Sullivan County woman claims sheriff’s deputies beat her for insisting on masks

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Robin Fritz is shown at a Kingsport hospital after her May 2021 arrest.(Photo courtesy of James Friauf)

This article was written by Jamie Satterfield of Tennessee Lookout

A 61-year-old woman claims in a lawsuit filed Friday she was roughed up, left inside a sweltering cruiser and falsely accused because she insisted Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office deputies don face masks while speaking to her.

Attorney James Friauf on Friday filed a civil-rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Greeneville on behalf of Robin Fritz of Kingsport against Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable, Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy, Deputies Brandon Harer and Raven Munz and Sullivan County Constable Rodger Jones.

The lawsuit alleges the Sullivan County law enforcers targeted Fritz for abuse and malicious prosecution because she asked them to wear face masks in an encounter last May.

“Ms. Fritz recounted that two deputies and (Constable) Jones … parroted (the same line) — ‘I do not have to wear a mask. I go by what Mayor Venable and Governor (Bill) Lee say, not President (Joe) Biden’,” the lawsuit states.

Friauf contends in the lawsuit Venable and Cassidy are Republican anti-maskers who condoned excessive force against citizens who support masking and Democratic President Joe Biden.

“Venable maintained a policy and/or directive, as implemented by Sheriff Cassidy, to physically and otherwise punish citizens who express a political belief that sheriff deputies should wear masks, or otherwise maintain a six-foot distance from citizens when performing their job duties, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and otherwise support President Joseph R. Biden and the current Democratic presidential administration’s views regarding masking and social distancing,” the lawsuit stated.

Venable and Cassidy could not be reached for immediate comment Friday. Venable, media accounts show, supported a mask mandate in his county through April 2021 and only lifted it after the governor announced an executive order that stripped local authority to impose such mandates.

“I truly believe the people who are wearing masks today will continue doing that next week because they see the benefit of doing that,” Venable told a journalist with WCYB television news channel in Kingsport in April 2021. “It’s everybody’s personal decision, their personal responsibility, and that’s where it should lie.”

Cassidy announced via Facebook in December 2020 that he had received a COVID-19 vaccination and posted a photograph of himself wearing a face mask.

“I know there are mixed feelings and emotions when it comes to the Covid vaccine,” Cassidy wrote in the Facebook post. “I myself see it as a means to an end of an extremely tough 10 months. I have had it (and don’t ever want it again) had family members sick, employees sick, lost loved ones and friends. If this is all I need to do to protect my family, community, and employees, well, this is easy, compared to the year it’s been.”

Lawsuit: Deputies angered by mask request

The encounter between Fritz and Sullivan County law enforcers described in the lawsuit began after a tailgating incident involving a teenager she knew.

According to the lawsuit, the teenager “began tailgating Ms. Fritz’s vehicle” and eventually “crossed the double yellow line into the oncoming lane of traffic in order to pass Ms. Fritz’s vehicle.”

“Ms. Fritz made the decision to inform (the teenager’s) parents of their son’s reckless driving,” the lawsuit stated. “Accordingly, Ms. Fritz followed (the boy) to his residence, which was a short distance from her own residence.”

sullivan brutality over masks lawsuit

The lawsuit says she confronted the boy outside his home and told him “that his reckless driving could have injured or killed her and/or one of the many children who often play in the neighborhood.”

According to the lawsuit, the teenager responded, “You can’t (expletive) prove it and I can’t help if you driver slower than (expletive).”

The boy ordered Fritz to “get off my property” and, according to the lawsuit, called 911 to report a trespasser at his home. Fritz dialed 911, too, “presuming that law enforcement would contact (the boy’s) parents and inform him of his reckless driving and the danger of his actions.”

Fritz was waiting inside her vehicle parked near the boy’s driveway when Deputy Munz arrived, according to the lawsuit.

Sullivan County Mayor Richard Veneble (Credit: Sullivancountytn.gov)

“Ms. Fritz was adamant about wearing a face mask in public, as it was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the lawsuit stated. “Upon donning a mask, Ms. Fritz … requested Deputy Munz also don a facial mask. In response, Deputy Munz instantly exhibited an angry demeanor and declared, ‘I do not have to wear a mask. I go by what Venable and Lee say, not Biden.’”

