Transcript

759: A Couple Walks Into a House

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. So for months now, one of our producers, Ben Calhoun, has been working on one of those stories that starts small, and simple, and personal, and then kind of spins out till a whole town is involved. And I honestly don't want to say too much about this. We should just let it unfold. And so without further ado, here's Ben.

Ben Calhoun

Rob and Reyna Mathis were doing something unusual for parents whose kids had monthly grown up and left home. They were looking to upsize and get more space. Their house wasn't small-- five bedrooms on five acres. But Reyna and Rob have a dozen kids, plus grandkids. And even though most of their children are out of the house, they're the kind of parents adult kids want to spend time with. And they had a vision, a place with enough land that some of their children would build houses right by them.

By August 2019, they'd been house hunting for months with no luck. And then one day, their Realtor sent Reyna a listing that looked promising. So the Mathises drove out to see it in person on a sunny afternoon. It was pretty far out in the country. They went down a long dirt driveway, back into the woods, until they reached an enormous, sprawling lawn. And Rob looked around.

Rob Mathis

I was picturing-- I'm like, man, I can see all the kids out here. I'll put a trampoline over there for the grandkids.

Ben Calhoun

Yeah, were you doing the thing where-- I just bought my first house. And I would just start to picture life in those places.

Rob Mathis

Yep, that's exactly what I was doing. So I'm like, I can make little trails on the property and get some ATVs, and playground over there, buildings right around the property with the family and the kids, and just have a good old time, you know?

Reyna Mathis

I mean, our wheels were spinning of what we could do with that property.

Ben Calhoun

As they got out of the car, Reyna looked up at the house, a huge, orange, brick colonial, 4,600 square feet, with two-story brick pillars out front.

Reyna Mathis

When I pulled-- I've always wanted a house with, like, huge pillars and stuff like that. Seeing them pillars, I was like, oh my god, this is it. This is the one. Like, I felt it. I, like, literally felt it. And my son, when he got out, he was smiling. He was like, mom, you got your pillars, you know? So it was like, yeah, that's me right there.

Ben Calhoun

The group that day was six altogether. There was the Realtor, Rob and Reyna, also their youngest daughter, one of their sons, and the son's girlfriend. They walked in the front door, into a big, echoey foyer. And they started looking around. They noticed pretty quickly, the house wasn't really staged as much as it was kind of empty. Like, a lot of stuff had been removed.

So as the group walked into the dining room, there wasn't much in it-- a large cat scratching post in the corner, a dark wood dining room table. Rob looked at a little collection of stuff in the middle of the table, some salt and pepper shakers.

Rob Mathis

I'm looking at the table, and the placemat was a Confederate flag.

Reyna Mathis

It was kind of like a-- looked kind of like a glass cutting board, but it was made with a flag in it, you know?

Ben Calhoun

Sort of like one of those Pyrex, like, glass things that you put hot pots on or something?

Reyna Mathis

Yeah, yep.

Ben Calhoun

The Mathises are an interracial couple. Rob's Black. Reyna's Mexican-American. The two of them convened a discreet, married couple, eye contact conversation. Seems to have gone sort of like, I see it. You see it? OK, we both see it.

Rob Mathis

I just shook my head. And in my head I was thinking, wow, all right. Everything and everybody has their own opinion. So I'm not even going to pay no attention to this.

Ben Calhoun

So you're just like, let's just keep going, see the rest of the house.

Rob Mathis

Let's keep on going.

Ben Calhoun

From there, the tour moved on to the living room, where Reyna spotted something else, a jacket hanging up from the Muskegon Police Department. They also spotted a photo of two police officers in uniform. This house, it was out in the country, but it was apparently owned by a police officer who worked in Muskegon, Michigan. That's where the Mathises live. Reyna gave Rob a nudge. Rob looked at the coat and turned to their 21-year-old son who'd come with them.

Rob Mathis

I was like, wow, we're in a police house. So I looked at my son. I said, don't touch nothing, you know? I said, don't touch nothing.

Ben Calhoun

This is kind of how Rob is, gruff, funny.

Reyna Mathis

Yeah, so-- yeah, so he was like, don't touch nothing. So I remember that, because I was laughing. Like, my son is grown.

Ben Calhoun

From there, they all went down into the basement, and then into one of the house's two huge garages.

Rob Mathis

On the right-hand side of the wall, it was a Confederate flag probably about this big.

Ben Calhoun

Rob held up his hands, like 2 feet by 3 feet.

