Case dismissed against man accused of punching horse in Dewey

Attorney: State’s action negligent, unsupported by law
October 1, 2018

Charges were dismissed Aug. 28 against a Philadelphia man arrested for offensive touching of a law enforcement officer in Dewey Beach May 27.

A Delaware Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement news release May 29 stated Dewey Beach Police charged Gavin Coco, 23, of Arlington, Va., with offensive touching of a law enforcement officer when he struck a Delaware State Police Mounted Patrol Unit horse. However, Gavin Coco, 34, of Philadelphia, said police misidentification was one of many mistakes and falsehoods made by police and Delaware Department of Justice. “I never hit the horse, and video shows that,” Coco said. “Video evidence shows no wrongdoing on my part and shows police involvement in creating a scene.”

Coco said that night, he and best friend Jason Epps were waiting for an Uber about 1:30 a.m. when the Uber driver called Epps and asked to meet on a back road because Route 1 northbound in Dewey was closed. Coco said he and Epps were walking to the meeting point when they saw a woman being arrested on Dagsworthy Avenue. Epps said he began filming the incident on his phone. “After I started recording, I got pushed by police and told to get out of the way,” Epps said. “Officers pushed me into the street, even though I told them we needed to walk that way to get to our Uber.”

In Epps’ video, a state police mounted officer later identified as Cpl. Helen Zane is heard yelling, “He’s filming, get them out of here. He’s got a video. He’s got to go!” The video shows foot and two mounted officers approaching. Then Zane is heard screeching, “My horse! He touched my horse! A**! He grabbed my horse!”

Coco said he did not grab the horse. “The brown horse came from behind; I didn’t see him,” Coco said. “The white horse pushed me a couple feet, charged me again and stepped on my foot. The pain was excruciating.”

Coco said as he tried to pull his foot out from under the hoof, his arm touched the white horse. “I was off-balance and flailed my arms to regain my balance, stumbled and was pinched between a car and the brown horse,” he said. “Then the white horse came and they cornered me against the car. I felt completely helpless by the power of those horses,” he said.

Dewey police surveillance video shows an officer leading away a limping, handcuffed Coco. “My toenail came off, and I had a gash,” Coco said. “My toe was bleeding profusely.” Coco said he was taken to Rehoboth Police Department, booked and placed in a solitary cell.

Dewey arresting officer Jason Lovins wrote in his report Dewey Police were unable to accept prisoners because an unrelated arrestee had busted a large hole in the wall during an escape attempt. Coco was charged and released without bond, pending a court date in Dewey. The summons stated Coco struck Zane. A police report filed by Zane stated Coco “punched [her mount] Poseidon in the left side of his neck with his right closed fist.”

Lovins’ report contradicts Zane. He stated he saw Coco make “an apparent attempt to go around the horse and struck the horse’s shoulder with his shoulder.” Lovins stated Coco’s foot was injured when the horse stepped on it.

Coco attorney Ron Phillips requested the case be moved to Court of Common Pleas. On June 14, Coco pleaded not guilty and requested discovery and a trial, set for Aug. 28. “The video clearly shows what the cops say happened didn’t happen,” Phillips said.

In a motion to dismiss filed Aug. 28, Phillips stated he did not receive discovery until Aug. 16. Discovery included police surveillance video. “Screenshots from the video were released to the media within hours of the arrest, and counsel had been unsuccessfully attempting to obtain the actual video since June through attorney John Brady, counsel for Dewey, as well as from the Department of Justice,” the motion stated.

On Aug. 17, the Department of Justice changed the alleged victim from Zane to the horse Poseidon, two months after the original charge and 11 days before trial. Phillips noted in his motion that Poseidon is a horse, not a person as required by Delaware Code.

On Aug. 24, four days before trial, the state changed the charge from offensive touching of a law enforcement officer to a new charge of harassment of a law enforcement animal. Phillips noted in his motion the Court of Common Pleas prohibited the state’s amendment because it was a different offense and the defendant’s rights were prejudiced. “For that charge to be then unsupported by law is beyond negligence,” the motion stated.

Calling the state’s action contrary to justice and a manipulation of the process, the motion stated, “From the beginning the defendant believed the requested discovery would be favorable to him, and it has turned out to be so.”

Court of Common Pleas Judge Rosemary Beauregard dismissed the charge.

Coco filed a citizen complaint with Dewey Beach Police Department Aug. 29. Dewey Lt. Bill Hocker said he investigated Lovins’ part in the arrest, and found no wrongdoing. He said he forwarded the complaint to Delaware State Police internal affairs to investigate the trooper. Master Cpl. Melissa Jaffe, public information officer for the Delaware State Police, said she would comment once she obtained further information; a comment was not issued by press time.

Coco said he would never hurt an animal.

“I’m an animal lover, and it was hard to deal with threats I received on social media due to false reporting by the police,” he said. “I want to clear my reputation, though the damage has been done. Anyone can be a victim of the police. It’s affected my career.”

Coco’s health also suffered. The day after his arrest, a trip to Beebe Healthcare showed his toe was infected. “I couldn’t walk for 10 days, and I was on antibiotics for about two weeks,” Coco said. “I’m glad I’ve been vindicated in the court of law. The next step is to be vindicated in the court of public opinion.”

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