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FBI to investigate Minn. YouTube arrest

Noncompliant suspect denied involvement in a vehicle theft, called the officer “smart ass”

By Mara H. Gottfried and Ruben Rosario
St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The FBI is reviewing for possible civil rights violations the arrest of a St. Paul man shown being kicked by a police officer in a video posted on YouTube, a spokesman said Tuesday, Sept. 4.

St. Paul police officer Jesse Zilge was identified as the officer kicking suspect Eric Hightower, 30, of St. Paul on Aug. 28 in the city’s North End. He was placed on adminstrative leave the next day. A second officer, Matthew Gorans, was placed on paid leave Friday in connection with the arrest.

FBI spokesman Kyle Loven said he didn’t have information about whether a formal complaint prompted the agency’s investigation.

“Anytime you have a potential civil rights question,” Loven said, “it’s customary for the FBI to look at the facts.”

He said he did not know how long the investigation might take.

“Periodically, these types of questions arise, but we have not historically seen an overabundance of these type of incidents come our way in Minnesota,” Loven said.

According to Hightower, Zilge kicked him in his chest and chin as he lay on the ground after the officer had sprayed him with chemical irritant.

Zilge and another officer, whom police haven’t identified, also are seen in the video slamming Hightower’s face onto the hood of a squad car.

The video of the arrest was posted on YouTube by a friend of Hightower.

The FBI has not requested information from the police department, said St. Paul police spokesman Howie Padilla.

“While we respect their work and any investigation they feel necessary, it does not affect our own internal investigation, which started immediately after we became aware of the situation,” Padilla said.

Hightower has been charged with aggravated stalking, terroristic threats and fourth-degree criminal damage to property in the case that prompted his arrest. He is alleged to have threatened to kill his former girlfriend.

Hightower, who was released from jail Friday, plans to plead not guilty and sue, said his attorney, Seamus Mahoney.

Mahoney said Hightower still complains about swelling on his chest and problems from a ruptured eardrum. He also said Hightower’s face still burns from the chemical irritant.

Police haven’t said whether the video shows Gorans or what information led to his discipline. Mahoney’s firm has set up a defense fund for Hightower .

Zilge has been in trouble in the past for allegedly throwing a man to the ground, according to information released Tuesday by the city of St. Paul Park, where he was formerly an officer.

In February 2006, Zilge questioned Troy Drusch, then 18, and confronted Drusch about being involved in a theft from a vehicle, which Drusch denied.

Zilge got in his squad car, and Drusch called the officer a “smart ass,” the report said. Drusch reported that Zilge pushed him against a vehicle and threw him to the ground. Two witnesses also said Zilge threw Drusch to the ground, according to a report.

Zilge said he did not push Drusch and he wasn’t trying to harm him, the report said. Drusch reported no injury.

St. Paul Park Police Chief Michael Monahan upheld the misconduct allegations, and gave Zilge a written reprimand. He also extended Zilge’s probation (he’d become a St. Paul Park police officer in August 2005, after working as a Newport police officer, with no record of complaints) and recommended additional use-of-force training.

Monahan gave Zilge a letter of commendation in 2007 for “diligence, assertiveness, and investigative skill” that led a burglary arrest.

Zilge become a St. Paul police officer in 2008.

Padilla said he didn’t have information late in the day about hiring procedures for Zilge or in general.

Copyright 2012 St. Paul Pioneer Press