Rob Mathis

Then I'm like, man, OK. And when I turned around and looked directly at the wall behind me, it was a flag from the ceiling down here to the floor, a big flag. I'm like, ugh.

Reyna Mathis

There was, like, one flag here, one flag there. And I said something like, this is a lot of flags. And the Realtor kind of just laughed it off, you know? Then I thought, well, OK.

Rob Mathis

So again, I'm looking over at my wife. I'm like, man, I'm not liking this. I'm really not liking this.

Ben Calhoun

Rob says he glanced over at his kids to see if they were catching on to any of this stuff, especially his youngest daughter, Asia, who was 12 at the time-- shy, sweet. Rob was kind of relieved to see that none of the kids were noticing any of this.

From there, everyone kind of split up. Rob went upstairs, into one of the bedrooms, with his son Monty, the 21-year-old. And hanging on the wall was a single wood picture frame.

Rob Mathis

It's the whole empty wall, and there's just one plaque on the wall. So I look up at the picture, and I lean in and look at. I'm like, are you kidding me? This is a KKK application.

Ben Calhoun

It was a framed application from the 1920s to join the KKK. Rob pulled out his phone and took a picture. In the top corners of the paper, there were illustrated white-robed Klansmen on rearing horses thrusting torches into the air. The application read, "I, the undersigned, a native-born, true, and loyal citizen of the United States of America, being a white male Gentile person of temperate habits, sound mind, and a believer in the tenets of the Christian religion, the maintenance of white supremacy, and the principles of pure Americanism, do most respectfully apply for membership." Rob was flustered.

Rob Mathis

I say, ah, hell no. We got to go. We got to go. We got to go. So my son was like, what's wrong dad? I said, this is a Klansman house. We're leaving right now. I say--

Ben Calhoun

Oh, so you said it?

Rob Mathis

I said, it just solidified everything that I was thinking of, that this is what's going on. So when I saw that, that was immediately, let me get my family out of here.

Reyna Mathis

All of a sudden, I hear him cussing and coming down the stairs. And he's like, we got to go now. So I'm like, what's going on? And he didn't answer me. He just walked out the door. My son was right behind him.

So me and the Realtor went upstairs to see what was going on. And she even got emotional. Like, she started crying. And I was just standing there like, oh my god, is this real? Like, what is going on?

Ben Calhoun

Rob was outside in a spiral of freaking out.

Rob Mathis

I said, I don't want to have nothing to do with this house. It's so much hate in this house, I cannot have my family here.

Ben Calhoun

So your mind is just, like, racing through it?

Rob Mathis

Just racing through it. I'm like, we have got to go, you know? They probably going to be coming home any minute, or if not, do a drive-by and see all these minorities leaving the house, me a Black man, my wife Hispanic. And our kids are mixed. So I'm like, we got to go.

Ben Calhoun

After seeing the application for herself, Rena came out to talk to Rob.

Reyna Mathis

He said that, you know, he was like, what if there's bodies, you know? What if they held rallies here? He was just saying all kinds of stuff. And I was like-- I didn't even know how to feel. Like, I was upset, I was angry, and I was confused, you know? I just didn't understand why you would-- it was like, all these flags or whatever, how can you not be a racist?

Ben Calhoun

The Realtor also came out with Rena. She was apologizing over and over, saying she had no idea. This was her first time inside. Rena found herself trying to make the Realtor feel better.

Reyna Mathis

I didn't want her to feel like it was her fault or we were blaming her. So I was trying to talk to her. And then she said-- she started looking at her paperwork. She was like, it's an Anderson, Officer Anderson.

Ben Calhoun

That was the owner of the house, Officer Charles Anderson, who, at the time, was a 21-year veteran of the Muskegon Police Department. I first read about this a couple years ago in the newspaper, the story with the attention-grabbing power of a bad joke. A couple walks into a police officer's house and sees a KKK application on the wall.

And from the beginning, I had so many questions, partly because Muskegon, where all this happened, I grew up across Lake Michigan in Milwaukee. And it kind of felt like a place I knew, Rust-Belty, segregated. And I wanted to find out what would happen to the police officer and to this couple who become linked in this awful way after this day in this house.

It would turn out to be this messy story about race and policing where people's certainty about what's right and wrong would collide with what happens in the real world.

Act One: The Decision

Ben Calhoun

And the place that begins is in Rob and Rena's house when they get home that night in Act 1-- The Decision.

Reyna Mathis

When we came home, like, Rob was really upset. It was just hard to talk about, because to go there and see something like that-- I mean, I've dealt with racial stuff, but never-- it was like a slap in the face. And then you're an officer. And I just thought, why would you leave that there if you know you have buyers coming to see your home?

