William Hillgaertner’s Snohomish County Jail booking photos.

William Hillgaertner’s Snohomish County Jail booking photos.

Lynnwood settles with man who was jailed over stolen coffee

The city paid $20,000 to the legally deaf man, who claimed he was wrongfully imprisoned and beaten.

LYNNWOOD — The city of Lynnwood has settled a lawsuit for $20,000 with a man who claimed he was wrongfully jailed, then beaten, after accidentally taking a coffee refill from a store without paying.

The 31-page complaint, filed last summer in U.S. District Court in Seattle, tells the tale of a legally deaf man caught in a comedy of errors, leading to a “nightmarish” 20-hour detention at the Lynnwood jail. According to the lawsuit, he “suffered severe pain, suffering, and mental anguish” as a result of his stay.

In a response filed in November, the city denied those allegations. By settling, the city is not admitting to any wrongdoing. An internal investigation reportedly found the officers’ actions were within policy, and didn’t require any discipline or training.

The lawsuit says William Hillgaertner, in his 40s, has had difficulty hearing since he was born, even with the use of hearing aids. He was on his way to Whidbey Island on June 15, 2017, when he got off a bus in Lynnwood, where he intended to transfer.

He missed his transfer, though, and was stranded for the night. He walked around the city to stay warm, and around 4:30 a.m. went into an ampm store and bought a cup of coffee.

A half-hour later, he went back for a refill. According to the complaint, he still had $45.70 and was willing to pay, but misunderstood the clerk. He reportedly left the store without paying, thinking the refill was free.

The clerk called 911 to report the stolen coffee, and Lynnwood officers arrived 15 minutes later.

Hillgaertner, with his purportedly ill-gotten coffee, could barely understand the officers’ questions, giving nonsensical answers. He offered to pay for the refill, but the officers reportedly refused that option.

When police asked Hillgaertner for his first name, he said “Leon” — his middle name, and what he typically went by. When they asked for his last name, he said “Leon” again, having misheard.

According to the lawsuit, an officer detailed the exchange in a police report.

“I asked if his name was ‘Leon Leon,’ and he stated he was deaf and couldn’t hear me,” the officer wrote.

However, police allegedly said Hillgaertner lied about being deaf, arrested him, and booked him into the Lynnwood jail as John Doe, for investigation of theft and providing a false statement.

At the jail, staff allegedly continued not to make any accommodations for Hillgaertner’s hearing disability. He continued to have difficulty following directions. Officers put him in a “crisis room,” essentially a small solitary confinement cell, and left him alone for more than 13 hours. The small room has padded walls and a concrete floor with a single drain.

Around 7:30 p.m., security video reportedly shows officers come into the cell and beat Hillgaertner while he’s lying on the floor. Photos included with the complaint show three officers standing over his body, apparently struggling with Hillgaertner. According to the lawsuit, he can be seen resisting in the video. At other times, he’s laying still. He denies assaulting anyone.

“He asserts that any struggle he put up during the incident was entirely to get away from the officer in self-preservation from a very serious and potentially deadly beating,” the lawsuit claims.

An officer reported that Hillgaertner had twisted his right thumb. Afterward, staff put Hillgaertner into a restraint chair and allegedly left him alone, again, for three hours.

The next morning, Hillgaertner was evaluated at a hospital and transferred to the Snohomish County Jail. In his booking photos, bruising can be seen around both of his eyes. At that jail, staff noted that he was “very hard of hearing” and at least in one instance communicated with him through writing — something Lynnwood staff allegedly never attempted.

In July 2017, Hillgaertner pleaded guilty to third-degree theft, providing a false statement and attempted third-degree assault on custodial staff, with the understanding he would be almost immediately released. The alternative, the lawsuit says, was to wait in jail possibly for months until a trial, likely in solitary confinement, or post a $5,000 bond.

“Given these options, Mr. Hillgaertner made a pragmatic decision to plead guilty to something that he denies doing and that jail surveillance video offers no proof of,” the complaint says.

The lawsuit accused the city of Lynnwood violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, failing to accommodate a person with a disability, negligence and unlawful imprisonment. Hillgaertner had asked for damages for pain, suffering, terror and torture.

The case was dismissed on March 17, having been settled outside of court.

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; zbryan@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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