An attorney hired by the City of Commerce to investigate a highly publicized road-rage incident has told local officials that Commerce Chief of Police Kerry Crews was not the driver who confronted a Texas A&M University-Commerce student in the parking lot of the local Walmart on May 20. However, many questions remain regarding the incident that ended with police arresting Carmen Ponder, 26, of a Dallas, a senior at A&M-Commerce.
The story of Ponder's arrest has received national attention due to allegations of racial elements in the incident. Ponder has described the driver of a truck calling her a "black b----" during a verbal exchange in the parking lot, while Ponder's attorney has claimed her arrest was racially motivated. Ponder is African-American, while the other participants in the incident, including Crews and the still-unnamed driver who was the other party in the road-rage episode that began the chain of events, are white.
Ponder initially accused Crews of being the driver who confronted her, and it was that version of the story that Ponder posted on social media on May 24 and then went viral online, resulting in attention from across Texas and the nation. However, Ponder backed away from the claim that Crews was the driver, and on May 26, Ponder's attorney, S. Lee Merritt, suggested on social media that the other driver was Michael Beane, a Commerce Independent School District board member. Neither Beane, Crews, other city officials, nor anyone else with knowledge of the incident has commented publicly on whether Beane was involved. Merritt has criticized city officials for not making the identity of the driver public.
Ponder has described the incident beginning when she, driving alone in her car, passed a black pickup truck that was driving erratically. Ponder said that the truck followed her to the parking lot of the Walmart, located at 2701 State Hwy. 50. Ponder said that a man got out of the truck and began yelling at her. An angry verbal exchange followed, Ponder said, which included the man from the truck calling her a "black b----" as she went into the Walmart.
Commerce City Manager Darrek Ferrell told KETR on May 26 that Crews, who was shopping at the Walmart while off duty and not in uniform, became involved in the incident. Ferrell said that while events were unfolding, the city's 911 emergency call service received calls reporting the incident from both Ponder and also one of the occupants of the black truck.
Ponder said that Crews ordered her to apologize to the driver of the truck. Neither Crews nor Commerce Police nor city officials have given publicly their account of the moments before Ponder's arrest. But the officer who responded to the call, Sgt. Kalei Beelitz, arrested Ponder, who was later charged with evading or resisting detention or arrest, a class A misdemeanor.
Ponder was booked into the Hunt County Detention Center in Greenville, where she spent the night before being released on $1,000 bond on May 21.
City of Commerce officials have denied media requests for the written report and 911 call records relevant to the incident on the grounds that a criminal investigation is ongoing. As required by law, the city government has petitioned to the Texas Office of the Attorney General that those records be withheld while the investigation is active.
Merritt, a Dallas-based attorney, specializes in cases involving African-Americans and law enforcement. Merritt is also representing the family of Jordan Edwards, the 15-year-old boy who was fatally shot by Balch Springs Police officer Roy Oliver on April 29.
Because local law enforcement were involved in the events of May 20, city officials approached the Texas Rangers about investigating the incident, Ferrell said. However, the Texas Rangers declined to investigate on the grounds that no local law enforcement officers have been accused of criminal violations, Ferrell said.
The city then sought the services of the Fort Worth-based law firm Lynn, Ross and Gannaway, whose retention by the city was announced on May 25. Attorney Julia Gannaway presented her initial findings to a closed session of the Commerce City Council on Friday, according to a city release sent to area news organizations late Monday afternoon.
The release described Gannaway corroborating Ferrell's May 26 statement to KETR that Crews was not the driver who confronted Ponder. Gannaway also told the council that Crews did not make any statements with racial content during the incident, the release said. Gannaway also told the council that she did not find any evidence that the arrest was racially motivated, the release said.
The city's release did not make it clear whether Gannaway's investigation has concluded or is ongoing.
"Gannaway noted that although other aspects of the investigation should continue to be considered, it is conclusively established that Chief Crews is exonerated of any allegation of making any racial remarks to Ms. Ponder during the course of the incident on May 20," the release said. "While there may be additional items for consideration and possible recommended action, race-based claims will not be a factor."
The city's release did say that "the City Council did spend several hours reviewing the incident in its totality. The City Manager is now working with Lynn, Ross and Gannaway to bring this issue to a resolution as quickly as possible."
"I'm afraid @CityofCommerce missed the point. Chief Crews directed the unlawful arrest of @CarmenSieraaa under unjustifiable circumstances," he posted. Merrit described Ponder's arrest as unconstitutional. "To be clear, we never expected the Gannaway investigation to unmask institutional racism in @CommercePD," he posted.
On Tuesday morning, Merritt published his intent to hold a press conference at 10 a.m. at his office, located on the 7th floor of 1910 Pacific Ave. in Dallas.
Ponder is studying political science and paralegal studies and A&M-Commerce. Ponder has been an intern at the Hunt County District Attorney's Office since January 2017. Ponder was recognized as Miss Black Texas 2016.
Ponder also posted on Twitter Monday evening.
"But....why was I arrested?" she posted.
Crews, 46, has been City of Commerce Chief of Police since 2003. The city's release on Monday mentioned that the Hunt County African-American Leadership Conference presented Crews with the Homeland Award and the MLK Lifetime Achievement Award during the 2017 Martin Luther King, Jr., Awards Ceremony.
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UPDATE, 11 a.m.: At this morning's press conference, Merritt has announced that the charge against Ponder has been dropped. Hunt County has indicated the it will not prosecute the case. Details will be posted at KETR.org later today and will be heard during this afternoon's broadcast of All Things Considered.