Police Raid Bellwood Trustee Candidate’s Home Following Prank Call, Lawsuit Filed

Sunday, March 28, 2021 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

A Bellwood trustee candidate has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the village and 10 police officers from a suburban SWAT team after a prank call resulted in officers raiding his home and inflicting emotional and physical trauma on him and his family. 

Andrew Martin Stroth, the Soto family’s attorney, announced the lawsuit during a press conference held March 25 outside of Bellwood Village Hall, 3200 Washington Blvd. in Bellwood. 

“On March 17, at approximately 1:30 a.m., a heavily armed task force from the western suburbs stormed into the Sotos’ residence,” Stroth said. 

According to the lawsuit, the officers were members of the West Suburban Taskforce, which includes police officers from Bellwood, Maywood, Hillside, Westchester, and the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. 

“At that moment, everything changed for the family,” he added. “Without cause or provocation, Mr. Soto was violently slammed, a knee in his back for several minutes, fracturing his back, injuring his shoulder. Mrs. Soto was taken to the next room in trauma, believing her husband was about to be shot by the officers.” 

Stroth said the couple’s 15-year-old grandson was “taken out of the home without a parent or guardian, handcuffed, taken into a squad car and out of the house on a drive and asked questions for 20 minutes. Two other grandchildren thought their grandparents would be shot and killed.” 

According to the lawsuit, police received a report of a murder occurring at the Soto home. That report turned out to be a prank call by someone named Daniel Garcia. The Sotos said they don’t know anyone by that name and their attorney believes that the individual is possibly fictitious. 

In a statement released after the raid, the Bellwood Police Department said that they received a 911 call about a man who had murdered someone in the Soto residence and who was heavily armed, which prompted them to dispatch the task force. 

“Pursuant to the department’s standard operating procedure, and given the seriousness of the allegations, police personnel were required to search the house to ensure that there was no imminent threat to the community or occupants,” said the Bellwood Police Department, which explained that it is investigating the matter and trying to identify the person who made the prank call. 

“The way they stormed into our house, with those AR-15s, demanding we put our hands up — we were shocked,” said Margarita Soto, George Soto’s wife, during the March 25 press conference. 

“It was something that we did not expect. I kept begging them, ‘Please, tell us what we did wrong,’” and their response was, ‘We can’t tell you. We’ll tell you later.’ And I kept demanding for them to tell me now. They wouldn’t respond.

“Then I see them take my 15-year-old grandson out of the house. I knew he was scared. I knew he was scared, because we trained him to obey officers, because of his color. And he did. But we weren’t aware that he was taken away. He was being interrogated by the officers in the car without an adult, without our consent. My 10-year-old grandson had to sit on the sofa in the living room where my husband was handcuffed with the officer’s knee on his back.” 

“What happened to me and my family was unbelievable,” said George Soto. “It’s a nightmare. We suffer. I don’t wish this on anybody. I’m still getting flashbacks of what happened. How they treated my wife and grandchildren like we’re criminals. Like we were animals. Shame on them. We need police reform here in Bellwood. This is one of the reasons why I’m running for trustee in Bellwood. My family is suffering right now from seeing the video clips.”

Soto said that during the raid, an officer had his knee on his back for several minutes while he suffered on the ground wearing just a pair of boxers. Soto said when he told the officer that he couldn’t breathe, the officer asked him if he had asthma and refused to relent. 

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Soto said that the officers should have known who he was, since he’s running for trustee. He and his running-mates on the Bellwood Peoples Choice slate have been vocal critics of the Bellwood Police Department and have put police reform at the center of their campaign platform. 

The slate includes John Wicks, who is running for Bellwood mayor against incumbent Mayor Andre Harvey. Soto said he believes the raid was politically motivated, considering his very public opposition to the department. 

“I did notice a couple police officers recognized me and I recognized them,” Soto said. “They saw my signs in front of my house, everybody in the village can see the posts on the ground. They knew who I was.” 

Stroth said that, so far, the Bellwood Police Department has not released body cam footage of the raid, but the Sotos have released video footage taken from their home’s surveillance system. Stroth said the department should release its footage, despite the pending investigation. 

Eric Russell, an activist and president of the Tree of Life Justice League, said on March 25 that the incident that happened at the Soto home is part of a troubling pattern in the United States called swatting, which is when someone makes a prank call to 911 in order to induce police to respond with heavily armed officers. 

“We take this very seriously, because the last prank phone call in Wichita, Kansas had two victims,” Russell said, referencing a 2017 raid in which police killed a man during a raid prompted by a prank call. 

Earlier this month, a Virginia man was sentenced to 33 months in prison for his role in a conspiracy involving swatting attacks that targeted journalists, a university, a church, an Islamic Center and a former U.S. cabinet member, according to a Department of Justice statement. 

And last year, the New York Times reported that pranksters are even targeting the homes of tech company executives, particularly high-ranking employees of Facebook.

“Like any other type of crime, when the cost is zero and the deterrent is very low, you’ve created a perfect opportunity for people to pour time and resources into that crime,” Brian Krebs, a swatting victim who writes a widely read blog, Krebs on Security, told the Times.

Russell said that police departments that are militarized and already hostile to residents only make things that much easier for pranksters, before calling out the Bellwood Police Department, in particular.

“The Bellwood Police Department has a history of engaging Black and Brown residents like some damn Nazi Gestapo — being judge, jury and executioner,” he said. “They operate like some sovereign nation.” 

This is the second major controversy involving the Bellwood Police Department in roughly two months. In February, Bellwood Police Commander John Trevarthen resigned from the department after he was arrested and charged with three counts of child pornography.

Read the full civil rights lawsuit filed by Soto below: 

George Soto Lawsuit by MichaelRomain on Scribd

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