Ben Calhoun

So the Mathises debated whether they should do something, specifically whether they should go public about what they saw, a KKK application hanging up in the home of working police officer. Rob and Rena have had their share of experiences with police. Rena isn't shy that she, in particular, was kind of wild when she was younger.

She's tough, no bull [BLEEP], likes to party. I'm not perfect, she told me. And she had a lot of run-ins with cops, some bad, one violent. But she and Rob both went out of their way to say they think most police officers go to work with good intentions. They do their jobs.

Rob's retired US Army, a straight arrow. I actually don't know if I've ever seen him without an Army baseball hat on.

Rob Mathis

When I put on a uniform and was in the military, you know, I'm doing my job. Freedom ain't free. It's paid with blood and the lives of servicemen just like with the lives of police officers. So I respect them. They're out there trying to protect people. I respect the police and the military with the utmost. I have friends that's police.

Ben Calhoun

Here in Muskegon?

Rob Mathis

Yeah.

Ben Calhoun

That just added to Rob's pileup of feelings about all this.

Rob Mathis

And I'm so mad, and I'm upset. And I was like, you know, I got to tell somebody. And I kept-- I'm going back and forth with my wife. I said, man, this officer, whoever home this is, I got to tell at least the people in Muskegon, my friends, that he has Klan memorabilia in his house, he has Confederate flags in his house. And what is your opinion on him doing his job as a police officer and being fair to everybody when he stops them?

Ben Calhoun

Rob and Rena found themselves on opposite sides of this question about whether to go public. In general, Rob and Rena seem like a very close, affectionate couple. Like, at some point, I took a spin through Rob's Facebook photos, and they're basically three things-- Rob and Rena taking selfies together, kissing each other on the cheek, or cracking each other up, pictures of Rena where Rob's bragging about how beautiful she is, and then there's photos of Rena's cooking, where he's bragging about how good it is.

Rena got why Rob wanted to say something about this officer. But she worried, what about backlash? What if things got nasty?

Reyna Mathis

What if I had something happen here? Do I call the police? That was my biggest fear. Like, they work with him. They've worked with him for years. Are they going to be on my side? Are they really going to try to help me?

Ben Calhoun

Rob and Rena were deciding whether to stick their necks out. It was a version of what I think is a common experience when you aren't white. I say that as an Asian-American. And I know I don't speak for anybody else. But like, things will happen. Little things will happen. Big things will happen.

And you'll have to decide, what's going on here? Is it worth the trouble to say something? Is it worth the blowback? Maybe most of all, will speaking up do any good? Like, what will it accomplish?

Rob was arguing principle. Shouldn't we do something about this cop? Reyna was arguing practicality. What'll that mean for us? They go around and around. Eventually, Rob tells Reyna he's going to go pray about it. He goes down into the basement, to his office. After a while, he came to a thought that made up his mind.

Rob Mathis

I was thinking to myself, OK, what if my son was out riding with his girlfriend, and this officer pulled him over, and snatched him out the car, and did some things that weren't, you know. And it wasn't good, you know? And any person-- it could happen to anybody.

Ben Calhoun

Rob just couldn't get past that image, this officer, at night, mistreating a young couple.

Reyna Mathis

Finally, he came up and he said, I have it on my heart. I feel like I need to warn people. So I said, you know what, I said, if that's what you really feel, I said, then do it.

Ben Calhoun

So Rob Mathis drafted a Facebook post, and he showed it to Reyna. "I feel sick to my stomach," he wrote, knowing that he toured the home of, quote, "one of the most racist people in Muskegon, hiding behind his uniform, and possibly harassing people of color." He included a picture of the framed KKK application hanging on the wall.

Rob and Reyna talked about it, and they made a decision not to name the officer. They posted it. And then the Mathises went to sleep.

Act Two: It Begins

Ben Calhoun

Act 2-- It Begins.

By the time Robin Raina woke up, the comments on Rob's post had taken off, exploded actually, to a degree they hadn't expected. There were outraged people supporting them, outraged people criticizing them. Because of the societal disaster that is Facebook, everyone very quickly transposed their culture war baggage onto this situation-- Black lives, blue lives, people, no kidding, arguing about Colin Kaepernick in the comments.

There was racism, comments like, "lol, what a crybaby-ass Black guy. Probably couldn't afford the house anyways," which aggravated Rob, who was like, our house is worth more than that house. We were going to make money on this move.

