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On the evening of March 27, 1997, Norma Gales had just started to prepare a bottle for her 5-month-old daughter when a platoon of plainclothes Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers stormed her door. From the kitchen, Gales, 33, heard an officer shout, “Search warrant! Get on the floor!”
“Why should I get on the floor?” Gales protested. Within seconds, she was bodyslammed, kneed in the back, and put in plastic flex-cuffs. When she looked up, she had a point-blank view of an MPD officer’s gun.
Her son, Lorenzo, 11, who was upstairs with a friend, soon came down and stopped on the stairs. He saw his mother on the floor and cried. Gales pleaded with the cops to let her kids out of the house. However, her uninvited guests were too busy ransacking the place, turning over the television and throwing the VCR to a corner of the room. She still wasn’t shown any badges. Stuck on the floor, Gales hollered repeatedly, “Where is the search warrant?”
Five minutes later, an officer returned to Gales’ side. He wanted to know her name and address. They were looking for 1152 First Terrace NW; she lived at 1152 Sursum Corda Court NW, two streets over. “You mean to tell me that you are in the wrong motherfucking house?” she yelled at an MPD officer upon his exposing the screw-up, according to the citizen’s complaint form she filed after the search. The officer told her he would explain everything shortly and to “be patient.” She was left again, still in cuffs. The officer went on upstairs to continue the search.
A half-hour later, the cops returned to Gales with some bullets and plastic bags, which they cited as evidence of drug dealing, according to MPD affidavits. Gales insisted she had never seen the materials before.
Gales didn’t know that her home was the latest stop in MPD’s investigation of the murder of Chinatown activist Alice Chow. On her way home from church in February 1997, Chow was felled by an errant bullet. Less than two months later, Officer Roger Venzin, a beat cop assigned to the area, arrested Northwest resident David Black for the murder. To buttress his case against Black, however, Venzin needed the murder weapon, a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun. He would have to search Black’s house.
If he could find it, that is. In previous arrest proceedings, Black had offered several different addresses. Venzin determined that Black’s most recent address was 1152 First Terrace NW. A Superior Court judge issued a search warrant for that address hours before Gales’ evening routine was interrupted. But neither MPD nor the judge had done the homework: There is no such address as 1152 First Terrace NW. Maybe the cops decided to toss the nearest 1152 they could find.
In response to Gales’ citizen’s complaint, MPD cleared the officers of any wrongdoing, saying it was a simple mix-up. “This investigation has shown that members of the Homicide Branch were acting within the scope of their lawful authority,” wrote then-Homicide Commander Capt. Alan Dreher. In March 1998, Gales sought mediation by a more objective panel, filing a civil suit against MPD in Superior Court. The case is pending.
Lt. Rodney Parks, who spearheaded the search, insists the department did nothing wrong. “Personally, no one goes out and intentionally goes into the wrong house,” Parks explains. “We’re very careful about that. We know very well our jobs and the limitations of our jobs….It’s not anything gross [or] a totally bad case. I feel that I don’t have anything to hide.”
Parks explained that the search party continued rummaging through Gales’ home because it feared she might shoot the officers in a rage. Of course, the officers never found a gun in the house, and Gales was handcuffed. After she had sat on the floor with her hands behind her back for 45 minutes, one of the officers asked Gale, “Do you have a sharp knife?” The cops got a kitchen knife and cut her out of the cuffs.