Late on June 3, musician Juan Holladay walked away from the Pritchard Park drum circle, handing out fliers for his show later that night at MoDaddy’s. As he walked past the Elizabeth Blackwell memorial marker on Patton Avenue, he saw several Asheville Police Department officers talking to a man. He had no idea that what happened next would get him arrested and start an APD internal investigation into the officers’ conduct.
“It didn’t seem that serious; they didn’t have the sidewalk blocked off,” Holladay says. “I handed a flier to a young man that looked like he was a friend to the guy [who] was being talked to. The officers seemed relaxed. I handed him a flier and walked away. An officer blocked my way and asked if I saw what was going on. He asked if I knew them, pointing back to three young men.”
Holladay replied that he didn’t know the others. Then, he says, the officer grabbed his wrist “and held it in a way that communicated to me that I was in big trouble.
“I felt this had already escalated way beyond what was necessary,” Holliday recalls. “I thought I should let him know. I said ‘Sir, you don’t need to be so agro.’ I meant to say ‘aggressive,’ but I was nervous. I hoped [the officer] would see me being calm and the situation would de-escalate. He then said ‘OK’ and twisted my arm around behind my back, with enough force to shock me.”
The officer started yelling for Holladay to get on the ground, something he claims was difficult, given his position.
“It should have been an easy process: I was cooperating as well as I could, but I was in shock and afraid,” Holladay says. At that point, he felt multiple officers restrain him.
“They kept yelling at me to get on the ground — it felt like there was one on each limb — but I kept telling them I didn’t have any control over my person at that point,” he says. “I think they were panicked. People had gathered around and were shouting ‘police brutality’ and ‘excessive force.’ The situation got out of control really fast.”
Other officers moved to get the crowd back, as another “started choking me from behind” using his bicep, Holladay claims. “It got tighter and tighter. I thought he was trying to choke me unconscious. He was pumped up on adrenaline. I worried he would snap my neck. I called out to him, told him. He stopped trying; I have a skinny neck.”
At that point, Officer Leslie Torgow put a can of pepper spray to his face and asked him to comply. Then, Holladay says, the other officers relaxed enough that he could get on the ground. “I was grateful for [Torgow’s] presence. She took charge of the situation, made a plan [that] gave me a chance to comply without other officers interfering. Except for her, the other officers never gave me a chance to cooperate.”
Among the passersby that night was Rick Fornoff, who describes what he saw. “I assumed the APD had captured some armed and dangerous drug dealer, just by the way they were acting. There was a lot of physical activity going on. There were a lot of police cars there. The crowd was upset with what was going on.
“Somebody was being tackled,” Fornoff tells Xpress. He’s worked with Holladay as a volunteer with the TEDxAsheville conference, and says he was surprised when he found out who the officers were restraining. “Really? He can’t weigh more than 130 pounds, and he’s a gentle soul.”
Holladay, a part-time pre-school teacher, was charged with resisting public officers and creating a public disturbance. He was released from the Buncombe County jail later that night on a promise to appear. He says he had a bloodied chin, some bruises, and soreness for about a week, but he met his band in the jail waiting room and still played his show afterwards. He did not seek medical treatment.
There is no incident report for his arrest, but the APD, through spokesperson Lt. Wally Welch, after requests from media, released an account asserting Holladay belligerently interfered while officers were in the process of arresting three people for putting stickers on city power poles.
“Mr. Holladay stepped into the middle of my investigation and interfered,” Officer Daniel Britt says in the APD’s account. “[Officer Willie] Carswell told him to leave and Holladay said. ‘Fuck you, I don’t have to.’ Carswell told him he was under arrest and then Holladay resisted.
“A large crowd gathered and [Holliday] was taken into custody and transported by Britt and Carswell. From my perspective, the officers did their duty in a reasonable manner,” Welch writes. “It should also be noted that Mr. Holladay has never been to the department to file a complaint about his treatment.”
Holladay denies he cursed the officers when they approached him, or that they asked him to leave before restraining him. He says he cursed while being choked, saying, “You’re going to breaking my f’ing neck,” and when he was lifted off the ground, he said, “‘You’re playing tug of war with me like an f’ing rag doll.’ I didn’t directly curse at any officers.”
According to the APD’s guidelines on using force, “officers may only use the force necessary to carry out a legal purpose.”
When asked what actions did Holladay take that interfered with Britt and Carswell’s investigation, which officer restrained him first, how did they do it, how did he resist, Welch replied, “I would love to provide some clarity for you on this, but I’ve since been advised that this has turned into an internal investigation and am not allowed further comment.”
Holladay admits he hasn’t filed a formal complaint. Instead, he approached City Council member Cecil Bothwell via Facebook and made a public call on his Facebook page for witnesses from the crowd to come forward. Bothwell confirms he asked City Manager Gary Jackson to look into the matter. Holladay later received a call from Jackson’s office about meeting with an internal affairs officer. As Welch confirms, the department began an investigation.
Holladay’s court date is Sept. 13.
— David Forbes, senior news reporter