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Nashville Scene Above the Law

How rogue guards at a Nashville security firm terrorized Hispanics they were paid to protect

By Willy Stern

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  It was a Saturday night in January 1999, and the clock had just struck midnight. Seated around a table at a Denny's Restaurant, eight private security guards smoked cigarettes, sipped coffee, munched on chicken strips, and passed the time.

The guards worked for the company named Detection Services, and their job was to act as night patrolmen for apartment buildings across Nashville. But none felt like working, and the company's owner, Larry Lawson, didn't care. He was seated at the table too. As long as the men fudged their time sheets, the owners of the apartment buildings would never know the difference.

But suddenly, Lawson declared: "I'm bored. Let's go down to taco city and fuck with the Mexicans."

All the guards knew what that meant. They jumped in four cars and cruised to the Ivy Wood apartment building, one of the complexes they were under contract to patrol. They parked at the main entrance, blocking it. The guards were dressed in blue uniforms, with badges pinned to their shirts and handcuffs hanging from their belt loops. Most wore guns. They turned on their bright, white search beam and the flashing green lights atop their cars. In the eerie glow, they waited for their prey.

Soon, two men on their way home to Ivy Wood pulled up to the entrance in their car. Larry Lawson stopped the car. Why? Only because the men were Hispanic. He shined his flashlight into the eyes of the driver. Guards hulked around the car, shining their flashlights inside. Lawson asked the driver for identification, and when he didn't respond quickly, Lawson yanked him out of the car. Guards then hauled out the passenger. As they protested, Lawson screamed, "Shut up or you'll go to jail."

Lawson shoved the two men, face down, against the car hood. Lawson and another guard, his son Mike, handcuffed the Hispanics, twisting their arms behind their backs. Then the Lawsons frisked them. After that, the guards searched the car for drugs and weapons, keeping an eye out for cash to steal.

Pointing flashlights into the eyes of the Hispanics, Lawson and his guards yelled more threats: "I'm the police around here. I'm going to throw your Spic ass out of the country unless you start doing what I say."

The two Hispanics tried to resist. But the guards threw the handcuffed men to the ground and smashed their faces into the dirt. One guard kicked them in the ribs again and again. Another grabbed one of the Hispanics by his hair, yanked up his head, and screamed, "That serves you right, you Mexican motherfucker."

Outraged, one Hispanic yelled back at Larry Lawson in Spanish. Lawson whipped a can of mace from his gun belt and sprayed straight into the man's face. His victim writhed in pain, rolling in the dirt.

The account of this night of terror at the Ivy Wood complex--"taco city" in the expression of Larry Lawson's sadistic humor--was told to the Scene by three employees of Detection Services. Fearing retaliation from Lawson or his many friends in the police department, the employees spoke only on condition of anonymity. In individual interviews, they gave the same version of what happened. They said the events--the brutality and the abuse--were repeated several times as more Hispanics drove into the apartment complex and ran into the roadblock. And it didn't begin or end that winter night at Ivy Wood.

A six-month Scene investigation has revealed that Detection Services engaged in widespread criminal abuses of Hispanics living in Nashville.

From interviews with 17 Detection Services employees and three dozen Hispanic residents, the Scene has learned that the company-- "a private gestapo," one source called it--rampaged over 18 months, raiding apartment complexes dozens of times. Ivy Wood, at 1019 Patricia Drive, was usually the target, but residents of other complexes weren't safe, either, from the security guards who were paid to protect them. Those other apartments included Executive House, at 860 Murfreesboro Road, and Terrace Hill, at 1000 Thompson Place.

The company's guards beat and humiliated Hispanics and then took their money and valuables. They threatened to tow their cars away if their victims didn't fork over cash. They routinely entered the apartments of Hispanics without search warrants, with guns drawn, often handcuffing the residents, sometimes holding loaded weapons to their heads.

Detection Services acted with what amounted to impunity. Many of the company's victims were illegal immigrants, so they would not report the raids to the police for fear of deportation. Then, too, the security guards often claimed they were the police. But there's another explanation for the company's free reign: Detection Services carried out many of these crimes with the knowledge of some members of the Metro Nashville Police Department.

Of the roughly 75 people on the payroll of Detection Services in the last two years, more than 40 were Metro policemen moonlighting for extra cash. Most of those moonlighting cops did nothing wrong, working security for the company at the downtown arena.

