'Detroit Will Breathe' protester blinded flight crew, feds say

Robert Snell
The Detroit News
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Detroit — Federal prosecutors Friday charged a "street medic" who participated in "Detroit Will Breathe” protests last year with shining a laser at a Detroit Police helicopter that temporarily blinded the crew.

Michael Sam Hurd, 32, of Fennville was charged with a felony punishable by up to five years in federal prison in one of the more serious charges to flow from protests in Detroit.

Michael Hurd

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Detroit Police and an FBI Violent Crime Task Force teamed up to analyze a potentially catastrophic moment during an Aug. 23 protest, assembling grainy video and surveillance footage from the air, ground, an officer's body camera and a city bus to identify Hurd as the protester who blinded the flight crew, according to a federal criminal complaint unsealed Friday.

The criminal case illustrates the pervasive use of private surveillance cameras downtown and cooperation between law enforcement and billionaire Dan Gilbert's security network that has installed hundreds of cameras throughout downtown.

A handcuffed, shackled Hurd made a brief appearance Friday in federal court before being released on $10,000 unsecured bond.

“This happened in the context of a Black Lives Matter demonstration going on, so it is not like it took place at an airport or anything,” his lawyer David Cripps said. 

“This was during the protest march when there was excessive brutality done by the police force," Cripps added. "Whatever actions on the part of my client — we are still trying to get to the bottom of it — I’m sure were done in defense of others.”

The criminal case focuses on a seven-second incident south of Grand Circus Park along Woodward Avenue and in the skies above in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 23. That is when dozens of people marched through downtown protesting the presence of federal agents in the city.

A Detroit Police helicopter referred to as DPD Air1 was hovering near Woodward and Clifford Street when Corporal Daniel Balow reported that the helicopter had been struck with a green-colored laser beam by someone in the crowd below.

"The green laser resulted in temporary momentary blindness causing the incapacitation of the flight crew," Sgt. Charles Richie, the helicopter pilot, told investigators.

The next day, Detroit Police Sgt. Lance Sullivan, a member of the FBI task force, started assembling video of the incident.

Investigators focused on the west side of Woodward Avenue near Clifford Street in downtown Detroit.

He downloaded surveillance footage from the helicopter's onboard video camera and obtained more video footage from Rock Security Co. The videos came from cameras mounted along Woodward, between Clifford and Grand River Avenue, Sullivan wrote in an affidavit filed Friday in federal court.

Days later, he collected more footage of detainees recorded at the Detroit Detention Center and video from a Detroit Department of Transportation bus that hauled detainees from the protest.

After analyzing video and audio, Sullivan determined the laser beam originated from the west side of Woodward Avenue between Clifford and Grand River.

The helicopter crew first noticed the laser at 12:30 a.m. on Aug. 23.

"The laser intermittently struck the helicopter’s camera for approximately seven seconds," the task force officer wrote.

An FBI task force officer said video footage shows Michael Hurd grabbing a laser pointer before aiming it at a Detroit Police helicopter.

Rock Security provided ground-level video from cameras mounted outside a pair of buildings on both sides of Woodward: The Woodward Building on the west side and The Ferguson Downtown Detroit Apartments on the east side.

Along with rooftop footage from The Wright Kay Building, investigators focused on a man in a white hard hat wearing a respirator and a long-sleeve shirt adorned with a red medic's cross.

Investigators would soon identify the man as Hurd.

"Hurd appeared to reach into the bag affixed to his hip/leg. A light in Hurd's hand then appeared to turn on momentarily," the task force officer wrote. "... a bright light and a green haze appeared in and around Hurd's hands around the time that the green laser beam hit DPD Air1."

The footage shows Hurd looking up at the helicopter for approximately seven second as the laser blinded the crew, the officer wrote.

Federal investigators used surveillance footage to identify Michael Hurd during protests last summer in downtown Detroit.

"...during the period of time that the green laser beam struck DPD Air1, Hurd appeared to be the only person in the area from which the laser beam originated who was looking up and appeared to be manipulating a light source," Sullivan wrote.

Minutes later, at 12:49 a.m., Detroit Police officers started warning protesters to leave the area or face possible arrest.

Officers approached Hurd and removed his backpack.

"There was a physical struggle between a police officer and Hurd, and Hurd fell into the flower box with another individual...," Sullivan wrote.

Hurd was handcuffed. When he stood up, a large dark stain is visible on the back of his white shirt, a detail investigators would later use in helping identify Hurd.

Hurd was placed on a DDOT bus and transported to the Detroit Detention Center where he was issued three citations. Bus video shows Hurd in a white shirt with the large dark stain, according to the affidavit.

Investigators later matched surveillance footage of Hurd with a photo posted on his Twitter account. The Twitter photo shows Hurd in the same area that investigators say the laser beam originated on Aug. 23.

“Oh hey I finally found a decent pic of me before being rolled over by the bullies in badges," the Twitter post reads. "I was taken down with trans allies and had to watch them punch one of them over and over while they sat on me.” 

Federal agents raided Hurd's home in November and questioned the man.

Hurd admitted possessing a laser pointer that night, according to the court affidavit.

He said the laser pointer was confiscated but that does not appear to be true, Sullivan wrote. Surveillance footage shows a cylindrical object fall to the ground while Hurd struggled with police.

Hurd said he remembered seeing a helicopter during the protest and was asked if he remembered shining a laser beam at the crew.

“Not entirely… hmm, I personally don’t, but I also probably shouldn’t answer too many things because I’m currently tied up in a court thing about August," he said.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews

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