Isiah Holmes

How Ryan Sanders Was Railroaded

He spent eight months in jail before the DA withdrew a charge of conspiracy to commit homicide.

By , Wisconsin Examiner - Oct 5th, 2017 01:41 pm
Milwaukee County Jail and Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee County Jail and Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

As far as Milwaukee Journal Sentinel readers are concerned, Ryan Allyn Sanders is the “self-professed ‘King’ of a group calling itself ‘Hell’s Firing Squad’” who “conspired with group members to kill police officers in order to prevent one of their associates from going to jail.” Sanders, the story went on, was “charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree intentional homicide,” and “could be sentenced to up to 60 years in prison.”

The lurid story about this young–then 18-year-old–African American, a Milwaukee resident, was based on a criminal complaint filed by the Wauwatosa police. In fact, Sanders was eventually released with no charges whatsoever against him following the horror of eight months imprisonment in the Milwaukee County Jail. That was never reported, perhaps because law enforcement never issued an updated press release.

The case raises questions about how the police and justice system handles cases like this, about miscarriages of justice against black suspects, and how the media reports such stories. Sanders’ story has been reported in detail in a three-part story I wrote for the Pontiac Tribune, based in Michigan, and part of The Fifth Column News Network. This is the first report published for Milwaukee readers.

On April 19th 2016, Sanders was contacted by officers of the Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD) and asked to answer questions regarding an ongoing investigation. Sanders cooperated, voluntarily coming to the station. Officers informed Sanders he wasn’t under arrest, and was allowed to leave at any time. A police interview video I requested under the open records law shows that Sanders spoke with two officers — a school resource officer for a local Wauwatosa high school, and a WPD detective.

They questioned him regarding his association with a minor whose name is redacted in police documents, identified as JV in my series. Police reports described JV as Sanders’ “right hand man,” with Sanders telling WPD he hoped to be a mentor to JV and steer him in a positive direction.

Sanders was also grilled by police about his link to a group called HFS, which the officers believed stood for “Hells Fire Squadron.” (The Journal Sentinel story somehow turned “Fire” into “Firing.”) Sanders confirmed he was connected to a group with those initials, but said they stood for “Healing Fortitude and Solidarity.” Sanders described HFS as not a gang, but a budding activist and community-focused collective modeled after the Black Panthers. None of Sanders’ comments were included in media coverage of the case. (Wauwatosa Patch and CBS 58 also covered the story.)

Sanders and officers also discussed at length an apparent plot to break an HFS member out of jail. Private conversations between Sanders and HFS members had been obtained by the Wauwatosa Police through warrants targeting social media data.

These were requested after the father of HFS member JV became concerned with his behavior. On February 25th 2016, the father surrendered his son’s tablet device to Wauwatosa officers. A large amount of ammunition stolen from JV’s grandparents was also found hidden in his room. From there, police obtained warrants for the device and located a message chain from February 9th.

In it, JV speaks to a friend who I’ve called ND because he, too, was a minor. ND was scheduled for sentencing for a hit-and-run and reckless driving causing injury and was worried about going to jail. JV then assured ND that he and others would use weapons to free him, killing police if need be. Afterward, JV messaged Sanders requesting “back up” for his plan. Sanders stated he’d “make a call,” but told police that his intention was to make sure JV didn’t do anything violent or “stupid.”

JV was then arrested at the end of February, at which point police stated they had discovered the plan to free ND was already discontinued. Police documents I obtained reveal JV was interviewed and confessed that he had reconsidered his idea and decided not to pursue it.

Sanders was arrested two months later and charged with conspiracy to commit intentional homicide. The Wauwatosa Patch story was headlined, “Wauwatosa Police Thwart Group’s Plot to Stage Police Shooting,” but in fact the police had simply discovered a plan that had already been scrapped, months before Sanders’ arrest. Yet officers used the scuttled plan as a pretext to search through troves of social media data on anyone associated with HFS or Ryan Sanders.

In interviews with me, Sanders asserted that numerous aspects of his case were grossly distorted by police and that one detective in particular “blatantly lied” in court. Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Randy Sitzberger prosecuted the case against Sanders.

After his arrest, Sanders was incarcerated, and spent eight months in the Milwaukee County Jail, with long stretches in solitary confinement. Records I requested from the county confirmed Sanders was held in POD 4D of the disciplinary unit, maximum custody. There, Sanders witnessed numerous abuses by guards against inmates, he says.

The treatment of inmates at the jail, including the sexual assault of a pregnant inmate, has led to suits against the county. Sanders says he was aware of Terrill Thomas, who died of dehydration last year shortly after Sanders was incarcerated. According to Sanders, denial of food and water was a common practice at the jail. During his long incarceration, the young man’s weight withered away. Sanders says “the hole” –solitary confinement — “kind of broke me.”

After eight months of incarceration, the charges against Sanders were vacated by Sitzberger. As Sanders ruefully puts it, Sitzberger “asked to judge to drop all my charges because he realized he was wrong.” He says Sitzberger apologized to him for the ordeal Sanders suffered, though officials offered no compensation of any kind. Neither the district attorney’s office nor the Wauwatosa Police Department responded to requests for comment regarding the case.

Now, Sanders is attempting to rebuild his life after the horrors he suffered. He hopes to find employment and go to college, but worries the arrest record will make that difficult.

The Ryan Sanders affair mirrors the infamous case of Kalief Browder. Arrested at the age of 16 by New York City Police for allegedly stealing a backpack, Browder was imprisoned for three years on Rikers Island without trial and spent most of this time in solitary confinement. Browder was beaten and abused by guards and prisoners, and later cleared. He told his story to those who’d listen, only to later commit suicide in his home.

How often are cases mishandled as badly as Sanders? The media are quick to jump on dramatic police complaints of allegedly criminal behavior, but how often do they check back when the case is quietly dropped? And are such miscarriages of justice more common when the suspect is black? The Sanders case raises troubling questions, the sort that groups like Black Lives Matters are currently raising across the country.

For more information about the Sanders case, check the three-part series published by the Pontiac Tribune.

Categories: Public Safety

2 thoughts on “How Ryan Sanders Was Railroaded”

  1. mkwagner says:

    How many others innocent defendants have plead guilty to “lesser charges” to make this type of nightmare end? How fair is our legal system when this kind of abuse goes on? More troubling still is the role the press plays in perpetuating the abuse by stirring up fervor against these defendants but not covering the fact that all charges have been dismissed. And of course, there is our own role in the problem, when we believe that if someone is arrested, it must be because they are guilty and that is particularly true when the defendant is African American. The bad news is that we have all played a part in the problem. The good news is that we can solve this problem if we accept the humanity of each other no exceptions.

  2. Barbara Richards says:

    ditto mkwagner…ever wonder why black rage arises? I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”. Perhaps a book like this is required reading at the police academies?

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