Did State Police beat up an 83-year-old bar owner?

WARNER TWP., MICH. - With a population of 410, Warner Township in northwest Lower Michigan is better known as a snowmobiling crossroads than a hotbed of anti-police sentiment.

All that changed on St. Patrick's Day, when Michigan State Police troopers arrested 83-year-old Larry Sevenski, who has owned the township's only bar for 51 years, and hospitalized the octogenarian in the process.

Trooper Brock Artfitch acknowledges wrestling the barkeep to the ground, a process that left Sevenski's nose bloodied and his right elbow shattered. A surgeon later needed 8 pins to piece it back together. But the two men offer differing accounts of the lead-up to the takedown.

Artfitch says he stopped Sevenski for taking a turn too tight without signaling. Sevenski said the troopers were staking out his bar to snag drunken drivers on a holiday. The video camera inside Artfitch's police cruiser could prove for sure which man is right, but it missed the whole encounter because of what State Police describe as a technical failure.

Now, the State Police are facing a barrage of criticism, Sevenski is heading to trial on a felony charge of resisting and obstructing police and people across the community and beyond are rallying to Sevenski's side.

"Larry is like the grandpa that everyone loves," said Bob McMaster, 66, of Vanderbilt, who drove 30 miles to attend Sevenski's court hearing last Wednesday. "This idea that he's out there attacking two state troopers is ridiculous."

At the crossroads

Larry's Seven-ski Inn sits near the intersection of two main roads in  rural Antrim County.   U.S.-131 runs north and south past the front door. It leads to Boyne Mountain Resort seven miles north. M-32 jogs past Larry's in the other direction, with Gaylord 12 miles to the east.

A snowmobile trail also runs past the bar, and trail grooming equipment often is parked across the street. The bar's founder owned it for 53 years before selling it in 1966 to Sevenski and his wife, Dorothy, who have owned it ever since.

In addition to the bar, Sevenski's business includes gas pumps, an auto service station and a used car lot. He formerly ran an excavating business from the property, and earth moving equipment still sits out back.

"Anything to make a living," Sevenski told the Free Press last week.

Inside the Inn, a dozen stools straddle the U-shaped bar and 20 or so tables sit surrounded by green and yellow vinyl chairs. A pool table and a jukebox round out the decor with an open area for a band at that far end.

On draft are: Bud, Bud Lite and Michelob Amber Bock. Small shells are $1.50 and large ones are $2.

It's known for having good burgers, which Dorothy Sevenski, who goes by Dort, makes by hand.

"During peak snowmobile season on a Saturday, you've got to be greased and pushed to get in there," said Warner Township Supervisor Martin Franckowiak.

Franckowiak said Sevenski's arrest has been the talk of the town, but as township supervisor, he prefers not to discuss it. Besides, he might not be entirely objective, noting that Dorothy Sevenski "is a third- or fourth-cousin."

St. Patrick's Day

It was a Friday night with corned beef on the menu and Irish music filling the air. Larry's was full on St. Patrick's Day when a customer came in and told Sevenski that the State Police were parked outside on his property waiting to snag patrons who may have been drinking.

Sevenski said he decided to have a word with them.

He jumped into his car and pointed it out to  U.S.-131 using the headlights to look south of the business. When he saw no one there, he turned north, scanning the empty lot across the street for police. Nothing there, either.

He drove about 100 yards, scanning the shoulders of the road before turning onto Thumm Road. He drove a short distance than U-turned back to  U.S.-131. That's when he saw the patrol vehicle light up his car from behind.

He acknowledges immediately getting out of his car and walking toward the patrol vehicle, but on the advice of his attorneys, declined to describe in detail what happened next, though he denies attacking the troopers.

At a preliminary examination on Wednesday in Antrim County District Court, Trooper Artfitch, who joined the State Police in 2014, testified to his version of the encounter. He said he and his partner were driving north on U.S. 131 when they saw a car turn onto Thumm Road, cutting the corner close and failing to signal.

The car than pulled a U-Turn and headed back to the highway when the troopers pulled up behind it and activated their overhead lights to make the stop. According to Artfitch, Sevenski got out of his car and walked quickly toward the patrol car. When Arfitch exited his vehicle, he said Sevenski was pointing at him and shouting "I've got a bone to pick with you."

