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Under Fire For Slow Response, DNR Questions Lake Monroe Assault Witnesses

arrest them sign

A demonstrator holds a sign calling for the arrest of a group of White people who assaulted a Black man while shouting racial slurs on July 4. (George Hale, WFIU/WTIU News)

The attorney representing a Bloomington man who reported a racist assault over the July 4 weekend is accusing investigators of dragging their feet.

Bloomington attorney Kitty Liell says the Department of Natural Resources should have already arrested a group of people filmed beating civil rights activist Vauhxx Booker while shouting racial slurs and threatening further violence.

“When somebody calls (911) as a victim of a violent act, and the perpetrators are still in their presence, that call deserves the highest attention,” Liell said in an interview Wednesday.

“If this was a domestic situation, and especially if it was a woman who had placed the 911 call and said, ‘I was just attacked, I couldn't breathe. My head hurts. I have patches of my hair missing,’ they would be out there lickety split. I can tell you that much,” Liell said. “And they would take away the man in handcuffs.”

She added: “It doesn't matter if they saw it happen or not. Our battery statute permits an outright arrest under those circumstances.”

As criticism mounts, the department is redoing parts of its original investigation and returning to question witnesses that officers had interviewed at the scene.

The Monroe Co. prosecutor’s office, meanwhile, is waiting.

“I know that the DNR has been trying to re-interview witnesses from that evening, as our prosecutor's office is trying to make appropriate charging decisions,” Liell said. “But, you know, they depend on the police to provide them an accurate and full picture of what happened.”

Calls and emails to Capt. Jet Quillen, a media representative for the DNR’s law enforcement division, were not immediately returned Wednesday.

But an official from the department confirmed the investigation was ongoing.

“When law enforcement wraps up this next round of interviews, we hope that those reports are forwarded to the prosecutor's office immediately,” Liell said. “And we want those arrests to come down this week. Every day that those people are still free is a bad day for Vauhxx Booker and a bad day for everyone in our community.”

Booker, who is Black, is a civil rights activist and member of the Monroe County Human Rights Commission. He has said multiple White men pinned him against a tree and shouted racial slurs at him, and that one threatened to “get a noose” at Monroe Lake on July 4.

Booker said the group of five men accused him of trespassing on private property. After he tried to apologize, the situation got physical. Much of the assault that followed was captured on cellphone video by people Booker had met up with that day.

The DNR hasn't said whether it knows the names of the men who were involved.

It has also withheld the names of the officers who responded and details about what happened when they arrived.

A final report was originally expected to arrive at the prosecutor’s office Monday.

But the department is lagging behind as its investigators track down and re-interview witnesses amid growing criticism of its handling of the original investigation.

The DNR is also refusing to say when it expects to release records related to the case.

“We do not,” said Samantha DeWester, general counsel for the DNR, when asked if she had an estimate for when the DNR would release 911 audio requested by WFIU News. “We will notify you once any records are ready for release,” she said.

Booker’s attorney said she had not heard the 911 call, but she thought it was telling that the suspects were not the ones who placed it.

Governor Resists Calls To Disarm DNR Officers

Liell said she and Booker are calling on Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb to consider taking guns away from DNR officers and “significantly” limiting their jurisdiction.

“As we start reimagining what society we could have, why don't we start with DNR? Why don't we take away their guns and limit their jurisdiction?” she said.

State environmental groups, including the Hoosier Environmental Council, Friends of Lake Monroe and Sierra Club's Hoosier Chapter, are also calling on the department to review its policies and publicly condemn racism.

In a joint statement, the groups declared the altercation a “violent racist incident” and called on the DNR to ensure that people of color can enjoy the state's natural areas.

State Sen. Mark Stoops (D-Bloomington) said Monday he was horrified to hear about the attack, which he said should be treated as a hate crime.

“I call on Governor Holcomb to immediately suspend the DNR officers involved pending further investigation,” he said. “After viewing the videos, the DNR officers had clear evidence that a crime had been committed and immediate corrective action should have been taken.”

Two days later, Gov. Holcomb gave no indication he intended to act on any of those demands, and he defended the DNR’s handling of the case.

Holcomb said during a news conference that DNR law enforcement officers acted according to protocols and made “the right decision,” despite no arrests being made at the scene.

“I'm proud of the DNR and the way they've conducted themselves,” Holcomb said. “They've done everything right, by the book. It'll be handled correctly and was from the very outset.”

The governor also said he viewed video footage of the assault on Booker.

Holcomb said the footage “was beyond disturbing” and that this is why it's critical that the DNR finishes its investigation “sooner rather than later.”

He said the agency's report is nearly done.

In the meantime, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is launching its own inquiry.

Liell, the attorney, says the FBI is investigating the assault as a hate crime.

The FBI says only that it is investigating.

“The FBI is investigating. We have no further comment,” Chris Bavender, public affairs officer for FBI Indianapolis, said in an emailed statement.

Seth Tackett, Cathy Knapp and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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