Eyewitnesses dispute police account of Notre Dame CB Devin Butler's arrest

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The girlfriend of Notre Dame cornerback Devin Butler and the fiancée of another Irish player claim the accusations leveled against Butler are false and that he was not violent with police officers before he was arrested early Saturday outside the Linebacker bar.

“I was there that entire night," Haleigh Bailey, Butler's girlfriend, wrote in a message to The Tribune. "Reports say that everyone left the scene but I was still there and saw everything officers did to Devin.

"He was abused, and wrongly arrested. He never tackled an officer and he never intentionally hurt anyone. He had no reason to be tazed because he was never resisting arrest, and he was already on the ground complying when they tazed him.”

She also questioned the accusations of Butler's actions — including picking up and tackling an officer — when he is still recovering from a broken foot and using a walking boot.

A 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior, Butler was arrested shortly after midnight on Saturday morning. On Tuesday, St. Joseph County prosecutors charged him with felony counts of resisting law enforcement and battery of a police officer. Butler entered a plea of not guilty at his arraignment on Wednesday afternoon.

Police responded to the Linebacker bar, on South Bend Avenue, just after midnight on Saturday morning on a report of a fight between some patrons and bar security.

Bar security told police they already had broken up the fight and did not need police involvement, so officers went outside and saw two women fighting near the curb, police reported in court documents. The women are not identified in the documents.

Before police could separate them, Butler forcibly shoved one of the women by her head any body, "causing her to move approximately 3 to 4 feet," police claimed.

Selina Bell, the fiancée of Irish wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., who was at the bar that night, said she was eyewitness to the altercation. She described Butler's involvement differently.

“I don’t know who they’re trying to reference him hitting or pushing, because he didn’t do that to anyone. But he was holding his girlfriend and protecting her," Bell said in a phone interview on Wednesday night. "He 100 percent never hit her, pulled her, pushed her, grabbed her forcefully at all.”

Bailey and Bell would not comment on what touched off the fight, or whether Bailey was one of the women involved in the altercation.

Police say they ordered Butler to step back, but he began cursing at the officers and approached them. Bailey also disputed that claim.

“Reports say that Devin did all of these aggressive things but in reality, he was grabbed by the police from behind and never told who was grabbing him or why they were grabbing him," Bailey wrote. "Devin felt he was doing the right thing but out of nowhere was arrested for simply stopping an argument. He felt he had no reason to be detained.”

When the officers tried to physically detain Butler, they claim in court documents, Butler pushed officer Aaron Knepper, picked him up and tackled him to the ground. A struggle ensued, during which Butler struck Knepper in the side and stomach several times, police say.

Knepper was taken to Memorial Hospital to be evaluated for minor injuries to his elbow, wrist, neck, back and arm, and was later released.

Again, Bailey and Bell’s accounts contradict the South Bend Police Department’s claim.

“Devin has been in a boot/cast and on crutches recovering for the past 8 weeks,” Bailey wrote. “He is in no condition to be lifting weights, working out, or doing any ‘tackling.’ I have not seen him run let alone walk on two feet since the day before his surgery in June. I can assure you he did NOT tackle a police officer but police officers tackled HIM."

“That 100 percent did not happen," Bell said of the accusation that Butler tackled Officer Knepper. "Devin didn’t even have the capability to pick someone up if he wanted to. He just got off of crutches the day before."

Butler was not expected to play until at least October after suffering the recurrence of a broken left foot in June. He appeared at his arraignment on Wednesday in a walking boot.

According to the South Bend Police Department, Butler “continued to swear at the officers and threaten them.” When other officers tried to pull Butler off Knepper, police say, Butler “grabbed onto Officer Knepper’s duty belt and physically ripped it off of him” before Knepper deployed a Taser to subdue Butler.

Bailey in her message asked: “How could the police officer proceed to taze Devin if Devin had ripped off his duty belt? The story doesn't add up and that's because these things didn't happen.”

