Angela Zorich answered her lawyer’s question with one of her own.
“Why didn’t you pay your traffic fines?” asked attorney Jerry Dobson.
Zorich was on the witness stand on the ninth floor of the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis, in Judge Patricia Cohen’s courtroom. Zorich is suing St. Louis County and four county police officers for civil rights violations over a raid on her house in April 2014.
“Why didn’t I pay my gas bill?” Zorich snapped back at Dobson.
The answer to both questions was the same.
“Our house was in foreclosure,” Zorich continued. “We didn’t have any money.”
On its surface, this is a case about a dead dog.
When the county’s SWAT team busted into Zorich’s south St. Louis County house on April 29, 2014, wearing body armor and carrying M4 carbine rifles, they killed the family pit bull, Kiya.
Kiya, along with several of Zorich’s sons and her 6-month-old grandson, were in the small living room of the 1,200-square-foot home on Caprock Court when police executed a search warrant.
The warrant was sought by Officer Robert Rinck of the problem property unit because the Zoriches — Angela and her husband, Michael — hadn’t paid their gas bill. Rinck wanted to inspect the interior of the home. The SWAT team provided entry.
“Boom, pop, pop, pop.”
That’s how Zorich described to the jury of eight women and one man what she heard that day, sitting in the kitchen with the mother of her grandchild.
Boom was the sound made when the door slammed against the wall.
Pop, pop, pop were the shots that killed Kiya.
Police say the pit bull charged.
No way, testified Zorich.
“It was instant.”
She broke down on the stand several times talking about Kiya, a 4-year-old dog the family had raised as a puppy.
“Oh my God, did you shoot my dog?” she recalled screaming in horror while on her knees, handcuffed like everybody else in the house. “I couldn’t believe they shot her.”
Kiya’s dead, but this case isn’t really about her.
In a court case that’s expected to last about a week and a half, what will really be on trial is the militarization of the St. Louis County Police Department.
That department, Zorich’s attorneys said in opening arguments, has a policy that its tactical operations unit — the SWAT team — executes all search warrants, even when just checking on a house where the gas bill has gone unpaid. Applying massive force in such a case is violation of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, said attorney Nicole Matlock.
“What could possibly have justified (Rinck) deciding to call in the (tactical operations) team?” she asked jurors.
Attorney Priscilla Gunn, defending the county and the police officers, provided an answer.
“There was a known history of confrontations between members of the Zorich family and police,” Gunn told jurors in her opening argument. “There were too many risk factors.
“It sounds kind of outrageous,” Gunn said. “I can assure you there is another side of the story.”
Gunn might have timing on her side.
The day before the trial started, a police officer died in St. Louis County. Officer Michael Langsdorf, a member of the North County Police Cooperative, was shot and killed while responding to a Wellston market to investigate a call about a bad check.
Gunn made her arguments flanked by several county police officers in full uniform, bullet-resistant vests bulging through brown and white shirts, a reminder to the jurors of how dangerous policing can be.
Langsdorf’s death wasn’t mentioned, of course, and has nothing to do with the case. But it is a reminder of the dangers police face every day, even when serving search warrants on a house without a proper gas hookup.
Jurors will ultimately be asked to find the right balance.
“I saw armed men with full tactical gear pouring into my living room,” Zorich testified. “I thought it had to be a mistake. I was so scared.”
It wasn’t a mistake. In the aftermath, nearly everybody inside the house was arrested and taken to jail on old warrants. Zorich owed money for traffic tickets, which she eventually paid.
In the end, she lost her dog and her house.
She’s asking jurors to make St. Louis County pay a price.