To give you a quick sense of Muskegon, Michigan, it's 38,000 people. The city is blue-collar, Democratic, Rust-Belt, 32% Black. But it's surrounded by rural areas that are heavily White, heavily conservative, where it's not uncommon to see Confederate flags on trucks. The Black population is large enough that it doesn't have political control, but it isn't far from it. And that adds tension to politics, especially in situations about race. It's a divided place in our divided country.

On Rob's post, a bunch of people argue that having a KKK application in your home was about freedom of speech. "It's a free country," someone wrote. "Not saying I'm OK with the KKK or racism at all, but it's his personal choice to be an idiot. You can't change that." Someone wondered if it was part of a legitimate collection of historical memorabilia. Other people pushed back. "Memorabilia of what, exactly? Memorabilia of killing people of color?"

People debated about what this meant about the way this officer must be doing his job. Some called for Anderson to be fired. Others called for an investigation. People pleaded for Rob to name the officer, to expose who he was. And Rob did.

Woman

Breaking right now at 6 o'clock, a disturbing discovery, a KKK item found at the home of a Muskegon police officer.

Ben Calhoun

The story was on TV news within hours of when Rob posted on Facebook. Reporters were inundating the Mathises and showing up at Anderson's house. One reporter who drove to Anderson's home caught up with his wife, Rachael, at the screen door.

Rachael Anderson

I can't say anything right now. I wish we could, because it would probably set a lot of things straight. But--

Man

He's not--

Rachael Anderson

Correct.

Man

He's not a member of the Klan?

Rachael Anderson

No, he's not.

Man

OK.

Ben Calhoun

That'd be the last public word the Andersons said to the media about this. For this story, I reached out to Officer Anderson and his wife many times, called, wrote. Eventually I reached them. Officer Anderson declined to speak about any of this, saying the police unit advised him not to talk. His wife did agree to talk about one aspect of what happened. I'll get to that in a bit.

Act Three: The People in Charge

Ben Calhoun

Act 3-- The People in Charge.

There were two Muskegon city officials who were going to have to figure out what to do about this situation. There's a police chief, of course, but also this guy named Frank Peterson, Muskegon's city manager. He's the person in charge of running city government, and he'd be part of all the big decisions.

Frank's an energetic 41, a dad who drinks Mountain Dew on his way to work instead of coffee, an upbeat, let's get it done type. He says the morning after Rob Mathis posted on Facebook, he sat down with the police chief in a windowless conference room at City Hall, just the two of them. They're both White. They were wrestling with this.

Frank Peterson

I remember, you know, sitting there at that conference table with the chief. I think it was disbelief and then immediately-- and we-- more angry, right, angry at Charles, going, how could he put us in this situation?

Ben Calhoun

By Charles, he means the officer, Charles Anderson. Peterson admitted, at first, they weren't asking the question of what this officer believed or did on the job.

Frank Peterson

You know, it wasn't even about, a-ah, we knew. We thought maybe he was racist. Like, the idea of that it was racist wasn't even in our mind at this point. It was like, I mean, for lack of a better term, just like, how could you be so dumb? You know how could-- how could you be so dumb to put yourself and this community in this position?

Like, why is that there? And why are you inviting people into your house to see it? Of all the things that we have to do around here, of all the things that-- all the trouble I could get into with decisions I make or don't make, the biggest decision that we had to make now was something that had absolutely-- at the end of the day, had absolutely nothing to do with us. It was something he did off-hours at home. What the heck? You know, just a bonehead decision.

Ben Calhoun

The police chief, beholding that bonehead decision with Peterson that morning, sitting across the conference table, was a guy in his mid 60s named Jeff Lewis. Lewis looks like a baseball GM from the '80s-- floppy hair, mustache. A little context on Lewis-- he was hired as director of public safety in Muskegon 10 years ago. He was brought in as a reformer. He's a community policing guy.

During his 10 years as chief, he's added body cams, improved the department's dash cams, implemented tougher psychological screening for hiring, and significantly increased the number of non-White officers, though its still pretty low, about a tenth of the force. When this situation popped up with Officer Anderson's house, Lewis didn't dither.

Jeff Lewis

The first thing I did, my instant move, was to remove him from the patrol division right then. I didn't come in the next day, and we didn't spend time reviewing this. I instantly put him on what we call paid administrative leave so no further damage could happen.

Can't come back to department. Turn your badge and gun in, so on and so forth. And then you just go back to your civilian life. And then we look into it.

