Interviewing the people in Tracy Ingle's life — his sisters, his foster brother, his friends — you hear one line often enough that it soon becomes a refrain: Tracy is no angel.
Though all express their love and admiration for him — a kind man; a man who can fix anything, they say — they tend to tell you the bad things about him first. A recovering alcoholic, Ingle had a couple of DWIs several years back. When the Arkansas Times spoke to him, he was on house arrest for a 5-year-old failure-to-appear warrant. A car accident in Maryland in 2002 left him with degenerative disk disease in his back and what his sisters said is an addiction to pain killers — though all of his pills are legally prescribed. Up until Christmas 2007, he had several roommates, many of whom had had recent run-ins with the law. Last year, he agreed to fix a stereo in a friend's Mustang — a car that turned out to be hot — and got arrested for receiving stolen merchandise. That case still hasn't shaken out.
No matter what Ingle or those he gave a temporary home to may have done, however, it's hard to imagine he deserved what he got Jan. 7. That night, the North Little Rock SWAT team stormed Ingle's house on a high-risk, “no-knock” search warrant. By the time all was said and done, Ingle had been shot five times — including one bullet that pulverized his femur and left his leg dangling from his body, connected only by a bloody mess of meat, skin and tendon.
According to an evidence list left at Ingle's house after the shooting, no suspected drugs or drug residue were recovered from the residence — only a digital scale, a notebook and a few plastic baggies, all of which Ingle's family members have identified as part of the junk they had collectively stored at the house.
It might seem strange, then, that Ingle currently stands accused of several serious felonies — including two counts of aggravated assault. While the North Little Rock police insist they got a dangerous criminal off the streets, Ingle and his family say the charges are all about appearances — and covering the police.
Tracy Ingle's biggest problem, those who know him say, is that he just can't say no.
For five years now, Ingle has lived in a rambling, hand-me-down house on East 21st Street in North Little Rock. The place used to belong to his sister's godfather — has at one time or another been home to nearly all his kin. In recent years, however, as the neighborhood took a rough turn and family moved away, the house became storage and catch-all for Ingle's entire clan, the upstairs full of boxes, baby clothes, knick-knacks and Tracy's prodigious collection of ham radio gear. A former stonemason who worked federal contracts in D.C. before he hurt his back, Ingle led a hand-to-mouth existence even before he was shot, repairing electronics and doing odd jobs for money.
As someone who knows what it is to be down and out, he's always been an easy touch, his family says, for those looking to crash at his place long term. They say Ingle would take in nearly anyone with a hard luck story; a situation that even he admits led to a lot of shady characters hanging around the house. Before Christmas, before he put most of them out, there were five full-time roommates living in the house, including a cousin who had recently gotten out of jail after serving time for making meth.
As it happened, Ingle was home alone on the night of Jan. 7, when his life went from bad to worse. Earlier that evening, he'd had an argument with his sometime girlfriend, Sandra Melby. She'd gone to her friend's house in Greenbrier for the night. Around dusk, the night coming on cold, Ingle went back to his bedroom — a small 10-by-10 room at the rear of the house — and lay down on the bed to watch television. With the bedroom light still on, he dozed off in the big cannonball post bed that faced the window.
At around the same time, things were in synchronized motion at the North Little Rock Police Department. Acting on a warrant signed almost three weeks before — Dec. 21, 2007 — by North Little Rock Judge Randy Morley, the NLR SWAT team was gearing up and getting ready to roll on one of the most dangerous things in their job description: a no-knock warrant.
Conceived during the Nixon administration, the no-knock warrant — and the use of militarized Special Weapons and Tactics teams to execute them — came of age during the drug wars of the 1980s. The rationale behind no-knocks and using SWAT to serve them was simple: As the criminals became more savvy and well-armed, serving drug warrants demanded the element of surprise, and a more well-armed show of force.
