BELLE PLAINE, Kan. – The dashcam video captured a horrific scene: a Kansas sheriff's deputy in a patrol truck mowing down a Black man who was running, shirtless, across a field in the summer darkness after fleeing a traffic stop.
Lionel Womack — a 35-year-old former police detective from Kansas City, Kansas — alleges in a excessive force lawsuit filed Thursday that he sustained serious injuries when Kiowa County Sheriff's Deputy Jeremy Rodriguez intentionally drove over him during the Aug. 15 encounter.
Womack said in a statement that he hadn't been speeding nor was he under the influence of anything when he was initially pulled over. His driver's license, insurance and registration were up to date.
“When the first officer turned his lights on, I pulled over and complied ... exactly as you're supposed to. But when three additional vehicles pulled up quickly and started to surround my car, I freaked out. That's when I took off, it was a ‘fight or flight’ moment and I was going to live,” he said. “I felt like I was in danger. This was out in the country, late at night, and it was dark. So I ran for my life. That's what you see in the dashcam video. I'm running in an open field, and I'm scared.”
The graphic video is at the crux of the federal civil rights case filed by attorney Michael Kuckelman against the deputy in U.S. District Court in Kansas. The lawsuit argues that Rodriguez used excessive force and was “callously indifferent” to Womack's civil rights.
Womack had left the police department earlier in August with hopes of growing his own security business. He was on his way back home from a business trip to California when a Kansas Highway Patrol officer in western Kansas initiated a chase over “an alleged traffic violation,” according to the lawsuit. Sheriff's deputies from Pratt County and Kiowa County joined in the chase.
The car chase ended on a dirt road, and Womack took off on foot across a nearby field.
The dashcam footage from a Pratt County sheriff's deputy's vehicle shows Rodriguez using his patrol truck to catch up to Womack, who was unarmed.
Rodriguez swerves his truck to hit Womack, knocking him to the ground and running over him. Womack rolls out from under the truck, his arms and legs flailing as someone on the video shouts, “lie down, lie down.” A deputy in the second patrol truck can be heard uttering an expletive as he watches.
Womack says he sustained serious injuries to his back, pelvis and thigh as well as to his right knee, ankle and foot.
“The dashcam video is disturbing,” Kuckelman said. “It is impossible to watch a video of a deputy driving his truck over Mr. Womack without feeling sick. There was nowhere for Mr. Womack to go. It was an open field, and he was trapped, yet the deputy drove his truck over him anyway.”
Neither Kiowa County Sheriff Chris Tedder nor his attorney has responded to Associated Press requests for comment. No one has explained why Rodriguez chose to run Womack down. The deputy’s race is unclear.
Kuckelman urged Tedder in person and in letters to fire Rodriguez, and the sheriff has refused. Rodriguez remains on patrol. Kuckelman also wants Rodriguez charged criminally and has accused the sheriff of engaging in a coverup of the deputy’s conduct.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation said it didn't learn of the incident until September, at which point it offered to help the Kiowa County Attorney's Office in an investigation. The office declined that offer.
The KBI viewed the dashcam video for the first time on Thursday and again reached out to prosecutors. They will now be providing investigative support to the Kansas Attorney General's Office in a review of the incident, KBI spokeswoman Melissa Underwood said in an email.
A spokesman for the state's attorney general's office said he would respond to AP's questions on the issue later.
Womack remains jailed, four months later, on felony charges of attempting to elude a law enforcement officer by engaging in reckless driving and interference with a law enforcement officer. Court records show he is also charged with several misdemeanor traffic citations, including failure to drive in the right lane on a four-lane highway, improper signal and driving without headlights.
Kuckelman said Womack had remained in jail because of an outstanding arrest warrant out of Oklahoma. The attorney added that authorities there said they needed a governor's warrant to extradite Womack. They received it and extradited him Thursday to Guymon, Oklahoma. According to Kuckleman, Oklahoma officials believe Womack was speeding as he drove through the Guyman area, but could not catch him.
Online court records show Womack was charged Aug. 12 in Texas County, Oklahoma, with endangering others while eluding or attempting to elude police.
Womack comes from a law enforcement family. His wife and his mother are officers with the Kansas City, Kansas Police Department. His stepfather retired from police work as a sergeant there. Two aunts are police dispatchers.
Zee Womack watched the video of her husband being run over for the first time on Wednesday, replaying it four times as she struggled to understand why the deputy felt justified in using such force. Her husband is lucky to be alive, she said.
“I am a police officer as well, and I feel like especially right now it is a really difficult time to be a police officer. We don't always get the support, I guess, that would be helpful in this occupation," she said. “And this makes it a lot more difficult to be an officer.”
An officer who is able to make decisions like that should not have a badge, she said.
“To me it showed a blatant disregard for human life,” she said.
Lionel Womack said he believes in the “blue brotherhood” and that most police officers are good.
“But we have to hold law enforcement accountable when they cross the line,” he said “These rogue law enforcement officers give a bad name to the good officers, and we have to stop them. I never imagined that I would someday be the victim of excessive force by a fellow law enforcement officer. He could have easily killed me.”