Ben Calhoun

Chief Lewis pulled in his internal affairs team and ordered them to start an investigation. First thing he wanted was the basic facts. Was this Facebook thing true? Did Officer Anderson have this stuff up in his house, and why? That first day, the city released a short public statement, basically the standard, the officer's on leave. We're investigating. More later.

Act Four: We Know That Guy

Ben Calhoun

Act 4-- We Know That Guy.

Turns out the officer involved here was already famous in Muskegon, for another controversial incident, even before the Mathises posted online. Though Rob and Reyna didn't realize that when they heard his name.

Woman

The officer at the center of this also has a controversial past. 10 years ago, he shot and killed a man.

Woman

The man Anderson shot was 23-year-old Julius Johnson. It started when Muskegon police pulled over a car at 1:30 in the morning near--

Ben Calhoun

What happened? This was in 2009. During a traffic stop, a young man, Julius Johnson, who people called JuJu, dropped a bag of drugs and ran. Anderson chased Johnson down a dark street, tackled him, fought with him. Anderson said Johnson started winning, and he shot him in self-defense.

Johnson's sister lived on that block. She said she saw everything, and Anderson was lying.

Woman

And my brother said, please do not shoot me. And they shot him-- cold blood, just shot him.

Ben Calhoun

The Muskegon County Prosecutor's office investigated the shooting and her allegations and turned up a security camera recording that backed up Anderson's version of the story. And so he was cleared. Prosecutors actually brought charges against Johnson's sister for lying, and she went to jail for that.

I talked to the head of the local NAACP about the JuJu Johnson shooting. He's a retired Muskegon police officer and a big police reform proponent. He said Anderson chasing Johnson, getting himself into that fight, that was questionable policing, noting Johnson was well-known. Would have been easy to track him down later and arrest him. But given the evidence, in terms of police policy, it was, quote, "a good shooting."

Still, even though Anderson was cleared, as soon as the Mathises posted about the KKK application in Anderson's house, people were calling him JuJu's killer in the comments. It was like these two things clicked together, like they explained each other. People were like, see, I knew it. That guy's racist.

City officials had to confront all of this in a new way not even a week after the Mathises posted. Muskegon was scheduled to have a city commission meeting, which usually are pretty sleepy, but not this one.

[GAVEL SOUNDING]

Man

Good evening, everyone. I know that we probably do have a number of individuals that are here due to the concern with one of Muskegon's police officers.

Ben Calhoun

People took turns talking, all of them concerned, upset. No one was there to support Anderson. What struck me the most watching it was that three out of the seven people who spoke about Anderson said that they had personally had bad experiences with him, they, themselves. Like, there was a woman named Ebony Davis, who's Black. She's one of Muskegon's leading activists around all kinds of issues, definitely race and policing.

Ebony brought a petition signed by a thousand people calling for Anderson to be fired. But she also said that just the other week, she, herself, had witnessed Anderson doing something messed up.

Ebony Davis

Officer Anderson has a history of harassing minorities and being very cocky. I've seen it with my own eyes. I even threatened to report him. And he laughed at me and said, nothing's that's going to happen to me.

Ben Calhoun

Ebony told me later that she and another woman had actually gone to City Hall. And they were in the middle of filing an official complaint when they saw the Mathis' post about the KKK application. They were both like, wouldn't it be crazy if this was the same officer we're complaining about? It seemed so nuts, they both laughed.

After Ebony, a gentle-looking guy in glasses named Lowell Kirksey came to the mic.

Man

Mr. Kirksey.

Ben Calhoun

Now city officials knew Lowell Kirksey. He's a retired city employee, ran the city's youth rec programs for years. Lowell said he'd crossed paths with Anderson three times. Once, Anderson had come to his house over something minor, a construction permit, and was weirdly aggressive. He said his neighbor had a bad incident with him too. And then there was this thing at City Hall.

Lowell Kirksey

As a city employee, we faced having to deal with Officer Anderson driving his truck onto city property with his Dixie flag showing. But for many of the Black employees of the city at the time, it was very disturbing for us to see that. And during--

Ben Calhoun

Lowell later explained to me this thing happened around the time Barack Obama was elected. Anderson started driving around with a big Confederate flag all the way across the back window of his pickup truck, parking it like that at City Hall. Lowell and other Black employees complained about it. Then it stopped.

But Lowell's point was none of this was news. The signs were there, sitting out in the open. Like, maybe it shouldn't have required the Mathises finding a KKK application on his wall for someone to scrutinize this police officer.