But one detective, Mike Mann, who works in the police department's criminal intelligence division, clearly participated in the abuse of Hispanics, sources say. They say Mann helped stage--and sometimes supervised--roadblocks and the illegal towing of cars while moonlighting for Detection Services. He drew the line at more flagrant abuses, but agreed to look the other way.

Three Detection Services employees told the Scene they heard Mann tell Lawson and his guards: "You don't have to protect their civil rights. You're not a civil servant. So whatever you want to do to 'em, do it before I get here. I don't want to see it."

The Scene has also learned that many more policemen were told about the crimes and did nothing, sources say. One Detection Services guard says, "The cops knew about it. We'd tell the cops in the South Station about this, but nobody did anything. The cops wouldn't touch Larry Lawson or Mann."

Police spokesman Don Aaron responds that there was "no reason to believe" that police officers had known of abuses and failed to act.

But in fact, it was police officer Mike Mann whom Lawson called to report that his security guards had been forced to quell a disturbance that January night at Ivy Wood. Lawson told Mann the two Mexicans were drunk and disorderly. So when Mann arrived at Ivy Wood in answer to Lawson's summons, Mann smiled knowingly. Without conducting any investigation, Mann released the two Hispanics. They limped to their apartments nearby, and within minutes, a wrecker towed their car--a final insult from Detection Services.

Not all the guards present that night felt good about what was happening. Some stood in the background, clutching their flashlights. One, who described himself as "horrified," remembers turning to another officer whom he trusted and saying, "They think they're a private gestapo."

Many security guards, sickened by the actions of their fellow employees at Detection Services, have decided to speak out, if only anonymously in this article. Many say Lawson, and some of his employees, had a pathological desire to inflict abuse.

"Lawson just loved to mess with Mexicans," a former senior Detection Services employee says. "We'd jump in our cars and have at it. We mostly messed with the Hispanics. They were illegal and weren't going to complain. But once in a while we'd go after a black or a white."

Ronald Crowe, one former Detection Services employee who agreed to be identified, says that when guards arrived at Ivy Wood for a night of abuse, it often had the appearance of a pitched battle. "Larry [Lawson] would get out of his car and say, 'Get their motherfucking asses.' "

Noka Blanco, who owns a company near Ivy Wood that supplies Hispanic laborers to construction firms, says she started hearing "bizarre tales" of abuse by Lawson from her employees. "The harassment of the Hispanics was so bad that I was afraid they were going to kill him," Blanco says. "I was afraid one day they'd find Larry Lawson's body in a dumpster."

Lawson turned down repeated requests to discuss his company's activities with the Scene. If there is good news, it is that Detection Services ceased operations earlier this year. As the Scene investigation intensified, Lawson disbanded the company and has disappeared from public view.

Those who work closely with the immigrant community here say they are appalled that the company was able to terrorize Hispanics who came to Nashville seeking a better life. "Illegal immigrants enjoy the same rights and protections that are provided to everyone by the U.S. Constitution," says Leslie Klinefelter, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service official in charge of Tennessee.

For a year and a half, however, at scattered apartment complexes in an overlooked part of town, the U.S. Constitution simply didn't apply.

Detection Services' roadblocks at Ivy Wood became so bad, says Froylan Lugos Aparicio, some residents simply did "not buy cars."

Were there an Ellis Island in Nashville, it would be on Murfreesboro Road, in southeast Nashville. The old, commercial strip of pawn shops, liquor stores, used car lots, and boarded-up storefronts has, in recent years, become the home of new businesses, including a Middle Eastern bakery, a Vietnamese market, and a Somali restaurant. By far, however, most of the area's ethnic denizens are Hispanic.

Metro Social Services officials conservatively estimate that of the city's 540,000 residents, some 45,000 to 50,000 are Hispanic. Of that, up to 40 percent are estimated by experts to be living here illegally.

While the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is charged with finding illegal aliens, the agency is, by its own admission, unable to track down and deport many of them. As a result, INS devotes its resources to isolating criminal elements in the immigrant population. Willing to work for low wages, illegal immigrants are important to Nashville's economy, so the generally accepted approach has been for INS to look the other way.

Beginning operations in mid-1996, Detection Services eventually boasted contracts to provide night security at more than 40 apartment complexes, some catering to Hispanics along Murfreesboro Road. It didn't take long for things to get ugly. As Detection Services began abusing Hispanics, the illegal aliens could only duck. Explains Nashville attorney Mario Ramos, who has many Hispanic clients: "If they are illegal, most Hispanics are terrified of going for help to an organized police department."

