BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — When she was a young mother of two, Tammy Cheney worked double shifts six days a week in order to survive. When her younger children, including Alexus, now 17, and A.J., now 5, came along, she vowed to spend more time with them.
For the past few months, they’ve been traveling across the country with their dog Kelso, exploring historic landmarks and natural sights. Tammy and A.J., the youngest of her eight children, are especially close.
“I made it a point to make sure this kid has me with him every second of every minute of every day,” she said.
After the police killing of Alton Sterling, Tammy made it a point to talk about it with Alexus and A.J., as they had after too many similar killings. So when they were near Baton Rouge and learned a protest was planned for July 10, she decided to take them.
She never expected that by the end of the day her family would be torn apart.
Tammy, 41, and her daughter Alexus were arrested at the protest calling for justice for Alton Sterling, a father of five who was killed by Baton Rouge police just after midnight on July 5.
After the Cheneys’ arrest, police took mother and daughter to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. With no family in the area, police took A.J. to child protective services and took the family dog, Kelso, to animal control.
In an account she gave during a lengthy interview, Cheney described the chaos that unfolded for her family that day.
Like many at the protest, she was shocked to see heavily armed police violently arresting peaceful protesters. Wanting to document the abuse, she told her children she’d be right back and left her car to take some video. Tammy had only been gone a minute when she heard her daughter scream.
She ran back to the car to find police arresting 17-year-old Alexus, who was watching 5-year-old A.J.
“They told me that I left my 5-year-old alone in the car with nobody there and that’s why they were arresting me and I was going to have a felony,” she said.
Tammy said police tried to make it appear as though she had left her son alone and unsupervised. In reality, she said, she was only steps away.
“I screamed as loud as I could when the police grabbed me,” Alexus said. She knew she needed to get her mom’s attention.
“As I turned around to run back, the cops stopped me and wouldn’t let me go through,” Tammy said.
“They stopped me while they arrested her,” she said. “I was like, my 5-year-old little boy is in the car right now and you just took my 17-year-old away that is watching him.”
Alexus and Tammy both say police prevented Tammy from returning to the car, a claim confirmed through video Tammy took during the arrests.
On the video, an officer can be heard saying, “We’ve got your daughter and she’s going to be there quite a while.”
Tammy can be heard following police instructions and walking with them to her car.
She said she watched in horror while officers took video of A.J. and Kelso, making it appear as if they had been left alone in the car.
As she explained to police that her daughter had been watching A.J., an officer on the video can be heard telling her to calm down, adding, “Now we’re watching him.”
It got worse, she said.
“We’re going to have to arrest you too,” said another officer, who said that they would place A.J. in the care of Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services.
A few minutes later, Tammy sat with several other women on a curb under the blazing Louisiana sun, all waiting to be transported to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. With her hands cuffed behind her back, Tammy tried to console Alexus, who was sobbing.
Alexus later said she wasn’t worried about herself or her mother during the ordeal, but she was worried about A.J. and her puppy.
“We saved him from doggie jail,” said Alexus, adding that Kelso was a rescue dog and she didn’t want him to have nightmares.
According to a verified complaint filed in juvenile court, East Baton Rouge Parish Lt. Lapeyrouse reported to a state child welfare specialist that A.J. and the dog had been left alone in the car. There is no first name on the document, and according to a spokesman, two different Lt. Lapeyrouses are on the rolls.
At about 10:45 p.m., A.J. was placed into state custody. Kelso was turned over to animal control.
At about the same time, Tammy and Alexus were sitting on the floor of an overcrowded cell at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. Earlier, someone in the cell had called legal aid on behalf of them and the more than 20 other people in the cell.
They had no idea what would happen next. They were not told what police were charging them with and they didn’t know where officers had taken A.J. and Kelso, Tammy said.
Correction officers placed Alexus and Tammy in large dormitory-style cells in the prison’s general population at about 3:30 a.m. They refused to allow them to stay together, saying Tammy and Alexus “might start a riot or something.”
Alexus was released at about 5 p.m., but had to wait until nearly midnight — more than 24 hours after the arrest — for her mother’s release.
Adrian Ross, a local attorney, signed up to offer pro bono legal aid after seeing the way police brutally treated protesters. “It was really a surreal situation,” she said.
When she got the call about the Cheneys, she realized she had been standing across the street when they were arrested.
“I witnessed them holding Tammy back,” Ross said. “She wasn’t away from her car for more than a minute, minute and a half.”
Ross said she was appalled to learn police were using video taken while Tammy was being restrained as evidence in the case. She said Curtis Nelson, the head district attorney on the case, was also appalled.
“Once the district attorney saw Tammy’s video, he was like, ‘Oh God, we have nothing,’” Ross said. “That’s what’s so awesome about this trend of people capturing what happens with the police. In this case, everything she said happened is backed up by her video.”
Tammy said she remembers the DA slapping his hand on the table and saying the case would be thrown out.
The East Baton Rouge DA’s Office did not return calls for comment.
Once the DA decided not to pursue the case, Judge Pamela Taylor-Johnson instructed the state to immediately return A.J. to Tammy, Ross said.
“The judge asked me a few routine questions about abuse or neglect,” Tammy said. “But then I got my kid back right away — within 15 minutes.”
“As soon as he saw us he jumped into our arms and we just hugged,” she said. They were reunited with Kelso a short time later.
Although their family is back together, Tammy said she wants justice for what they’ve been through and wants Lt. Lapeyrous and other officers held accountable.
“I want all the officers who did this arrested and prosecuted,” she said. “This guy flat-out lied, videotaped his lie and everything, not realizing I also had video.”
Tammy said her family is still recovering from the ordeal. Kelso is skittish when strangers are around or when there’s a loud noise, she said.
A.J. told her he thought the cops were going to kill her and Alexus.
“The first thing I told him,” she said, her voice trailing off as she paused to fight back tears. “The first thing I said was, ‘I told you momma would never leave you, I would always be back to get you if something happened.’”
Ross said she was happy to help out in the Cheney case, but worries that many of the other stories that unfolded that day may be overlooked.
“It was nice shining light on the truth,” Ross said. “But what happened is an injustice and people need to know about it.”
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