Jolanda Blassingame says she’d never heard of Derec Bell before police broke down her door looking for him, only to find out he was already in prison for murder.
A Chicago lawsuit is targeting the city’s police department and several SWAT officers who raided an apartment full of children, looking for a suspect who was already in jail.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the complaint was filed Tuesday against the Chicago Police Department and plainclothes SWAT members. The lawsuit alleges that police smashed down Jolanda Blassingame’s door, threw stun grenades through the entrance and then trained assault rifles at her young children.
All the while, says the suit, the suspect they were looking for was sitting in prison, convicted of murder. While he’d once lived at Blassingame’s address, he hadn’t been a tenant for nearly a decade.
In fact, Blassingame says she neither knew nor heard of Derec Bell, the man named in officers’ search warrant.
Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, attorney Al Holfeld Jr. blasted police who “did not bother to perform the simplest, most routine verification” of information. So when officers arrived to Blassingame’s apartment looking for a convicted killer, they instead found the woman along with her three sons, aged 11, 6 and 4. Their 11-year old cousin was also there. Together, the kids were playing video games or watching T.V.
Suddenly, the suit says, Blassingame heard banging at her front door and the back.
“I thought someone was trying to break in,” she said, recounting how she took three of the children into a bedroom while another hid in a closet.
When police entered the unit, they started swearing loudly and pointing their firearms at everyone inside.
“I really thought they were going to shoot one of the kids by mistake,” she said.
All the while, officers refused to explain why they were in the apartment. They stayed for at least three hours, forcing Blassingame and the kids to stay in the kitchen as police ransacked the house, searching for heroin and other drug paraphernalia.
Only when they left did a supervisor hand Blassingame a copy of their warrant.
The tip they were acting off, says Hofeld and the Sun-Times, had been provided by a confidential informant who himself had a long criminal record.
In the aftermath, Blassingame and Hofeld say the children have all suffered trauma to varying degrees. One has started stuttering, while others have developed eating disorders and trust problems.
At no point, the suit says, did police ever apologize. And in their raid, they confiscated expensive items—including jewelry—which has yet to be returned.
Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi declined the Sun-Times’ request to comment on the suit, but admitted that sometimes, in the course of law enforcement activities, “mistakes are sometimes made.”
“Often the information that leads to search warrants comes from community sources and despite the independent vetting of material through prosecutors, a criminal court and the methodical process to authenticate addresses, errors can occur and information may not be accurate,” Guglielmi said. “We take these errors with the utmost importance and priority given the emotional impact search warrants can have on individuals and implications to public trust.”