Long way back to normal

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 29, 2007 - 9:40 PM

A Golden Valley man's life was turned upside down after police, mistakenly thinking he was involved in a bank robbery, pounced on him.

Sprawled on his stomach outside a gas station in Golden Valley, Al Hixon had a police officer's boot planted on his neck and pepper spray shot deep into his nostrils, scorching his lungs. Moments earlier, Hixon had been pouring oil into his blue Jaguar -- a quick stop on what was going to be an ordinary Saturday of shuttling his daughters to birthday parties.

"I couldn't breathe and was vomiting mucus and gasping for air," he said. "I thought I was going to die, and asked: 'What did I do? What did I do?'"

Police were responding to a report of a robbery at a bank outlet inside a supermarket near the gas station. And Hixon -- civic-minded, well-educated and black -- had suddenly become a suspect.

"If this is a black thing, you've got the wrong black man," Hixon remembered telling the officers. He said that one of them told him to shut up, adding: "That's what you all say." Except the 911 dispatcher had told officers repeatedly that the robber, who took $7, was white.

It has been a harrowing two years for Hixon, 47. For months, he sat around and stared, growing distant from his wife and three children. Flashbacks led to treatment for depression. The personal drive that prompted him to start his own construction company and win awards for his volunteer work withered into missed appointments and apathy.

He simply never imagined he would have to endure such treatment living 1,000 miles north of his childhood home in segregated Alabama.

So much about it still doesn't make sense.

A federal jury agreed this month, awarding him $778,000, including $450,000 in punitive damages. It's one of the largest excessive-force jury awards in Minnesota. And the case is rekindling questions about whether police are as color-blind as they should be.

A personal renovation

Hixon has made a career of renovating kitchens and homes, but he has found the task of rebuilding his life a trickier project. With help from mental health professionals and neighbors, his "healing process has gone from a crawl to a shuffle," said his wife, Sheri, a social worker.

Golden Valley business leaders urged Hixon to become president of their Lions Club this year, a step toward his attempt to reengage himself in his community.

"I was living a middle-class lifestyle in a nice neighborhood with a nice family," Hixon said. "Everything was OK. Then I took my beating. It's been a journey, and it's been difficult to go from what I considered a normal life to all this."

He hasn't driven the Jaguar in two years, considering it bad luck, and wishes he never took it out of storage on what started as such a normal April day in 2005.

Hixon checked on a carpet installation that morning. Then he went to remove his car, which he had stored in the garage of a neighbor. Hixon turned the key and smelled smoke. So he drove to the gas station, near Hwy. 100 and Duluth St., and bought oil.

It was 1:45 p.m. and his head was under the hood.

In the blur that followed, Hixon was surrounded by gun-pointing Golden Valley police officers responding to the bank robbery. He was thrown face down on the pavement and handcuffed.

Officer Mario Hernandez shot pepper spray into his lungs before Hixon was tossed into the back of a squad car.

Soon after, officers apprehended the bank robber and arrested two alleged accomplices in a nearby van. The accomplices were black.

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