The jury heard both the prosecution’s and the defense’s arguments Thursday in the trial of Sheriff Brian Bellendir, who is accused of a misdemeanor charge of “mistreatment of a confined person.”
The elements of the crime that the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt for a conviction are that Bellendir was a law enforcement officer on Aug. 10, 2017, and knowingly ill treated Nathan Manley, who was detained or confined at the time in Barton County.
Senior Judge Edward Bouker noted during the trial that most of the details of what happened the night of Aug. 10, 2017, are not in dispute. When Nathan Manley was in custody in handcuffs, “there was a contact between the sheriff’s hand and Mr. Manley’s head.”
That contact was described at various times in the trial as a tap, a smack or a thump, but “what happened is really not at issue,” Bouker said. “In (Bellendir’s) attempt to explain his actions, he has stated his side.”
Special Prosecutor William R. Halvorsen called two witnesses, Great Bend Police Officer Chris Rowland and Kansas Bureau of Investigation Agent Jess Diaz. The state also presented a video from Rowland’s body camera of the incident, and a partial audio recording of an interview Bellendir did in September 2017 with Diaz and his partner, KBI Agent Jeff Newsom.
The jury watched the bodycam video on a screen; those in the audience could only hear the audio.
Manley is ordered out of the house he fled to and Bellendir is heard saying, “You dumb f---, you tried to steal a propane tank from my daughter!”
Later, in an interview with the KBI agents, Bellendir said that Manley had responded with an “okie-dokie look,” and that is when “I thunked him, allegedly.”
Rowland described Bellendir’s language as “angry,” and said Manley wasn’t being noncompliant after he was in handcuffs.
Defense attorney Jess Hoeme cross-examined Rowland, who said he did not witness any injury or complaint from Manley “after the smack.”
“In the video, you don’t see his head bop forward or any physical reactions to the strike,” Hoeme said.
Hoeme suggested law enforcement officers often use strong language when taking command of a situation. “This is not uncommon,” he said.
“Do you do a lot of striking them on the head when they’re in handcuffs?” Halvorsen asked.
Rowland said no.
Senior Special Agent Jason Diaz with the KBI testified that he and Special Agent Jeff Newsom interviewed Bellendir on Sept. 9, 2017, at the Great Bend KBI office.
“I had a digital record that I placed on the table,” Diaz said. Bellendir started talking immediately and Diaz started the recording at some point in the interview. About seven or eight minutes later, Bellendir asked if he was being recorded and then asked them to stop recording, which they did.
Bellendir said he had been anticipating the request for an interview and had lost sleep and lost 15 pounds in the weeks since the incident.
“He said his attorney advised him not to speak with us but he would anyway,” Diaz said.
Bellendir talked about the turmoil that was going on at the time in the Great Bend Police Department. On Aug. 7, a crowd had packed the Great Bend Events Centers for a City Council meeting to discuss reinstating Police Chief Clifton Couch, who had been suspended.
Bouker warned that the questions were “getting very far afield. I am not from this community — I want to only justly try this case.”
Hoeme said the stress Bellendir was under “is highly relevant to explain the demeanor and responsiveness of my client.”
Bellendir’s daughter, Audrey Bellendir, called him on his cell phone as the sheriff was driving from the shooting range on NE 30 Road toward Great Bend. She said a man had tried to steal the propane tank from her porch. She’d gotten his identification and said it was Nathan Manley.
He told her to go inside and call 911. He was also on the radio, calling men from the sheriff’s office. Bellendir and two BCSO deputies arrived ahead of the GBPD officers.
When Bellendir talked to the KBI agents, he asked why they were investigating the incident. They had called Manley, who was in custody at the time, and he had hung up on them.
“Your victim doesn’t want to make a statement,” Bellendir said. “If your victim doesn’t want to press charges, why? You saw the tape. It sounds worse than it is. I thunked the guy on the head — I allegedly thunked.” He said the GBPD was “in chaos,” so he got there first.
“What would you do if that son of a b---- was at your daughter’s house — on the porch, stealing sh--? I’m not a rogue cop; I’m a tough cop.”
“The GBPD wasn’t able to respond in a quick and timely fashion to a theft in progress,” Hoeme said to Diaz. “Did you review the 911 timeline? The situation was, it’s Nathan Manley, with a significant criminal history, and he was going to get away. Are you suggesting the sheriff should not have responded to a theft ...? Should Nathan Manley have been left to his devices — to get away?”
Bellendir had described “thump” as “the same thing you’re do to your kid,” on the recording. Newsom responded, “You treated him like you would your kid, I’ll agree with you on that.”
After the state rested, around 11:30 a.m., Hoeme asked for a judgment of acquittal.