In the room, listening to all this testimony, were the police chief, Jeff Lewis, and Muskegon city manager, Frank Peterson. Peterson was actually up on the dais. He told me he and Chief Lewis were texting back and forth while people spoke, and they were alarmed by what they were hearing.

Frank Peterson

A lot of people were saying, wait a minute, I know that person. He dealt-- he treated me this way. He called me this. That's when it became kind of real to me. It was, holy smokes, this officer, over the last 15 years, he could have interacted with 5,000 people, 5,000 different interactions. And were three of them bad, and we just happened to hear about them finally? Or were 30% of them, you know, bad?

You know, it really helped you see the scope, right, of how difficult it was going to be to validate or invalidate the concerns that people had, that maybe they weren't high enough-- a high enough level of mistreatment to where they resulted in a formal complaint, but they were obviously happening, or appeared that they were obviously happening.

Ben Calhoun

So the question now facing the city was the question that was kind of baked into this from the start, from the moment Rob and Reyna saw that stuff in Officer Anderson's house. Did that KKK application on Charles Anderson's wall correspond to 21 years of mistreating people on the job?

Act Five: Officer Anderson on the Job

Ben Calhoun

That brings us to Act 5 of our story, Officer Anderson On the Job.

I heard a pile of stories of the way Officer Anderson did his job, and I'm going to tell you one of them. Because it's a great example of how he could be. This thing that happened, happened to a man named Hamid Stalling, who everyone calls Duke. These days, Duke's in real estate, a family guy, married with four kids that he dotes on. Duke and his family are Black.

Duke told me he remembers the day he saw the story about the Mathises, how they saw a KKK application in a Muskegon police officer's house. So Duke says he's reading that.

Duke Stalling

And seeing that there was an officer that had a KKK artifact, whatever in the house-- I hadn't got to his name, because they didn't mention his name right away. I hadn't got to that part. Ding, ding, ding, though, his name first came in. I didn't even read his name. I knew it was him. Something in my spirit said, it's Anderson. It was Anderson.

And it was like there was a joy. At the same time, there was a sadness. Because I said, well, how did they let this guy continue to do this before somebody had to have this kind of evidence to where--

Ben Calhoun

Duke's run-in with Officer Anderson happened in the summer of 2010. At the time, Duke was 24. And he says life was good. He'd recently become the pastor at a small church, Zion Blue Lake Baptist, which he was really excited about. And he was working at an office furniture company on the assembly line. His bosses loved him, and they were on the verge of promoting him.

And then on July 8, 2010, Duke's mom, Earline, had her 59th birthday party in her backyard. It was a family and friends kind of thing, her brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, little boom box playing the OJ's and Teddy Pendergrass, a little bit of dancing.

Earline was a devout Christian, grew up in the Baptist church. She didn't drink, didn't smoke. It was tame. Around midnight, everything had wound down, maybe 15, 20 people left, mostly Duke's aunts and uncles. And Duke was on the front steps talking to a relative when an officer-- this was Officer Anderson-- pulled up in a police cruiser alone and started approaching the house.

Duke says he started towards the backyard to get his parents. But Anderson kind of stepped in front of him on the sidewalk next to the house. Duke asked, is everything OK?

Duke Stalling

So when I come up to him and I ask him, you know, is everything OK, the first thing he says is, are you the owners of this property? And I said, um, well can you tell me what's going on? He was like, are you the owner? I said, no, but can you tell me going on? That's what got him mad. And that's when he said, do you want to go down for what's about to happen?

Ben Calhoun

It was an odd thing to say, do you want to go down for what's about to happen? It startled Duke.

Duke Stalling

Now I'm scared. Because I'm like, what? What's about to happen? I don't want to know. I don't want no problem. So let me go get somebody that's older that can deal with this. I don't even know what's going on, because he won't say what's going on.

Ben Calhoun

Duke says he walked down the little sidewalk next to the house, towards the backyard, to get his parents. When he gets to the yard and goes to close the gate behind him, Anderson's right there and kicks the gate back open, hard. Like, there was a bang.

Duke Stalling

This is the gate, right? So we were about right here. This is where we were, about right here.

Ben Calhoun

Duke's mom passed away in 2014. Now he owns the house. So he took me outside to show me how things happened in the backyard that night.

Duke Stalling

My uncle Dune was sitting over here. Some people were sitting down. His wife was sitting in the rocking swing. Two other people, they were just over here talking.

Ben Calhoun

Duke could point to where everything was at that moment, the lights strung around the fence, the picnic tables, where the food was, where the cake was.

Duke Stalling

And you had some people sitting over here talking. You had maybe, like I said, two or three people dancing. Because it's getting late. It's not really a lot of up, moving, dancing no more. But that's all it was.