Fritz repeated her request, but Munz ignored her, the lawsuit stated.

“As Ms. Fritz spoke, Deputy Munz’s demeanor became increasingly angry,” the lawsuit stated. “Ms. Fritz began to feel threatened, as she believed that Deputy Munz’s hostile demeanor coupled with the remarks about President Biden exhibited a political bias. Ms. Fritz also suspected that Deputy Munz made assumptions regarding Ms. Fritz’s political views as a result of Ms. Fritz’s request related to facial masks.”

According to the lawsuit, Fritz presented identification to Munz, gave the deputy her address and left “without incident or interference.”

‘Intimidating and hostile’

But soon after she arrived home, Deputy Harer showed up, the lawsuit stated. Fritz contends she asked Harer to put on a face masks or “step back at least six feet” while the two talked.

Fritz claimed in the lawsuit Harer, too, grew upset at the request and, like Munz, asserted he follows “Venable and Lee’s orders, not Biden’s.”

“Deputy Harer’s intimidating and hostile demeanor unnerved Ms. Fritz, as had Deputy Munz’s, and she immediately decided to seek the protection and support of her male next-door neighbor,” the lawsuit stated. “Deputy Harer shadowed Ms. Fritz and demanded to know her intentions. Ms. Fritz explained that she was going to seek the presence of her male neighbor for support and safety.

“Additionally, she stated that a simple request of Deputy Munz and Deputy Harer to don facial masks unnecessarily caused friction and hostility,” the lawsuit continued. “Immediately after Ms. Fritz stated her concerns and intentions, Deputy Harer shouted, ‘You are under arrest’ … and tackled Ms. Fritz to the ground without warning.”

The lawsuit alleged Harer pinned Fritz to the ground “with his full weight on Ms. Fritz’s back” as she screamed for help.

“Deputy Harer (told Fritz) if she continued to scream, he was going to taze her,” the lawsuit stated. “Deputy Harer yanked Ms. Fritz from the ground by the handcuffs he had placed on her.”

According to the lawsuit, Fritz was placed inside Harer’s cruiser with the windows rolled up. The deputy, she alleged in the lawsuit, refused repeated requests to turn on air conditioning in the cruiser.

Fritz alleged in the lawsuit that Constable Jones showed up at the scene, along with at least five other deputies. When she told Jones the deputies were upset over her mask request, the constable allegedly “responded by ripping the mask from Ms. Fritz’s face.”

‘Is this political?’

According to the lawsuit, Fritz was left inside the hot cruiser for more than an hour. She was eventually removed from the vehicle “for a body search,” the lawsuit stated.

“Now, do you think you’ve learned to talk to the police?” Jones allegedly asked Fritz.

“Ms. Fritz replied that she had simply requested that the deputies and constable wear masks, as the risk of contracting COVID was, quite obviously, a world-wide concern,” the lawsuit stated. “Ms. Fritz inquired, ‘Is this political? I am aware that the sheriff is an elected office and is very political and I know Sheriff Cassidy is a Republican.’

“Immediately upon hearing Ms. Fritz’s suggestion as to a possible political motive for this unprovoked physical and psychological brutality, Ms. Fritz was attacked yet again by several deputies and Constable Jones as she stood motionless and handcuffed.”

Records show Fritz was charged with assault, evading arrest, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. She alleged in the lawsuit she was denied medical care at the Sullivan County Jail. Once freed, the lawsuit stated, Fritz went to a local hospital, where she was diagnosed with a stress-induced heart condition known as “Takotsubo cardiomyopathy” and congestive heart failure.

According to the lawsuit, Fritz spent at least two weeks in an intensive care unit. The charges against her were dismissed earlier this month, records show.

“Ms. Fritz now fears law enforcement as a result of the apparently politically-motivated police brutality to which she was subjected,” the lawsuit stated.

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: info@tennesseelookout.com. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.

Published May 24, 2022.