “uncooperative,” “belligerent,” and indicative of a suspect. After witnesses in the shooting incident said they thought Wass had fired the shot, police obtained a warrant to search Wass’s apartment and arrested Wass. As the investigation continued, police contacted Michael Robert Ganan, another resident of the complex, who after some questioning admitted to threatening the men having the loud, expletive-laced conversation, racking a live shot from his rifle, and then firing a second shot outside his apartment. However, because he fired into a planter, the crime is not a felony but a misdemeanor, and Ganan was not arrested. Until officers concluded this, McCaffrey said they had to treat the crime as a felony. “That’s no small thing, to have a guy walking around and taking potshots with a high-powered rifle,” McCaffrey said. The officer’s narratives of the event do not detail the hostility Wass alleges, McCaffrey said.

Upon Ganan’s admission, Wass was released from jail, just as he was being fitted for inmate garb. Wass contacted attorney Joe Allen and began discussing the terms of a lawsuit. He has not yet decided what damages he may seek.

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