The reason for this is twofold, says José Castro, a Honduran journalist now living in Nashville. Most obviously, he explains, "The fear of getting thrown out of the country is overpowering." For countless illegal immigrants, returning home would only mean returning to poverty and circumstances much more dire than the ones they face here in the States. For even if the abuses at the hands of apartment security guards are unconscionable, the economic opportunity here is vast compared to life in Mexico or any other Central American country.

But Castro says the fear these immigrants feel is generated in part by a lack of education and understanding. They clearly know that what's happening to them is wrong, but "many...are from rural places and unsophisticated," he says. "Yes, there is indignation and anger, but they lack the confidence to complain."

Nonetheless, speaking through a translator, many Hispanics told their stories to the Scene, describing events exactly mirroring accounts from Detection Services guards.

Most of these Hispanics lived at Ivy Wood--15 low-rise, orange-brick buildings with 137 apartments.

Zenaido Mendez is a pudgy, friendly, 23-year-old from Puebla, Mexico. A roofer who is living here illegally, he makes about $500 a week, usually paid in cash. Of that amount, he sends $200 to his family in Mexico. "I've got brothers and sisters to support back home," the understated Mendez says.

Economically speaking, life in Nashville has been good to Mendez. He's been here seven years. He generally gets all the work he wants, and he makes far more here than he could back home.

Aug. 31, 1998, was a muggy, summer night, Mendez recalls, and he was sitting in a van with a couple of buddies, named Pablo and "Little Shoes." They had just returned from a restaurant and a midnight snack. The three of them were chatting while parked in the lot of Ivy Wood, where Mendez lives.

At about 1 a.m., he says, two cars driven by Detection Services pulled up beside their van. The guards got out of their cars. To Mendez, they looked like real cops, wearing blue uniforms, badges, and handcuffs. At least one had a gun. Without giving them a reason, the guards pulled the men out of the van, frisked them, and handcuffed them. The Hispanics were forced to sit on the ground, their hands cuffed behind their backs "really tightly," Mendez recalls.

Then the guards took the men's wallets and disappeared to the other side of the van. They soon returned, and one guard informed the Hispanics they were "illegal aliens." Mendez said the guard also "threatened that he would put immigration on us." One of Mendez's friends understood a little English and chuckled at that comment. In response, he was sprayed with mace. Then one of the guards poured beer over the Mexicans.

Mendez said none of them resisted, thinking the guards would only rough them up worse. As they sat handcuffed, their van was towed away. Mendez said the guards pulled off the windshield sticker showing the van belonged to an Ivy Wood resident. The guards then shoved the men's wallets back in their pockets. When the handcuffs were finally removed about an hour later, $3,300 in cash was found to be missing; $1,800 belonged to Mendez.

Initially trusting the American system, Mendez filed a report of the incident to Metro Police. But Mendez, aware of the fact that he is an illegal immigrant with a family to support in Mexico, began getting nervous. He didn't appear at the police station to look at photographs of possible assailants. As a result, police couldn't pursue charges.

Numerous Hispanics related similar tales of abuse at the hands of the company's guards. After setting up a roadblock at the entrance to an apartment building, typically late on a weekend night, Detection Services guards would stop every car and demand to see some form of identification. At Ivy Wood, the company set up the roadblocks at the urging of the apartment building's management, guards say. If the Hispanics lacked proper identification, or had been drinking, they were pulled out of their cars. Many times, their vehicles were towed, and they would have to pay $50 to $70 to retrieve them.

The roadblocks at Ivy Wood ultimately became so bad that some residents there simply did "not buy cars," reports Froylan Lugos Aparicio, a 29-year-old welder from Mexico who lives at Ivy Wood. "They were afraid of security taking their cars away."

Ivy Wood residents also told the Scene that for around $50 cash, paid on the spot, they sometimes could prevent the towings. Says Ivy Wood resident Reinaldo Guillen, a 34-year-old driveway finisher from Mexico City: "They'll take your car even if you have a sticker, and say they don't think it's parked straight. But it's easier just to pay what they ask than to fight them."

Ivy Wood resident Esmeralda Rubio, of San Luis, Mexico, confirmed that particularly on weekends, "they will take your car if you do not give them at least $50 cash."

José Quintanilla says he was handcuffed, beaten, robbed, and verbally abused by Detection Services guards.

