Wrongly Accused

    Revelle College senior Peter Butcher’s alarm clock didn’t wake him for school Feb. 6 — a San Diego police S.W.A.T. team did. It was the noise of the officers kicking in his roommates’ doors that jolted him out of bed and into the living room.

    Isaac Sullivan
    Guardian

    Butcher’s legal nightmares had begun: The police viewed him as the prime suspect in a series of baffling syringe attacks in California.

    Butcher knew he was innocent, and his friends and family knew it was a mistake, but the authorities fingered him as the lead suspect in the case based on evidence that would later be called circumstantial.

    Butcher said he was not arrested when the police stormed into his house.

    Isaac Sullivan
    Guardian

    “”They didn’t arrest me; they just came in and handcuffed me,”” Butcher said. “”They handcuffed everyone in our house. They laid us all out on our couch.””

    Police searched the house while Butcher was taken to a police station for interrogation.

    Mammoth Lakes, Calif., police detective Jesse Gorham led the questioning, which lasted almost four hours.

    Gorham refused to disclose why Butcher was being questioned. All Butcher says he was told was that there had been a hit-and-run accident on the ski slopes at Mammoth Mountain around the time he had been there, and the police wanted to know what he remembered since he was a potential witness. Butcher cooperated, believing that he might be of help.

    But it was in the last half hour of the interrogation that the direction of the questioning changed abruptly. Butcher said Detective Gorham then started pressuring Butcher to confess to the syringe attacks.

    “”At the end, he was really pressing on me, trying to get a confession out of me, saying, ‘I know you did it. I have enough evidence to convict you, but if you confess now it will make everything much easier for everybody else,'”” Butcher said.

    Butcher was shocked, but said he wasn’t scared because he believed the power of the truth would prove his innocence to the detective.

    “”You kind of feel that since you are innocent, that the truth will vindicate you,”” Butcher said. “”And I assumed that by talking to him, he would realize that I had nothing to do with it.””

    But the police and judicial process would not fulfill his expectations.

    At 2 a.m. on April 6 in a now familiar procedure, the S.W.A.T. team paid Butcher a second unannounced visit.

    Butcher was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon in connection with the syringe attacks in Santa Barbara, Calif.

    Butcher refused to speak to lead Santa Barbara detective Ronald LeGault without his attorney present. Butcher was handcuffed and then taken to the police station to be booked.

    For the next 15 hours, Butcher was put through what he described as an emotionally draining ordeal.

    His blood was drawn and hair samples were taken for a DNA test. Butcher was then moved from room to room, and had his mug shot and fingerprints taken. When he tried calling home to tell his parents he was in jail, the phone that the police allowed him to use didn’t work. And when Butcher was finally released from jail on bail, he discovered the police had lost his clothes.

    Butcher said the day was extremely upsetting.

    “”I was having a very unlucky day,”” Butcher said. “”My worst fear was that my arrest would become public knowledge.””

    The Santa Barbara County sheriff’s department immediately produced a news release stating that Butcher had been arrested as a suspect in the syringe attacks. The news of his arrest made national news; CNN, Associated Press wires and the Los Angeles Times were running stories within a day.

    Soon, Butcher’s attorneys presented authorities with a list of 16 people who could provide an alibi for Butcher in San Diego at the time that the two Santa Barbara attacks occurred.

    It took over a week, but April 18 all charges were finally dropped. Butcher and his family were issued a formal apology.

    But how could Butcher become the prime suspect if he could not have physically been in the area for two of the attacks?

    LeGault, the Santa Barbara detective, defended the arrest of Butcher.

    “”He was in the right place on the mountain when the attack occurred,”” LeGault said. “”He is also from Santa Barbara. Butcher had the right educational background to facilitate — he would know how to do it. And he looks very similar to the description.””

    LeGault did not say why police did not investigate Butcher’s whereabouts to determine if he was physically in Santa Barbara when the attacks occurred.

    Mammoth Lakes police never filed charges against Butcher.

    Gorham stated there was certain evidence that led to Butcher, but in light of the facts that he had alibis for the two Santa Barbara cases, Butcher was no longer a suspect.

    “”Our investigation led us to him, then led away,”” Gorham said. “”We have no desire to put anyone innocent in jail.””

    Psychology graduate student Ed Hubbard, Butcher’s supervisor in the psychology lab, said police never asked him if Butcher was in the lab when the last attack occurred in Santa Barbara on April 5.

    If the police had checked, they would have found that Butcher was in the lab with four or five people who could also vouch for his presence.

    Hubbard also disputed the authorities’ contention that Butcher had unique scientific knowledge necessary to commit the crime because he has worked in a lab at UCSD for three years and has a minor in biology.

    “”Any student who has taken a few biology and chemistry classes would know how to do it,”” Hubbard said, referring to making the tranquilizer mixture that was in the syringes. “”Our lab is a psychology lab — we don’t have chemicals. The hardest drug we have is Advil.””

    Hubbard believes that the police made up their minds that Butcher was the suspect and didn’t bother to investigate further.

    “”‘I’ve made up my mind, don’t confuse me with the facts,’ is the feeling that I got about the police investigation,”” Hubbard said.

    At no point, Hubbard said, did he ever think Butcher could have committed the crime he was accused of.

    Butcher takes issue with the way the media, especially the Guardian, handled the situation when news of his arrest became public.

    “”I really think that the Guardian acted incredibly irresponsibly in this situation, especially with printing my picture,”” Butcher said. “”It was like, ‘Watch out for this guy!'””

    After Butcher’s photograph was published, he said he began getting strange looks on campus. Butcher said that in one of his classes, a girl had just read the article, and when she got to Butcher’s picture, she looked at him, then back at the picture turning herself sideways away from Butcher, as if, he said, to ward off a potential attack.

    “”What really bothers me is the thought that there are all these random people, say John Doe who lives in Florida and reads the paper and just sees Peter Butcher arrested for this crime, and he never hears anything about it again,”” Butcher said. “”It’s a disturbing thought to think that there are these people out there thinking those thoughts about me.””

    Butcher isn’t bitter about what happened. He views himself as fortunate to have had the resources to prove his innocence. Though the authorities and public viewed him as suspect, Butcher had the unwavering support of his family and friends, who stood by him through it all.

    Butcher’s mother, Carolyn Butcher, believes that there are many who are not as fortunate to have the financial resources to hire the best attorneys.

    “”How many young men are out there sitting in jails because they don’t have financial means to prove their innocence?”” she said. “”How many more Peter Butchers are out there?””

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