Given that it's a case that has yet to be prosecuted, it should be noted that the North Little Rock Police Department says it is limited in what it can say about Ingle's case at this point. There are obvious questions. In the warrant obtained to search the house at 400 E. 21st St., a copy of which was obtained by the Arkansas Times, police say they believe the house in question contained “crack cocaine.” That description has been carefully scribbled out, with “methamphetamine” written in above and initialed by Judge Randy Morley. According to an affidavit signed by NLRPD narcotics investigator Mickey Schuetzle, narcotics had been sold from the residence. In that document, Schuetzle doesn't elaborate on who sold him the narcotics, what was sold, or when.
It's a fast drive from the North Little Rock Police Department on Main Street to Ingle's house, situated on a dead end of East 21st Street, just a few blocks away. The SWAT wagon was there by 7:40 p.m. The movements of the officers once they left the truck had been planned out long beforehand. One team went to the front door on the north side with a battering ram while others took up positions along the perimeter of the house — including two officers outside Ingle's chest-high bedroom window on the west side.
As you might expect, there are differences in account of what happened in the explosive next 10 seconds or so.
A place that cherishes both its guns and the sanctity of a man's home, Arkansas is one of many states that has enshrined some version of the Defense of Premises Doctrine in its laws. It is, simply put, the right to defend your home without fear of prosecution, up to and including killing an intruder who has made forcible entry.
It's an idea that is dangerously at odds with the concept of no-knock search warrants, says Radley Balko, senior editor of Reason magazine. A former fellow at the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C., libertarian think tank, Balko did some of the early research into the use of no-knock warrants and militarized police units. Over and over again, Balko said, he sees cases where a SWAT team breaches a house, the homeowner exercises his right to defend his home, and either an officer or the homeowner is killed or injured. The only difference is that when it's a cop who gets shot, the private citizen nearly always winds up in jail.
“The dichotomy is very striking,” Balko said. “Here you have these violent, confrontational raids where the police are breaking into someone's home… You can understand how the officers might make a mistake. But the person on the receiving end of things — woken up in the middle of the night, usually by flash-bang grenades which are designed to confuse people — if they make a mistake, then they're held accountable and are usually charged pretty severely.”
Balko said that the rise of the SWAT team has largely been in response to the fear that inner city drug dealers and other criminals have amassed hordes of automatic weaponry to use on police (by contrast, he said, the National Institute of Justice has found that the overwhelming majority of gun crimes were committed using small-caliber, easily concealed handguns). Originally conceived in huge, high-crime cities like Los Angeles, tactical teams have since spread to almost every police department that can afford one, and have often been accompanied by a corresponding militarized mentality — one that can trickle down even to the rank-and-file officers on the street.
It's easy to see why. Highly trained and armed to the teeth, often given the most dangerous assignments, being a SWAT officer is about as close to being Batman as most cops are ever going to get: decked out in ninja black, identities hidden from evildoers, with a utility belt full of the latest tactical gadgets. Even so, Balko said, many older police officers he knows are suspicious of the new breed of gung-ho cops who gravitate toward SWAT — and the us-versus-them mentality an overly militarized police force can create.
“We're giving these cops military equipment,” Balko said. “We're giving them military training in military tactics, and then we send them out and tell them they're fighting a war on drugs. It shouldn't surprise us at all when they start to treat public streets like a battlefield and private citizens like enemy combatants.”
While Balko said there are legitimate uses for SWAT teams — hostage situations, armed and violent suspects and the like — those moments are few and far between, even in cities much larger than North Little Rock. Because tactical teams are expensive to train and equip, that has led many police departments to put them on search warrant duty rather than see them sit idle for years at a time. That's exactly the wrong thing to do, Balko said, both for cops and suspects.
“When you're sending SWAT teams in after low-level drug users, you're creating violence,” he said. “You're creating a confrontation where there wasn't one before.”
No matter what neighborhood you live in, no matter what your rap sheet looks like, try to imagine it: Coming awake in your house, in the middle of the night, to the sound of someone breaking in. What would your first reaction be?
“The only thing I heard was breaking glass,” Tracy Ingle said.
