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Local

Sycamore woman claims police brutality in Walmart fight

Video shows scrap between woman, NIU cop in Sept. 23 incident

SYCAMORE – Video of the struggle outside the DeKalb Walmart on
Sept. 23 shows Ashley Lunardon clinging to her baby’s car seat, the child inside crying, as an off-duty Northern Illinois University police officer tries to pin her arms behind her back.

“Let go of the [expletive] car seat!” Lunardon shouts at an unidentified woman trying to take the baby from her. Meanwhile, the officer, Junelle Bennett, stands behind Lunardon, trying to pull her arms behind her back. A crowd, including Walmart employees, watches. One of them captured about a minute of the incident on video obtained by the Daily Chronicle.

“Could you let go?” the unidentified woman says to Lunardon on the video. “She told me I could grab it.”

“Ma’am, it’s a police officer, would you calm down?” a man says off-camera.

Lunardon screams again as Bennett manages to pry her left hand off the car seat. Seconds later, as Lunardon’s right hand starts losing its grip, she shouts, “Let go of my hair, you [expletive] psycho [expletive]!”

Eventually, the unidentified woman takes the screaming 10-month-old away from the struggling mother, who grapples with Bennett before they fall to the concrete in front of a flower stand. Bennett wrestles her way on top of Lunardon. Bennett said in her statement that Lunardon pulled her to the ground by her hair.

On the ground, Bennett knees Lunardon in the side and back four times. The first three times, she can be heard saying, “Stop resisting” as she knees her – the first times Bennett is clearly audibly ordering Lunardon to do so. Lunardon tries to keep Bennett off her by kicking her legs, and pulls at Bennett’s hair as Bennett pins her down.

Before the knee strikes begin, a man is heard in the background saying, “Where are they?” referring to DeKalb police. He then asks, “Will you call them and tell them to step it up?”

DeKalb police were in the middle of a shift change, according to police reports. Officers eventually arrived and arrested Lunardon, 25, of the
1700 block of Sterling Drive in Sycamore. She was charged with three felonies: aggravated battery of a police officer, aggravated battery in a public place and aggravated resisting. The most serious charge, aggravated battery of a police officer, carries a sentence of three to seven years in prison.

“It was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” Lunardon said during a recent interview at her home, adding that she’d never been in a physical fight before. “I didn’t understand how they’d like me to respond. I was begging and pleading. My daughter was screaming bloody murder at the top of her lungs. She was just a baby.”

Lunardon’s grandmother, Kim L. Wiemer, 61, who lives in Missouri, also was charged with aggravated battery of a police officer for trying to stop Bennett as she worked to subdue Lunardon.

Officer responded to call for help

DeKalb Deputy Police Chief John Petragallo and NIU spokesman Joe King said their departments would not comment on the ongoing investigation, but reports about the incident were obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

A report filed by DeKalb police officer Jordan Poulos, who arrested Lunardon and her grandmother, makes only passing mention that there was an infant in the middle of the struggle on the pavement, saying only “the store manager grabbed the baby in the car seat.” But it says Lunardon was the one endangering her child, and that she “tried to tip over the shopping cart with the baby in it.”

Poulos notes that he saw “Lunardon pulling Bennett’s hair while they were on the ground,” and that “Lunardon had a clump of Bennett’s hair gripped in her hand after I handcuffed her.”

Bennett, who’s still on the NIU police force and had been with NIU Public Safety six years in September, was off-duty at Walmart, 2300 Sycamore Road, about 5 p.m. when she responded to a fight near the self-checkout register between Lunardon and another woman. According to police reports, Lunardon had hit the other woman in the head, telling her “that’s what you get ... for following me around the store.”

Lunardon said the woman is a longtime antagonist who for years has sent her vitriolic messages and repeatedly called one of her biracial children a slur. She said the woman called 911 when Lunardon confronted her.

Bennett said in her statement that she was at Walmart, heard a woman scream “Help!” inside the store and saw a woman lying on the ground, screaming for help with pieces of hair lying near her. Bennett said Lunardon and her grandmother were yelling at the woman. That’s when Bennett said she stepped in.

Lunardon said she didn’t believe Bennett was really a police officer. She thought she was Walmart security. Bennett said Lunardon told her she wasn’t “the real police.”

“Hey, I’ve showed you my badge,” Bennett said she told Lunardon. “Let’s just wait until some uniformed police officers get here.”

According to state law, any Illinois police officer may make an arrest outside their jurisdiction, but only while on duty. Citizens in general have broad power to detain someone, however, Sycamore lawyer Riley Oncken said.

“For instance, private security from Walmart has the authority to detain somebody if they believe they’re shoplifting,” Oncken said. “If somebody witnesses a crime occurring, they can detain somebody until the police arrive. If somebody breaks into my house and I hold them at gunpoint at my house until police arrive, I’m within my rights.”

In addition to the hair-pulling, Bennett said in her statement she’d suffered injuries to her left middle finger, left thumb, left knee, left ankle and left toes. Photos of her injuries were taken by DeKalb police, including a scraped elbow and one of chipped nail polish on her big toe.

The police report has inconsistencies and at times appears to contradict what’s seen on video. Surveillance footage shows Bennett escorting Lunardon out of the store. Bennett said a man fetched her police badge, but video shows a woman delivering it. Bennett said in her statement that interaction happened before they exited the store.

Bennett said she first put her hand on the shopping cart, which had the baby in her car seat on top of it, when she thought Lunardon was going to tip the cart over. Lunardon claims she wanted to step aside to smoke a cigarette, but that Bennett shook the cart and ordered her to stay put.

The vestibule video shows at least one of Bennett’s hands on the cart throughout. Lunardon is on the opposite side of the cart from Bennett as it jolts, causing the car seat to snap forward and back. Lunardon then tries to keep the baby and car seat from Bennett as the incident intensifies, leading to the fight between her and Bennett.

“My children are the most important thing to me, and I’d die to protect them,” Lunardon said.

DCFS reviewed incident

Although prosecutors decided to file multiple felony charges against Lunardon, a child welfare caseworker did not recommend taking her children. All three of Lunardon’s children – ages 1, 3 and 6 – live with her.

The Department of Child and Family Services was contacted four days after the incident, and Lunardon’s mother, Amber Quitno, received the full report Tuesday. It states that the video was evidence of “a woman trying to protect her child.”

“I can’t watch the video anymore,” Quitno said. “Hearing my grandbaby scream while she was being attacked, it won’t let me sleep. Every time I watch it, it’s an assault on every motherly instinct, every parental instinct you’ve felt in your life.”

Quitno said there was no reason for Bennett to behave the way she did outside the store.

“The way she reacted – she escalated a previously de-escalated situation, to this level, when she had no lawful police authority there at all,” Quitno said.

Lunardon, who is represented by Rochelle-based attorney Russell Crull, and who pleaded not guilty Dec. 12, is due back in court at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Wiemer, who is represented by Clay Campbell and who pleaded not guilty Nov. 16, is due back at 9 a.m. March 6.

Lunardon maintains she was the victim.

“I didn’t do anything to merit that kind of treatment,” she said.

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