City of Sacramento sends SWAT team after disgruntled water customer
Experts call it outrageous—but also ‘pretty good police work’
Patrick Lee O’Kane grew up preparing for war. The 66-year-old came of age during the Vietnam conflict, reading his destiny on the caskets of the slightly older boys returning home. But combat operations ended before he was drafted, and O’Kane’s war would have to wait. “Your life is not a normal life when you grow up like that,” he said, “and I’m probably not a normal person.”
On Monday, O’Kane and wife, Melissa Jean Andrews, 68, appeared in Sacramento Superior Court as defendants in a bizarre case that started with a disagreement over city utility fees, turned on questions about O’Kane’s constitutional beliefs and climaxed with a police standoff outside the couple’s home.
They face one misdemeanor count apiece of delaying an investigation or resisting peace officers. The minor charges represent a far cry from what authorities expected when a tactical squad descended on the Little Pocket neighborhood domicile two months ago with suspicions that O’Kane harbored stridently anti-government views—and a cache of illegal firearms.
Problems arose in 2013, when O’Kane says he stopped paying his water bill because no one could explain, to his satisfaction, the rate hikes and surplus charges. The city papered him with delinquent notices and threats of a lien. He requested a special hearing, which arrived that June. At the hearing, O’Kane recalls objecting to a missing American flag, which he said robbed the proceeding of legal jurisdiction. Nine days later, he received a letter saying the hearing officer ruled against him and that he still owed the money.
Cut to October 22 of last year: According to a warrant affidavit by police Detective Andy Hall, O’Kane visited the Department of Utilities and told a customer service representative “that if someone came to shut off his water, he ’would stand outside with a shotgun to stop it.’”
A week later, on October 30, the Sacramento Police Department’s SWAT team served a search warrant at O’Kane’s single-story residence. No firearms were found.
The husband and wife characterize the episode as a misunderstanding. “When I found out it was connected to [the water dispute], I said, ’You gotta be joking. This has to be a mistake,’” O’Kane told SN&R during an interview at the couple’s home. “It was a surreal beat and a half.”
Police say O’Kane’s attitude toward government employees and paperwork found on his property align him with a “sovereign citizen” movement that the FBI links with domestic terrorism.
“Sovereign Citizens are often uncooperative, hostile, and at times have been violent with police officers,” Hall wrote in a report following the couple’s arrest.
O’Kane denies the “sovereign citizen” label, saying it’s authorities way of branding him a terrorist. But he does espouse the belief that a “fake constitution” was adopted in 1935. He claims authorities lack the jurisdiction to levy taxes or enforce laws. “They’re not valid government agencies,” he contended.
That tension, between two sides that don’t agree to the same basic history, informed the confrontation that followed.
The couple’s small, tan house is the only private residence in a tight cul de sac of apartment and commercial buildings on Rio Lane. On the morning of the SWAT operation, Andrews was getting ready for work when she heard amplified calls to exit the home.
O’Kane was deep in the backyard when he registered the commotion. As he approached an automated gate that spans his driveway, he squinted through floodlights casting a halo over his home: two armored vehicles nosed toward each other in a diagonal formation in front of the house, providing cover for numerous officers outfitted in helmets and thick bulletproof vests.
This was just six days after two Sacramento-area deputies were gunned down while pursuing a suspected fugitive, and Andrews remembers the atmosphere being charged. “I really believe that, to some extent, what we experienced was a backlash because they are so afraid,” she said recently. “Bad timing.”
Meanwhile, last month’s deadly ambush of two New York police officers by a man with negative views of law enforcement highlight the competing demands for officer safety and individual rights that authorities must balance in a post-Ferguson climate.
“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword,” said Michael Vitiello, a professor at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law who specializes in criminal procedures and policing. “One of the things it does show you is that [police] must have taken the threat quite seriously.”
Police spokesman Officer Justin Brown declined comment, citing the pending court case. He did confirm the use of two armored vehicles, an equipment van and 21 officers in serving the warrant.
According to the police report, O’Kane and his wife refused to surrender, saying they believed there was a mistake and feared being shot. The 45-minute standoff ended when three officers and a K-9 accessed the rear gate that adjoins the property next door, and arrested O’Kane.
Hearing her husband’s shouts and barks from the K-9, Andrews says she exited the side door and was immediately brought to the ground. “I was so indignant and so angry,” she said. “I wasn’t even afraid. I was incredulous.”
Officer accounts in the police report say O’Kane resisted officers’ attempts to handcuff him and described Andrews as rude.
Authorities had interpreted O’Kane’s alleged threat at the DOU as an indication that he kept guns at his house and might use them. Hall also cited the registration of five handguns to O’Kane in 1988 and 1989, which O’Kane says he lost years ago in a divorce.
Because of a 1997 felony conviction for possession of a controlled substance for sale, O’Kane is forbidden from owning or possessing firearms.
He denies making the verbal statement, or writing anything, about guns. He says he visited the department to find out who authorized cutting the water valve to his home two weeks after the city had already shut off his water.
DOU spokeswoman Rhea Serran confirmed that the couple’s water service was discontinued July 15 due to non-payment, more than three months before O’Kane allegedly threatened a utilities employee.
As part of the warrant, police searched every room of the home and its detached garage, seized computers and recording devices, and searched for images and undeveloped film of O’Kane “posing with weapons.”
Asked to review the affidavit, Vitiello says authorities met the threshold that the U.S. Supreme Court established for obtaining search warrants. “Probable cause is not a very high standard,” he noted, adding that it refers to “some reasonable possibility that evidence will be found in the place searched,” not, in fact, probability.
“From a citizen’s perspective, of course it’s outrageous,” he added. “[But] this actually looks like pretty good police work.”
Vitiello says there are examples where similar threats or statements led to violent confrontations between police and anti-government types.
One such case was recently closed. A Galt man was sentenced last month to life in prison without parole for the November 2012 ambush murder of an animal control officer. Joseph Francis Corey had barricaded himself in his foreclosed home when the officer approached to retrieve several pets at the request of bank representatives. According to the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, Corey shot Officer Roy Marcum through the front door using a high-powered hunting rifle.
“If that public official had gone onto the premises and gotten their head blown off, of course we’d be wringing our hands,” Vitiello said of the utilities employee.
The district attorney’s office declined comment on this case.
The couple is next scheduled for a February 9 court appearance. According to court records, this is O’Kane’s first charge since his 1997 conviction and Andrews’ first charge ever.