an August afternoon in 2014, Alton Jones decided to leave his wife and 6-year-old son behind to play on the sand at Border Field State Park to go for a quick jog near the fence dividing the U.S. and Mexico.
The jaunt ended in a violent confrontation between the former Navy SEAL and Border Patrol agents, a night in a holding cell and dueling lawsuits being fought in San Diego federal court.
Jones, 57, filed his lawsuit last summer, alleging excessive use of force, violation of free speech, false imprisonment, battery by a peace officer, negligence and violation of the federal public records act, among other claims.
On Friday, in a rare legal move by the federal government, one of the Border Patrol agents filed a counterclaim alleging he was the one who suffered physically and emotionally.
It is the first time a federal agent has countersued seeking damages for pain and suffering in such a scenario in San Diego.
Jones, who served 13 years as a SEAL until being honorably discharged in 1990, is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties. The agent, Jodan Johnson, is being represented by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The lawsuits paint wildly different accounts of what occurred at the border fence on Aug. 9, 2014.
According to Jones’ lawsuit, he and his family left their home across from the Imperial Beach Border Patrol station (which is actually in San Diego city limits) for an afternoon at the southwestern-most corner of the continental United States. They hauled an umbrella, towels and beach toys to the sand, and Jones left to go for a run.
Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, an iPhone strapped around his arm and wearing earbuds, Jones jogged down a sand path that appeared to go through a wildlife reserve and up to a paved road near the border fence and Friendship Park, his lawsuit says. Neither the path nor road displayed signage or had barriers that suggested pedestrians were not allowed in the area, the suit states.
In the agent’s countersuit, the paved road is described as a restricted area and appears on a park map as a “reserve boundary.”
About a half mile in, Jones noticed a Border Patrol vehicle speeding toward him, and he called his wife to alert her. Meanwhile, another Border Patrol vehicle came up behind him. Jones told the agent in the second vehicle he was planning on running up the hill and back down the beach, the lawsuit states.
The first agent then reached them and used an expletive to yell to Jones to turn around, the lawsuit states. Jones responded with an expletive of his own and asked what the agent’s problem was, according to the complaint.
Jones turned around and began jogging back to the beach, but other agents on ATVs and in a third vehicle began to approach.
“Fearing that if he ran down from the paved road onto the trail, the agents on the quad bikes would collide with him or use their weapons, Mr. Jones decided to stay on the paved road as he tried to return to his family on the beach,” the suit states. “Mr. Jones committed no crime, and he took no actions giving the Defendants any reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that he had committed or was about to commit any crime. Mr. Jones presented no threat to Defendants’ safety and took no actions that would have led reasonable officers to fear for their safety.”
The agents then tackled him “without any warning or justification” and hit him on his back and around his neck, the suit claims. An agent put his knee on his spine and twisted his arms behind his back.
“Mr. Jones repeatedly asked the agents to stop. At no point did he resist the agents or react with his own force,” the suit says.
The agent’s countersuit describes the events differently.
That lawsuit claims Jones ignored repeated warnings to stick to the trail and kept jogging on the paved road in the same direction, until one of the agents finally got out of his vehicle and told him to get off the road. That’s when Jones replied by asking what was the agent’s problem. Jones turned around and headed back to the beach, but stayed on the road.
An agent on an ATV was approaching and waved his arms at Jones to stop again, but Jones went around him, the counterclaim states.
Agents were able to “block” Jones, but he “resumed a fighting position and tried to find a way past” the agents, the counterclaim says. They tried to restrain him, and “Jones then charged toward Johnson with his head down, rammed into Johnson” and caused the group to fall to ground, the suit says.
Johnson does not specify his injuries in the counterclaim, but Jones’ lawsuit refers to comments about an agent breaking his ankle. Jones denies any responsibility for the injury in his lawsuit.
Jones was told he was under arrest for assaulting a federal officer and taken to the Imperial Beach station, where he spent the night in custody. He asked for an attorney several times, and also for further explanation of his arrest, but was ignored, Jones’ lawsuit claims. His request to receive medical treatment for back, hip and shoulder pain was also ignored, the suit states.
He was released about 8 a.m. the next day — 17 hours later — with no paperwork of his detention. He was never charged with a crime in connection with the encounter.
In March 2015, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for all documentation of his arrest and detention, but the request was not fulfilled, Jones’ lawyers say.
Before filling the lawsuit, Jones filed a $3 million claim for damages against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2016. The claim was denied.
Meanwhile, the agent is seeking unspecified damages from Jones to pay for medical costs, loss of earnings and damages relating to pain and suffering.
Attorneys for both sides declined to discuss the case Friday.