Ironically, this is a situation that many Hispanic immigrants are familiar with. "The police system in Central America is similar in that policemen accept bribes," journalist Castro says. "If you give $100 to a police officer, you can get off. That's just the way it is." And yet there is a telling difference between the behavior of police in Central America and the behavior of Detection Services' guards: "In Mexico, you pay the cops, and they will actually take care of you. In a way, it's better there, because they will deliver if you pay them."

It would be nearly impossible to argue, though, that Detection Services was in any way protecting the Hispanic residents of Ivy Wood. Sometimes, the guards took cars late at night without the knowledge of residents. "It was late-night terror," explains Ivy Wood tenant Abraham Perez, 37, an American citizen who works at Opryland Hotel. "They try to take the cars late at night when people are asleep. Since the security guards know a lot of these guys are illegal, they know they weren't going to go for help."

Mike Copeland, owner of the towing company Towmasters, acknowledges hauling many of the Hispanics' cars from Ivy Wood. He says he knew the cars shouldn't have been towed, that it was a money-making scheme. He says he felt badly about taking advantage of the Hispanics. "Lots of times, I'd just give them back their cars for free," he says.

Copeland says Hispanics' cars were often towed at Detection Services' insistence for ludicrous "violations" that included parking over the yellow line or at the wrong angle. Another time, Lawson ordered the towing of a legally parked car, telling his guards to say that it had been "parked in the middle of the road," one of his employees says.

Copeland says his relationship with Lawson eventually fell apart when Lawson decided to set up his own company, Around Town Towing, to haul away cars at Ivy Wood and elsewhere. According to a former senior Detection Services employee, Lawson boasted that he had "cut Copeland out of the towing business," so that he, not Copeland, could pocket the towing fees.

According to his Metro license application, Lawson's partner in the towing company was former Metro Council member John Kincaid. A spokeswoman for the Metro Taxicab and Wrecker Licensing Board says Kincaid himself picked up the application forms. Kincaid declined to return phone calls from the Scene.

Metro Police officers moonlighting for Detection Services were often present when the company set up roadblocks and towed cars. None tried to stop the towings, sources say. And according to former Detection Services senior officer Ronald Crowe, Metro police detective Mike Mann took an active role and frequently "oversaw" the action. Mann's participation was confirmed by numerous former employees of Detection Services. In addition to Mike Mann, detective Jason Beddoe and officer John Rex Lisle also were occasionally present at the roadblocks. All these officers declined comment to the Scene.

Ana Paula Majano, a five-year Ivy Wood resident, says the guards "tended to rob the Hispanic population."

Hispanic residents at Ivy Wood describe a litany of verbal, and physical, abuse to the Scene. One former Detection Services guard put it succinctly when he said it seemed as if Larry Lawson "went through 10 cans [of mace] a month."

José Quintanilla, 33, a native of Colombia, told the Scene he was handcuffed, beaten, verbally abused, and had $185 taken from his wallet one evening by security guards. He says, "They were yelling, 'Fuck you, Latino.' "

Jesus Ramirez, 20, a Mexican native who works as a Kroger stockboy, says that around October 1998, he saw Detection Services guards kicking an Ivy Wood resident while he was handcuffed, face down in the mud. "If they see you drinking outside, they'll get rough with you and handcuff you," Ramirez says.

Detection Services employees themselves related countless incidents of beatings and abuse. Copeland, the owner of the company that did so much of the towing for Detection Services, said he and his son, Mitch, saw a company guard mace the penis of a Hispanic one night after he was caught urinating on a dumpster at Ivy Wood. "He was hopping around and holding his privates," Copeland says. "It was awful."

Copeland says that one night at Ivy Wood, he was sickened when he saw Detection Services employees handcuff a Hispanic man for no apparent reason and force him to his stomach on the ground. "They grabbed him by the hair and yanked his head up thataways," Copeland says. "The guy couldn't have weighed 100 pounds."

Two Detection Services employees say they saw Lawson smash a Hispanic man on the back of the head with a flashlight for no apparent reason. As he hit the Hispanic, Lawson screamed that his victim was a "stupid motherfucker." Lawson told this employee that "if anybody asks, tell 'em that the guy was resisting." One guard says he saw Lawson hit another Hispanic on the skull with a pistol.

The abuse was not all physical. A lot of it was verbal, aimed at intimidation. According to former company employees, guards routinely threatened to deport the Hispanics if they didn't do whatever was asked of them.

Former Detection Services guard Christopher Lyttle, who provided a written statement to the Scene of wrongdoing by Detection Services, says he saw Lawson yelling at three Hispanics at Ivy Wood "to shut their fucking mouth before he knocked the hell out of them."