Ben Calhoun

I don't mean this in a funny way, but it sounds like old people sitting.

Duke Stalling

[CHUCKLING] Yeah, I was really trying to say that, but I didn't want to-- yeah, that's really what I was saying. Yeah, it was old people sitting, eventually about to get ready to go. Because I mean, we probably had another 30 minutes left for them. All right sister, see you later. It was about to be over with.

Ben Calhoun

In Anderson's police report, he says Duke slammed the gate on him to push him back, keep him out. He did that twice. Anderson would later have Duke charged with assault for this. Duke says he just wouldn't have done that to a police officer. He was worried. He was scared. He didn't want trouble.

After that, Duke and Anderson's stories mostly line up. Anderson writes in his report that he shoved his way into the yard, yelled that Duke was under arrest and going to jail. Duke says his aunts and uncles were like, whoa, whoa, whoa, what is going on? They put their arms in front of Duke to protect him from Anderson.

Duke Stalling

And now there's just a bunch of exchanges from him, you're going to jail, da-da-da-da-da. And they're yelling, what did he do? He's not going to jail. He didn't do anything.

Ben Calhoun

In his report, Anderson describes the crowd as irate. Duke says people were just confused and upset.

Duke Stalling

Like, they were not causing any harm to him at all. They wouldn't cause any harm to him. They wouldn't do anything to him. Like, nobody's crazy enough to hit a police. Like my family, we're not crazy. Nobody's going to put their hands on a police officer or anything like that. And then that's when the mace came out. And, shh, he sprayed.

Ben Calhoun

It was pepper spray. Duke remembers a few of his aunts, women in their late 50s, got the worst of it. And then it was chaos.

Duke Stalling

You had people falling, of course, and trying to run to get-- you know, you can't see. You're rubbing your eyes. That's scary. It's a scary feeling. Some people fall. Some, I can't see. You hear a bunch of screaming.

And so now, but then when that happens, the officers, I don't know how-- I mean, it didn't take them long to get here. I mean, it was like every officer from the precinct.

Ben Calhoun

They handcuffed Duke and took him away. Duke didn't have a record, didn't understand what he'd done. They booked him for non-aggravated assault. For months, it seemed like Duke might go to jail, until the charges were finally thrown out. It all kind of wrecked his life for a while. Duke stepped down as pastor of that church. He's convinced the company he was working for didn't renew his contract because they saw his mug shot in the paper.

As you make sense of what happened that night at Duke's mom's, consider what Officer Anderson was reportedly there for. It's listed in police records as a noise complaint. Consider how differently this could have gone if, for example, Anderson had told Duke in front of the house, there's been a noise complaint. I'm just here to ask you guys to keep it down, or when Duke said he was going to get his parents, if Anderson had waited and then told his mom.

His mom, Earline, she knew all her neighbors well. Duke's confident she would have told people, keep it down, and they would have just wrapped things up. When Anderson entered the yard and people wanted to know why he was there, if he'd said, this is not a big deal. I'm just here over a noise complaint, rather than shouting Duke was under arrest and going to jail. But instead, officer Anderson took this tiny complaint and, at so many points, he escalated it. And he ended up pepper spraying a 59-year-old woman's family birthday party.

Something else I want to point out about this story-- it might be the best example out there of how Muskegon city government might have taken a harder look at Anderson years before the KKK application was spotted in his house. Because Duke and four of his relatives filed formal complaints. They tried to raise the alarm about the kind of officer Anderson was.

The department ended up dismissing their complaints and clearing Anderson of any wrongdoing. It did that based on the word of two officers who'd shown up as backup and who hadn't seen a lot of what happened. Duke says no one from the police department ever reached out to him or his family. No one ever called to ask questions, Duke told me, nobody, never.

Duke says he felt stymied and powerless. And in his faith, he thought, God, I'm going to leave it in your hands. And something is going to come to light. And they're going to see who he really is. That was literally his prayer, he said. People don't believe me, so that's going to be my justice.

And so when the Mathises came forward about the stuff in Anderson's house, Duke thought, this is the day he was hoping for. I didn't want anything bad to happen to him, he told me. I wanted the light to be shown. And people would see who he was.

Ira Glass

Ben Calhoun. Coming up, Officer Anderson explains about the KKK application to other policemen and how taking a stand and speaking out works out for the Mathises. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program-- A Couple Walks Into a House. The story of the fallout in one town when a couple, the Mathises, spots some Confederate flags and a framed KKK application in a policeman's home. I just want to say before we go further, so much happens in this story. There are so many people and moments worth documenting, and also a few very weird plot twists to come, that we're going to tell this over two episodes starting today and finishing next time.

