Searching for a suspect, police pin wrong people

It was a cloudy afternoon on the last day in May and Tulua Afa, four months pregnant, was running errands before work, riding in the front passenger seat of her boyfriend’s sister’s Cadillac, heading south on North Bragaw Street, waiting for the red light to turn green at Mountain View Drive. Her boyfriend sat in the driver’s seat beside her; her 4-year-old son sat in the back.

The police cars seemed to come out of nowhere, she said.

With no warning, an unmarked cruiser rammed the back of the Cadillac. Another police vehicle hit the front. The impact knocked Afa’s phone from her hand, jolting her forward in her seat, she said. Police officers with guns drawn surrounded the Cadillac.

“It happened so fast,” she said, recounting the incident by phone a week later. “I was shocked, I didn’t even know what was going on.”

As she climbed out of the SUV with her hands in the air, she said, she told the officers about her son in the back seat. She told them she was pregnant. She was placed in handcuffs. She felt lost, she said. She wondered what she did wrong.

But police had detained the wrong people, according to a spokesman for the Anchorage Police Department.

They were searching for Faamanu “Junior” Vaifanua, wanted on charges of attempted murder, kidnapping, assault and robbery. Officers had information he might be traveling in a red or maroon Cadillac. Vaifanua has a history of eluding officers and was considered dangerous, said Anchorage Police Department spokesman MJ Thim.

Then, around 1:45 p.m. on May 31, officers saw a red Cadillac driving through Mountain View, a young man with long dark hair at the wheel.

“They reacted,” Thim said.

After officers pinned the car at the intersection, they ran the license plate, Thim said. It was clean. They checked the driver’s ID. He was not the man they were looking for.

“It turned out to be unfounded,” Thim said.

The Municipality of Anchorage Risk Manager handles dozens of cases like this annually. The office is responsible for all claims involving damage to municipal property, or municipal damage to private property, and payments are made “when the Municipality is liable for the damages –  for example, if an employee acted negligently in the course of his or her duties,” municipal risk manager Katherine Panikian wrote in an email.

Since January 2017, the office has handled 299 claims for general liability and automobile liability, the risk manager said. Approximately 80 claims have involved the Anchorage Police Department, and the municipality has made payments on 59 of those claims – more than $164,000 total. Other claims remain open.

One of them is for the red Cadillac pinned by police in Mountain View May 31, Panikian said.

Lose Malaetia, the Cadillac’s owner, had just lent the vehicle to her brother that afternoon when she received a message from a relative, she said. Someone had seen her SUV surrounded by flashing lights just a few blocks away. Malaetia started running, she said. She ran all the way down North Bragaw, straight to her brother and his girlfriend and her dented Cadillac and the gathered police, she said. She felt harassed and angry.

“I went off,” she said.

An hour after police stopped the SUV at the intersection, video of the encounter was already circulating around social media. Speculation ran wild. Was the car stolen? Did the driver make a run for it? If only people knew the real story, Afa thought.

The sudden, surprise impact, the guns, the swarming squad cars, the crackling police radios and the long wait for answers: What happened in the street that afternoon felt a little bit like a nightmare, she said. It seemed random and inexplicable. She told her 4-year-old son the officers were just doing their jobs, she said, but it didn’t seem to make sense. If she knew how to sue, she said, she would.

“I just felt like that was wrong, the way they did it was totally wrong,” she said. “Now it’s like I’m scared of them, and it shouldn’t be that way.”

 


Story updated June 12 with details from Lose Malaetia.

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