She also wrote that Knepper "was extremely violent and excessively forceful with the way he treated Devin. It was disturbing to say the least.''

Butler's attorney, Jeff Kimmell, told the Tribune in an email that "several witnesses to the incident claim that officer Knepper's account of the events is extraordinarily inaccurate. Currently, I have a private investigator seeking out any existing video coverage of what actually happened."

Bell, who claims she was sober at the time of the altercation, also said that Butler never ripped off Knepper's duty belt and did not resist arrest.

"Four cops had their knees in his back, and Haleigh was obviously very upset," Bell said. "She didn’t know why Devin was getting arrested or in this position. She was crying, so I grabbed her face and was telling her to look at me, because I didn’t want her to see what they were doing to him. They tased him. That’s when I got emotional."

Added Bell: “He couldn’t breathe, and I could hear him saying that. He was saying, ‘I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!’ He was screaming that. That’s when I was getting really nervous. I don’t know why they felt the need to tase him. There were four cops on him. He had the broken foot. His face was in the cement."

Knepper has drawn attention in the past.

In March 2014, Knepper arrested 55-year-old Tom Stevens of South Bend and Stevens' 76-year-old mother on suspicion of resisting arrest and battery to a police officer after initially stopping Stevens for a traffic violation near his Sunnymede home.

Stevens was hospitalized for three days, and he and his mother claimed they did not strike Knepper, but that he was unnecessarily rough with them. Stevens later pleaded guilty to resisting arrest and had his other charges dropped.

Knepper was suspended without pay for an August 2012 incident in which he and two other officers pressured a 7-Eleven clerk to swallow a tablespoon of cinnamon and to eat 10 crackers in less than a minute. That clerk filed suit, claiming the officers humiliated him and violated his civil rights.

Earlier this month, a jury found that Knepper and the same two other officers behaved unconstitutionally when they went into a South Bend home without a warrant in July 2012. The officers used a Taser on a 17-year-old whom they had mistaken for the teen's older brother.

Despite the guilty verdict, the jury awarded damages of only $1. The city's internal investigation found the officers had illegally entered the home and used excessive force, but they were not suspended.

South Bend Police Chief Scott Scott Ruszkowski said he could not comment on the claims of Bailey and Bell because the incident is part of an active criminal investigation, as well as an internal police investigation, which is standard practice in use-of-force incidents. But he said any witnesses should come forward and speak with investigators.

On Sunday, one of the women involved in the initial altercation filed a police report claiming the other woman had hit and kicked her in the head.

The alleged victim, a 21-year-old Notre Dame student, told police she saw an acquaintance, also a Notre Dame student, while waiting in line outside the Linebacker. After the 21-year-old woman greeted her acquaintance, the other woman assaulted her, said Capt. Robert Hammer, a South Bend police spokesman. Police have not named everyone involved in that altercation.

The alleged victim initially left the scene, police said, but she called police to file a report about 3:45 p.m. Sunday while being treated for her unspecified injuries at a hospital.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly announced on Sunday that Butler has been indefinitely suspended from the program. He is scheduled to appear in court again Sept. 1 for an initial hearing before Judge Jeffrey Sanford. The charges against Butler, both level 6 felonies, carry a penalty of up to 2½ years in prison if convicted.

Butler also will have to answer to Notre Dame's disciplinary arm.

“If what the cops are saying Devin did really happened, then that’s fine. He deserves everything that happened and he deserves to go to jail," Bell said. "But I thought that the law was ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ and there’s no proof of anything besides word of mouth."

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame football player Devin Butler, middle, walks next to his dad Tony Butler and girlfriend Haleigh Bailey into St. Joseph Superior Court, Wednesday, August 24, 2016 in South Bend. St. Joseph County prosecutors have charged the suspended football player on felony counts of resisting law enforcement and battery of a police officer after an altercation early Saturday morning at a bar near campus. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)