Navajo man wrongly arrested during Flagstaff drug bust
Flagstaff Police Department issues apology to Tremayne Nez June 26
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Flanked by his lawers and his father June 28, Tremayne Nez said the Flagstaff Police Department and other federal agencies violated his rights when he was wrongfully arrested June 18 in a drug sting called Operation Riptide.
On the steps of Flagstaff Superior Court, Nez’s lawyer Wendy White said the damage done to Nez with the wrongful arrest has yet to be calculated — but Nez has already faced some consequences — he was put on administrative leave by his job at Flagstaff Medical Center and had to undergo a drug test. Nez and his attorneys say his face was splashed across the internet as the face of the operation. He was cleared to go back to work June 25, but was not on the schedule as of noon June 28.
Flagstaff Police Department issued a retraction and correction June 26 stating that during its operation conducted June 18, one individual was incorrectly identified as having sold drugs.
That individual was Nez in what the police department called a case of mistaken identity.
“The Flagstaff Police Department wants to make it clear that Tremayne Nez did not sell drugs during Operation Riptide and once the mistake was discovered, the department took action to ensure the chargers were dismissed…” a statement from the FPD read. “The department apologizes to Mr. Nez for the mistake and thanks him for his cooperation during the investigation.”
A motion to dismiss has been filed with the Coconino County Superior Court and a judge signed the order without prejudice — it can be filed again, according to one of Nez’s lawyers Gary Pearlmutter.
“Which we don’t understand because in their own motion, they said this was an erroneous identification,” Pearlmutter said.
White said they are investigating the case and expect to file a claim against the city of Flagstaff and the other agencies involved. The operation was a multi-agency task force, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, ATF, County Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Public Safety as well as Flagstaff Police Department.
“We don’t know where the error occurred, but we certainly know that it has been defamatory,” White said. “…Unfortunately, apparently, Tremayne’s picture was the one that was chosen to be the face of Operation … Riptide and so his face is all over the internet connected with this wrongful arrest. How long it’s going to take to clear that out of the internet? We all know now that when your picture is in the internet, when statements are in the internet, it’s there forever.”
The arrest – 30 hours in jail
According to a press release, Nez’s time in jail started about 9:30 a.m. June 18 when he was awakened by his 7-year-old nephew who told him the police wanted to talk to him.
“I walked downstairs, half -asleep, and there were a bunch of officers’ right outside my door, fully-armed with automatic rifles, bullet-proof vests, tactical clothing and a metal battering ram,” Nez said.
He was told he had a felony warrant for his arrest on drug sale charges. Despite telling them he was the wrong person, Nez was handcuffed, arrested and taken to jail.
“I was very scared and very shocked, I didn’t know what was going on,” Nez said at a press conference June 28. “There was a lot of questions. I was just very afraid. I didn’t know what to say. It’s been a horrible experience. It’s been difficult to get past. I have never felt so helpless before... My wife was trying to find out what was happening… My parents and siblings were in disbelief. My mom was in tears... I was raised to be a God-fearing, law-abiding citizen who helps out in the church community.”
Nez said he tried to remain calm, even though it was hard.
“I was so close to … resisting, it’s so easy to… ‘cause I know I didn’t do anything,” Nez said. “And I had more questions in my mind. I felt the whole weight of the system on my back, for no reason. I was so ready to resist that because it wasn’t me.”
White said Nez was strip searched and subjected to the humiliation of being arrested with the 30 other people who were part of the drug bust.
“This is a horrendously humiliating thing for a young man,” White said.
Nez said he does support the police and all they do but there are consequences for mistakes.
“As citizens when we make mistakes, we go to jail,” Nez said. “If law enforcement makes mistakes, then they have to have consequences, too. That’s the whole point of this. I support the law and everything, but there’s consequences for everything.”
White said people are all entitled to certain rights under the U.S. Constitution, which includes the right to liberty and the right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures.
“That certainly wasn’t upheld in this case,” White said. “We haven’t yet decided what the damages are.”
White said the investigation into the case is still in its early stages.
“But there are problems in Flagstaff with racial bias,” she said. “And in this case, it appears that some of that may have occurred as well. Obviously, we haven’t investigated. We have not gotten the police reports. But we suspect that there is at least some aspect in Tremayne’s arrest.”
White said it was a great first step for the police department to have issued an apology and acknowledged that they made the mistake.
“But an apology to a young man just starting his career,” White said. “As I said, he’s got internet exposure, negative exposure, which can dramatically impact his future. A simple apology… is really not enough. What does help is that they acknowledged the fact that Tremayne is not the guy they were looking for, that he was misidentified, that they made a mistake.”
During the press conference, Flagstaff Police Department issued a post to Facebook that said that when he was arrested and informed of the charges his only statement was that ‘[he] didn’t know what this was about.’
“Mr. Nez never indicated to the arresting officers that he was not the person who had sold drugs or that he was not a drug dealer,” the statement said.
White said that is not true.
“That is absolutely false,” White said. “Mr. Nez certainly made that clear. And, I think by the fact that he had no clue what they were talking about certainly indicated and showed them that he was not the person and didn’t have a tattoo clearly shows this post is absolutely false.”
The police department reports that Trey Store was arrested on June 26, 2019 for the charges originally attributed to Nez and for additional sales of cocaine and acid that occurred June 26. The police department said once those reports are completed, they will be made available.
Nez’s father and older brother are both well-known Navajo ministers. Nez is originally from Birdsprings, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation. He has a degree in political science from Northern Arizona University and was a member of the National Society of Leadership while there.
Toney T. Nez, Tremayne’s father, said, for the sake of justice, he was there supporting his son.
“We shouldn’t have been here at all,” he said. “If people, the law, just took the right approach. I would expect them to be professional in whatever they do, top notch people, well-trained. The top resources in the world, but yet, they still botched it and they did a lot of damage to the family.”
Toney said he takes pride in his ministry work, which he has been doing for over 30 years. He pastors a church in his community of Birdsprings, Arizona on a voluntary basis.
“I love doing the Lord’s work,” Toney said. “That’s how we raised our children. We raised them ethical, biblical with expectations of each of them.”
Toeny raised five children, three boys and two girls. Tremayne is the youngest.
“I do believe we are all public servants,” Toney said. “Not by use of badges or guns but by use of sacred biblical standards. To uphold the law. We do work side by side with local law enforcement. We support them. I expect nothing short of being professional in what they do.”