Andrew Dys

August 23, 2014

Spinout-turned-fisticuffs at Chester dirt track headed for federal trial

Nobody died five years ago at a dirt track in Chester. But like the recent incident involving NASCAR star Tony Stewart – which started with a pointed finger and ended with death – there was a crash and finger-pointing and a confrontation.

Nobody died five years ago at a dirt track in Chester. But like the recent incident involving NASCAR star Tony Stewart – which started with a pointed finger and ended with death – there was a crash and finger-pointing and a confrontation.

Only in Chester, on Sept. 12, 2009, the driver who was upset at being wrecked and pointed a finger and advanced on another driver was tackled on the track by three Chester County sheriff’s deputies in front of a couple thousand fans.

“I had the crap beat out of me,” said Randy Smith, a York County Sports Hall of Famer from Fort Mill. This is a guy who played in the Shrine Bowl in football in the 1970s and starred at Wofford College, where he was an All-American.

Then the deputies arrested Smith for assault.

It remains the only arrest of his life.

Smith, now 56, claims he was handcuffed in front of the whole crowd in victory lane, then paraded around the grandstand to the front of the I-77 Speedway track so fans could see him.

“The ultimate in a perp walk,” said Smith’s lawyer, Dennis Bolt of Columbia. “Almost the whole crowd, in front of thousands.”

And while that assault charge would be dismissed by a Chester County magistrate, Smith is still awaiting his day in court five years later – for a federal lawsuit he filed against the officers, alleging they used excessive force.

“What happened is, they beat the crap out of him for pointing his finger,” Bolt said.

One of the deputies came rushing in and just “leveled” Smith, court documents allege, citing eyewitness depositions. Another eyewitness called the beating by the police “vicious.”

Smith’s lawsuit alleges that the deputies tried to defend their actions by portraying the crowd as “drunken,” and a “riotous mob,” when only one arrest had been made at the track in the previous 10 years – and there is no evidence the crowd did anything that night other than watch the race and watch Smith take a public beating.

Steven Spreeuwers, lawyer for the three deputies who no longer work for Chester County, declined to comment.

In court documents, the deputies have asked federal judges several times to dismiss the case, claiming they are immune from being sued. So far, judges have refused.

On Friday, lawyers for the deputies told Smith’s lawyers, Bolt and Christopher Mills, that they plan to appeal the latest judge’s decision not to dismiss the case. That could postpone the scheduled Sept. 10 trial date, Bolt said.

The potential last-minute delay doesn’t change the basic dispute that Smith claims the deputies violated his civil rights, while the deputies claim they acted in self-defense and with reasonable force.

The deputies allege in court documents that Smith “infuses sensationalized rhetoric” in an attempt to cloud what happened five years ago. The two sides have gone through mediation, but the yellow caution flag is still up.

Like dirt-track racing itself – where the dust rises under the lights to partially obscure the view of the track – the facts about who started the fracas and who should have backed off have been muddied by the pointed fingers of legal arguing from both sides.

What seems clear, however, is that Randy Smith got the snot kicked out of him.

In the track’s annual Shriner race in 2009, Smith said he was “hooked” by driver Chad Paxton, almost flipping Smith’s car. Smith admits in his lawsuit that he approached Paxton’s car after the race to “voice his displeasure.”

Although there were no recordings of what was said, the word “displeasure” likely was not used that night five years ago. More choice words that are used by hard-charging drivers are far more probable.

The sides do disagree on whether Smith grabbed Paxton or just pointed at him. Paxton, in a court deposition, said he saw Smith pointing at him reaching toward him inside the car, but Smith never touched him.

Smith claims the deputies overreacted and then proceeded to put a whipping on him – kicking him in the face, ribs and head. He wound up with two black eyes, and his face was pushed into the mud. A shoulder and elbow, already hurt from an operation, were made worse.

Then, Smith claims, he was put on display after his arrest and left outside the main entrance of the track while in custody.

“Then I was in jail for 13 hours,” he said.

Smith claims the deputies were not regulars at the track, but narcotics officers who acted far too aggressively and did not know how to handle the emotions of the track, which has since closed.

But the officers claim in court documents that “dirt track racing regularly involves fighting” and fights and arguments happen all the time on the nation’s dirt tracks.

The deputies – N.C. Murphy, Charles Grant and T.J. Murphy – all deny the allegations made by Smith. Their response to the lawsuit claims that the scuffle was self-defense on their part. In depositions, they said it looked like Smith was getting ready to hit Paxton, who was still belted inside his race car.

They claim Smith resisted them and spun around to confront them, which justified their use of force. They have called Smith’s claims “fiction,” saying Smith is “cherry-picking” his recollections of the facts.

Smith is “long on hyperbole but short on evidence,” the police officers’ lawyer wrote in a court document filed last month, seeking a dismissal.

According to state records, Smith has no criminal record, no other arrest for fighting at a dirt track or anywhere else. He has owned and run a body shop in Fort Mill for years. He still races on dirt tracks, where he says fights don’t normally happen – and arrests almost never do.

Except that night five years ago – in front of the whole crowd at the biggest race of the year.

Many people at the track that night have already given depositions that are part of the court record. Unlike many lawsuits – in which it often comes down to an alleged victim’s word against the word of the person accused of using force – in this case, there are dozens of witnesses who could testify to what they saw on the track.

Unless the case is settled or dismissed, it won’t be decided by the screaming fans of the sport that many say is the purest form of racing. A sport with arguably the toughest and most capable drivers anywhere, riding up the red clay turns to scatter a mist of dirt onto those fans.

The checkered flag will be waved by 12 clean jurors in the antiseptic world of a federal courtroom, and the track marshal will be a federal judge wearing a black robe instead of a shirt covered with sponsorships for beer and tools.

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