“This ill treatment business is subjective. It implies harm.” Manley was not bruised and had not even complained when the KBI called. “We have no evidence that Nathan Manley was ill treated in any fashion. These subjective types of cases require a victim,” Hoeme said.
“The victim doesn’t decide if there was a crime, the jury does,” Halvorsen countered.
“I don’t agree that ill treatment is subjective in nature,” Bouker said. “There is an objective standard of how people in confinement should be treated.” With that ruling, the trial continued.
More details came out as Hoeme called witnesses for the defense, including Jeff Newsom, Audrey Bellendir and Brian Bellendir.
“We’re not trying to hide anything,” Hoeme said. “The evidence that we intend to present is there’s a lot of background between the sheriff and Nathan Manley. We’re going to tell you the rest of the story.”
Hoeme asked Newsom about Bellendir’s interview and if he’d define Bellendir as a “tough cookie.”
“He’s an old-school cop, set in the past,” Newsom said. “There are different styles — that’s not my style. ... You don’t mistreat people in handcuffs, period.”
About the thump to the head, Hoeme asked, “Did the sheriff do the same thing to Jason Diaz?”
Newsom said Bellendir suddenly hit Diaz on the head during the interview, demonstrating how he’d hit Manley, but “probably harder. I told him, ‘you don’t be hitting my partner.’”
“You laughed out loud,” Hoeme said.
Newsom said Bellendir was agitated during the interview. “He was prancing back and forth — walking with his hand on his gun. I didn’t think he was going to shoot me but I was trying to calm him down. I don’t know if he realized it or not, his hand was resting on his gun a long time. I agreed with him at times to de-escalate. ...
“Next thing I knew, he slapped Jason as a demonstration of what he did. It was quick — I didn’t see it coming,” Newsom said. He said his laugh was a nervous reaction.
The call to 911
Audrey Bellendir said she called her father after her neighbor knocked on her door at the corner of Hubbard and Broadway, and she looked out to see a man taking her propane tank.
“I saw a man, Nathan Manley, with my propane tank unscrewed from the grill,” she said.
She and the neighbor had demanded the man identify himself, she said. “I realized it was Nathan Manley.” She called the sheriff and then, following her father’s instructions, she said called 911 and said “there’s a man stealing from me. I have his ID — his name’s Nathan Manley. I saw him go into a house at 16th and Hubbard.”
She was on the phone with the dispatcher when her father drove by, asked if she was OK. He told her to go inside and proceeded to the other house.
Then Bellendir took the stand and continued the story. He has been Barton County Sheriff since 2013, and had worked at the BCSO since he was a sheriff’s reserve officer in 1981.
“I tapped Nathan Manley on the back of the head,” Bellendir said. “I’ve known him many years.”
Manley was a paid confidential informant for a time, buying meth undercover to avoid criminal charges. “He was a frequent flier at the jail,” the sheriff said. Over the years, Manley has been arrested 55 times.
When his daughter called and said Nathan Manley was stealing her propane tank, he asked, “How do you know it’s Nathan Manley?” She said the neighbor had procured his ID.
“I told her to call 911; I called in by radio. The PD was 10-6.” Bellendir said 10-6 is code for “busy.”
“I was probably two and a half to three miles north of town. I proceeded to Audrey’s house,” he said. Bellendir and two of his detectives arrived first.
After Bellendir took the stand in his own defense, special prosecutor Halvorsen attempted during cross examination to introduce witnesses to impeach the sheriff’s credibility. Halvorsen said Bellendir had opened the door when he chose to become a witness. Halvorsen asked Bellendir if he’d ever battered a prisoner or if he’s ever done anything dishonest. When the answers were negative, Halvorsen asked if the sheriff had ever taken medication from the detention center for his personal use.
Hoeme objected and moved for a mistrial.
“It’s improper,” Hoeme said of the line of questioning. “I have no idea what Mr. Halvorsen could possibly be referencing to.”
“I was rebutting his testimony,” Halvorsen said. “I have a witness of another occasion where the sheriff struck a person with a cell phone while in handcuffs, and two witnesses will say the sheriff improperly took drugs for his own use.”
Bouker ruled that the testimony Halvorsen sought to introduce was prejudicial, and would not be allowed. The jury was told they “need not and should not be concerned about that (last) question.”
After the defense rested, the jury was instructed to report back at 8:20 a.m. Friday, and closing arguments will start at 8:30 a.m.
Halversen requested that the judge allow the inclusion of “lesser included offenses,” in the jury instructions, and proposed battery and disorderly conduct.
The judge denied that request. To add additional charges after the fact would be a violation of the defendant’s right to due process. The defendant has a right to know what he is defending against, Bouker said.