One former Detection Services guard says Metro Police detective Mann, when provoked, was verbally abusive of Hispanics. "I'll kick your ass just 'cause I can," Mann reportedly would say.

On numerous occasions, sources say, Detection Services guards illegally entered residents' apartments. Sometimes, they sprayed mace into apartments through the cracks beneath doors, sources say.

At approximately 1:30 a.m. on a weekend night in late 1998, Larry Lawson and other guards banged on the door of an Ivy Wood apartment, according to guards who say they were there. After the occupants awakened, one opened the door.

Lawson and his guards barged in without search warrants, waving their loaded pistols in the air. They handcuffed everybody in the apartment.

When some Hispanics resisted, Lawson said, "If you don't shut up, I'm going to call social services and take your kids away." The sources said Lawson entered the apartment to send the message that his company would not tolerate tenants who allowed more occupants than permitted in their leases.

Late on another night, according to former Detection Services guard Ronald Crowe, who acknowledged being there at the time, Detection Services employees entered the apartment of an elderly Hispanic couple at Ivy Wood. Lawson threw the old man to the floor, handcuffed him, and held a loaded gun to his head, Crowe says.

Another time, according to a former Detection Services employee who witnessed the event, security guards entered an apartment at another complex--the Executive House just down the road from Ivy Wood--at 1 a.m. without a search warrant. They found around 15 people sleeping inside, woke them up, and quickly marched them outside and off the apartment complex premises.

Lyttle, the former guard, says he was present when Lawson received a complaint about loud music at Crestview Apartments on Thompson Place. He instructed his employees to go there and "arrest every swinging dick in the house." Lyttle says a Detection Services employee then "barged in and started handcuffing people."

In November 1988, two Detection Services employees say company guards kicked out the residents of one Ivy Wood apartment for failing to pay rent. About four hours later, the guards returned to the apartment with two pickup trucks. They kicked in the door, which was locked, and they proceeded to take "everything of value" from the apartment, the sources say.

Asked to comment on the abuse, officials at Ivy Wood declined comment to the Scene at the suggestion of their attorney. A Crestview spokesman said the apartment complex was "unsatisfied" with Detection Services and "let them go." Executive House owner J.D. Eatherly told the Scene he was "not aware" of any abuse by Detection Services. Meanwhile, a spokesman for Terrace Hill said, "We're not aware of any abuse. Detection Services just didn't do their job. They were not here when we needed them."

Mary Griffin is a bilingual attorney who works in the Metro Public Defender's Office and is assigned to represent Spanish-speaking clients. It does not surprise her that the abuse stayed unknown for so long.

"Most Hispanics are petrified of going into the court system in the U.S.," she says. "They don't speak the language or trust the system, and they're scared they'll get thrown out of the country."

Nonetheless, Leslie Klinefelter, the INS official in charge of Tennessee, says any Hispanic who has been a victim of police abuse or any crime should report it to proper authorities. "We will see to it, even if they're illegal, that they are available as witnesses in any type of criminal proceedings," says Klinefelter.

The Scene showed the evidence amassed by this investigation to numerous experts on the criminal justice system. To protect them against possible lawsuits, they were not told the actual names of people or companies, but commented on hypothetical scenarios that exactly mimicked events uncovered by the Scene.

All were of the opinion that crimes have been committed. Don Hall, a professor of criminal law at Vanderbilt Law School, says he sees several possible criminal offenses, including assault, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, theft, and robbery. He notes that federal prosecutors can launch criminal investigations of "conduct motivated by racial or similar prejudice."

According to attorney Jerry Gonzalez, a former U.S. Secret Service agent who now practices in Lebanon, Tenn., and represents numerous Hispanics, some of the security guards are guilty of false imprisonment, assault and battery, theft, and perhaps robbery.

Nashville attorney Ramos, who specializes in civil and criminal legal issues affecting Hispanics, says these activities appear to be a type of "organized crime" where federal prosecutors have jurisdiction. "We've heard informal reports of these things from time to time but nothing of this scale," he says.

Gonzalez says that if these events constituted a pattern of criminal behavior by a group of people, those involved could be prosecuted under the federal RICO statute, which is often used to prosecute Mafia dons.

"Somebody should bring a lawsuit against the security company and the police department," he says. "This is shameful."

It is easy, in fact, to decry the abuse. What is more difficult is reckoning how this could have happened, at places we often drive by, to people we pass every day.

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