Asleep in his bed when the window directly opposite came crashing in, Ingle's first instinct was to reach for the pistol he kept by his bedside — a cheap Lorcin automatic. Having never been convicted of a felony, it was perfectly legal for him to have the gun; perfectly legal for him to use it to defend his home against intruders. He had bought it a few years before, he said, because of how bad the neighborhood had gotten. His house had been broken into in the past. A few months before, at a store only a few blocks away on Main Street, a robbery had turned into a shootout, and two people had been killed. Even so, Ingle couldn't have shot anyone with the gun even if he'd wanted to. Years before, someone had pounded the wrong clip into the gun and jammed something inside. Ingle and his foster brother, Eric Nelson, say it couldn't even chamber a round, much less fire.
A second after he sat up, Ingle said, the room “kind of filled up with light,” and he could see the officers outside the window, in their black helmets and body armor. “I could see that they weren't robbers, so I threw the gun down,” Ingle said. “A second later, I heard one of the police officers say, ‘He's got a fucking gun'… I could hear him turning in the leaves, and as soon as he turned, he turned around and started shooting.”
This is where Ingle's story and that of the two officers involved diverge. The officers, identified only as “Victim 1” and “Victim 2” in a NLRPD investigation report concerning the shooting, both told investigators that Ingle was sitting up and bed and pointing the gun in their faces when they raked away the sheet covering the window, giving them no choice but to open fire. Ingle, meanwhile, says that the gun was already on the floor, and he was in the process of raising his hands when the shooting started.
Whatever the case, the first shot that hit Tracy Ingle was devastating — most likely a high-velocity .223 round, given the damage it inflicted. The bullet entered Ingle's leg just above the left kneecap and blew his thigh apart. Surgeons would later replace a large chunk of Ingle's femur with a stainless steel rod.
He knew he had been shot, Ingle said, and his first instinct was to try to get off the bed — away from the window, at least, where the two officers were now pouring fire into the room. As Ingle tried, he got tangled up in the blankets and his ruined leg folded under him, the shattered bone grating inside. He fell to the floor in agony. As he fell, the officers outside the window kept shooting, hitting him four more times — arm, calf, hip and chest. The round that hit him in the chest is still there, too close to his heart to be removed. Days later, Ingle's brother, Eric, would dig four more bullets out of a space heater that was only a foot from where Ingle's head lay, and spackle up nine bullet holes in the wall over Tracy's bed. Some of those rounds had gone completely through and into the bathroom on the other side of the wall, two of them blowing ragged holes through both sides of a plywood shelf.
Finally, the shooting stopped.
“After that,” Ingle said, “all the police rushed in, and were standing over me and calling me Michael. They kept calling me Michael or Mike, and I wouldn't answer them. One of them asked me why I wouldn't answer them, and I said, ‘My name's not Mike.' I don't remember much after that except them taking me out of the house to an ambulance.”
Brandy Hoover is Tracy Ingle's sister. She happens to be a surgical nurse at Baptist Health Hospital in North Little Rock, where her brother was taken after the shooting. Like most of her family, Hoover learned about the shooting from the nightly news. She and Ingle had had a falling out some weeks before the shooting, over what she calls the untrustworthy people he was involved with. After the shooting, however, she visited her brother's hospital room any time she could.
As someone who deals every day with stringent patient confidentiality laws including HIPAA — the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, under which a person can be fined and even imprisoned for releasing details of a patient's medical records — Hoover said she was shocked when, after her brother was released from the hospital after a week and a half in ICU, he was picked up by detectives from the North Little Rock Police Department — along with all his paperwork, instructions and medication prescriptions.
“When he was discharged, he was discharged to them because they were right there,” Hoover said. “I found out later that they had been calling up there every day finding out his status — which is a huge HIPAA violation. They knew before I knew. They were waiting on him.”
Still wearing hospital scrubs and in a wheelchair, Ingle was taken to North Little Rock Police Department, where he said he was questioned for around six hours, without his pain medication. During the questioning, he says he was never told that he was under arrest, or even that he was suspected of anything.
“The fella that was talking to me said that he was Internal Affairs,” Ingle said. “He gave me the impression that he was trying to learn about the shooting and everything that had happened. When he was done, he told me that they were going to put me in jail and he would give it to the prosecutor or whoever, and they would decide what the charges were going to be.”