Artfitch said Sevenski ignored shouted orders to return to his vehicle and instead walked directly at the trooper, reaching him near the front of the patrol car. Artfitch said he put out his hand to stop Sevenski's advance and pushed on his chest to try to walk him backward toward Sevenski's car. He asked if Sevenski was carrying any weapons.

"His response was 'I wish I had one,'" Artfitch said.

Artfitch, 28, said he then grabbed Sevenski's left hand to try to turn him around for a pat down.

"He squeezed my hand very tightly and he took his right arm and cocked it back in a punching position and formed his right hand into a tight fist," Artfitch said.

Sevenski's lawyer, Rick Steiger, asked if he was fearful of Sevenski at that point.

"Yes," Artfitch said.

Artfitch said he used what's known as a straight arm bar takedown to get Sevenski on the ground.

When he did, Sevenski's nose was bleeding, his glasses were chipped and he was screaming in pain, saying his arm was broken. Artfitch and his partner handcuffed Sevenski, called for an ambulance and began performing first aid on Sevenski's nose.

Artfitch defended the takedown, saying he used "only the level (of force) needed to gain control of the situation."

Camera malfunction

The takedown happened in front of the patrol car equipped with a dash camera that turns on when the troopers turn on the overhead lights. But when Sevenski later sought a copy of the video, he was told it wasn't available.

"There was a technical failure with the video camera installed in the patrol vehicle involved in this incident," 1st Lt. Mark Harris, commander of the Gaylord State Police Post, said in a statement. "While the camera log shows that the camera started recording when the patrol car's lights were activated, the camera malfunctioned and did not write the incident to the memory card."

The camera was mentioned only in passing during the court hearing, though it could be discussed in greater detail at a full trial. The camera did eventually begin recording, but by that time, paramedics were tending to Sevenski.

The defense called no witnesses at the hearing. District Judge Thomas Phillips heard more than an hour of testimony from Artfitch and concluded there was enough evidence to send the case to trial in circuit court.

"When you don't obey lawful commands, often a physical confrontation results," Phillips said. "The court finds that the officer was a credible witness when he testified today."

Steiger said Sevenski plans a vigorous defense when the case goes to trial.

Community outrage

News of Sevenski's arrest and injuries spread quickly through local newspapers and television news accounts, but social media sent the story across the country. The courtroom was packed, mostly with locals who know Sevenski.

Outside things were even more tense.

"Shame on you, beating on that 83-year-old man," shouted Don Kushmider, 52, of Cadillac, who used his phone to record Artfitch leaving a court hearing on Wednesday. "Why did you turn off your video camera?"

Artfitch didn't respond to Kushmider's shouted questions.

"We've had calls from California, Oklahoma, all over," said Jeanne Plulik, who helps the Sevenskis run the bar.

Plulik said people who know Sevenski don't believe he would attack a state trooper. Others are convinced that the police do sit outside bars just waiting for customers to emerge so they can stop them for suspected drunken driving.

"The police will sit there and grab your customers when they leave," said Lori Potter, 57, of Bellaire, who formerly owned the Green Lantern Bar, about 10 miles south of Larry's on U.S.-131 in Alba.

Lois Marsh Curtis, 60, of nearby Mancelona, has known Sevenski for 42 years. In 1975, Michigan's legal drinking age was 18 and Curtis said she celebrated her 18th birthday at Larry's with her first legal drink, a sloe gin and 7Up.

"I think it's B.S.," she said. "Larry is one of the kindest, gentlest people you've ever met," she said.

Locals are planning a benefit at the bar April 22 to raise money for the medical bills not covered by Sevenski's Medicare insurance.

"We've got eight bands coming, and they are all playing for free," Plulick said.

Locals are signing up to donate food and other items for a silent auction as well.

Mike Millenbach, 48, Sterling Heights, plans to attend. He has snowmobiled in the area for about 15 years and said he's stopped at Larry's for burgers and beers many times.

Millenbach read about the arrest on a snowmobile blog and wanted to do something to help, so he printed 50 bumper stickers with a green background and white letters that say "Free Larry." Between the words is a logo of two hands in handcuffs. When he sent them up to the bar, they went quickly, so he's making more.

"The more you learn about the situation, you think it could have been handled differently," Millenbach said.

Sevenski, his right arm still in a sling from the surgery, gets emotional when asked about the support he's received from the community.

"I've always tried to make people feel like family when they come in here," he said as his eyes welled up. "It makes me cry."

Contact John Wisely: 313-222-6825 or jwisely@freepress.com. On Twitter @jwisely.

© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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