For his part, North Little Rock Police Chief Danny Bradley said that he has investigated concerns by Ingle's family that he was denied his medication or otherwise mistreated while being questioned.
“I have not been able to determine that any of them are substantiated,” Bradley said, noting that at one time, Ingle's sister Tiffney Forrester was claiming that there had been federal marshals at the hospital the night of the shooting. “There were no federal officers at the hospital,” Bradley said. “I'm satisfied that he was treated in a legal and civil manner and was not mistreated at all.”
After questioning, Ingle was taken to the Pulaski County Jail, where he would stay for the next four days. At the hospital, nurses had told him that his bandages needed to be changed and his wounds cleaned out with antibiotic wash every four to six hours in order to avoid infection.
“The whole time I was there, they only changed them twice,” he said. “They just locked me in a room and left me.” Ingle said his pain medication and antibiotics were never given to him — when he was released, he was told the prescriptions had been lost. He later told Forrester that the only medical treatment he received the whole time he was in the jail was having his bandages changed twice and an admonishment to not go into the showers because “he'd probably get gangrene.”
Infection soon set up in all his wounds. Charged with operating a drug premises, possession of drug paraphernalia (a digital scale and plastic baggies that belonged to his sister, both Ingle and Forrester say — the baggies leftovers from Forrester's jewelry-making hobby, the scale a freebie from the animal testing lab where she once worked), and two counts of aggravated assault, for making the officers who shot him fear for their lives, Ingle was brought before a judge whose name he doesn't recall for a bond hearing on Sunday. According to Ingle, the judge told him that because he'd had a shootout with police, he was setting his bond at $250,000. Ingle's family, who had been putting together money for Ingle's bail in anticipation of his bond hearing, was crushed.
“My immediate reaction was nausea,” Brandy Hoover said. “Who on earth can come up with that kind of money? Even at 10 percent [for a bail bond], people aren't walking around with that kind of money. It was insane… All I can remember thinking is, they've got him, and we're never going to get him back.”
Eventually, however, the family was able to cut a deal with a local bail bondsman. Between them, they scraped together $5,000 cash and the deed to some property, sold Ingle's Jeep, and finally got him out of jail.
While his wounds have closed, the months since the shooting have been hard on Ingle and his whole family. Ingle's mother suffered a heart attack while trying to come in from Pittsburgh to see him. He has struggled with depression and constant pain, and has lost weight because he can't bring himself to eat. For weeks, Ingle's brother, Eric, stopped by every day and knocked. Though he knew Ingle had to be inside because of the tracking bracelet, Ingle just stopped answering for awhile.
After over a month of trying through his sisters and brother, the Arkansas Times finally got Ingle to talk about the shooting, the man who came to the door was famine-thin and hollow-eyed — even skinnier now than when we last saw him at court, stooped and hobbling on a pair of crutches.
It's not that he didn't want to talk to us, he apologized. There was just a period of time there when he didn't want to talk to anybody.
“It's just like being in jail,” he said. “It's just a different jail cell, I guess. When I was first out of the hospital, I couldn't get up and leave anywhere, hardly. Now, I can't leave.”
As he told his family, Ingle still insists that he threw the gun down the moment he saw that the intruders were police — and before the shooting started. Even so, he said a person reaching for a weapon in a situation like that shouldn‘t give police the automatic right to shoot.
“I don't feel like I did anything wrong,” Ingle said. “You have the right to protect your house. I didn't know who they were. To me, it looks like the only reason the charges were brought was to cover their own ass.”
Like many of his family members, Ingle said that he's sure that if the North Little Rock Police Department wants to see him convicted on the charges he's accused of, he'll likely be convicted. Still, Ingle said he doesn't hold a grudge against the two police officers for shooting him.
“They were just here doing their job,” he said. “It's a tough job to have to go to somebody's house and have to come through a window or break down a door. You never know what's in there. But I feel like, if I had time to think about throwing the gun down, they had time to think about whether or not to shoot me.”