So one result of the Mathis' original Facebook post alerting people about the stuff in Officer Anderson's house, something that we're glad to see, was that for the first time in this veteran cop's two-decade history on the force, city officials were now looking seriously into whether he was mistreating Black people on the job. So in terms of results for them, that is something.

Act Six: Things Get Ugly

Ira Glass

But there were other results too, which brings us to Act 6 of our story, Things Get Ugly. Again, here's Ben Calhoun.

Ben Calhoun

These weeks while the city's investigation unfolded were bad ones for Rob and Reyna Mathis. The backlash that Reyna had worried about when they posted about Officer Anderson, it came, and it was awful. Muskegon, at 38,000 people, is just large enough to have city problems, but also small enough that people are in your business and recognize you at the grocery store. It's a hard place to hide, especially if your face is all over the biggest news story in town.

Rob and Reyna say as soon as they went public, the threats started. Some of it was trolling and stuff they could shrug off, people they didn't know calling them on Facebook Messenger, randos in other parts of the country making threats. But some was ugly, racist, genuinely scary.

Reyna Mathis

Well, there was one post where someone took a picture of my daughter, the one that you've just seen, my daughter Asia. She was 12 at the time. She was playing-- we have a Yorkie. And she was playing in the front yard with the Yorkie. And someone posted a picture of her playing with the dog saying, we know where you live, and posted the picture.

Ben Calhoun

One thing to know, the Mathis' house sits in the woods more than 500 feet off the road. To get that picture, whoever this person was had driven all the way back and taken a photo without Rob or Reyna noticing they were there. After that, they sent their daughter to stay with an aunt.

Soon, things started happening in person. Young White men in a car at a stoplight recognizing Rob and Reyna, shouting a bunch of threats, and then speeding off. A couple in a parking lot came up to Reyna, her youngest daughter, and her six-year-old grandson and started yelling, using the N-word. One morning, when Reyna left for work at 3:30 AM, a car was waiting for her. And it followed her the whole way there. She got on the phone with Rob, who was telling her, don't pull over. Just keep going. Car followed her the next day too.

Reyna says several of the Mathis' kids started having upsetting experiences too. An older daughter was working at a restaurant, and she overheard a group of people saying racist things about Rob and Reyna. She got into an argument with them, and the restaurant fired her. Reyna says most upsetting, though, was how everything changed for her youngest daughter, Asia, who was in middle school at the time.

Reyna Mathis

She had friends that told her they couldn't talk to her anymore.

Ben Calhoun

Oh my gosh.

Reyna Mathis

She came home one day and said she was sitting with her friend at school at the lunch table, and the little girl's mother called her. And she told her she was sitting with Asia. And she said, well, tread lightly. You know, don't trust her. And then the--

Ben Calhoun

She said that to her daughter?

Reyna Mathis

And my daughter could hear her. Yeah, she was on the phone with her mom during lunch. And my daughter could hear. The little girl asked my daughter, she said, what color are you again? My mom wants to know. Asia said, well, I'm mixed. And she goes, oh, she's mixed or whatever. And that's when she told her to tread lightly, don't trust her. And then the next day, the girl didn't talk to my daughter no more. And she hasn't talked to her since.

So she kind of went into the stage where she didn't want to go to school anymore. She said she wanted to move and just not be around here. And that was the most hurtful to me. Because my other kids are grown. They can deal with stuff like that. She's-- you know, she's a very lovable little girl, and she loves everybody.

And she just felt like she lost everything. And that hurt me, because it felt like it was because of us. But it was really because of him.

Ben Calhoun

The impact of all of this on the Mathis' lives, they pulled their house off the market, because they didn't want any cars they didn't know pulling up. They were stressed. Rob and Reyna told me they were on edge and arguing, including about whether all this had been worth it. There was also another source of stress, particularly for Rob. And I want to tell you this part of the story because of how important it was to him, and of how important it was to how he saw all of this.

The night I first interviewed Rob and Reyna, this came up. After we'd spent several hours talking, I was getting ready to leave. And he was showing me some of the threats he'd gotten on Facebook. Then he referred a couple times to when I was attacked. I did not understand what he was talking about, so I asked him. Then he pulled down his shirt collar, and he showed me an enormous scar.

Ben Calhoun

And so that goes-- just because it's on the radio-- it goes from, like, the--

Rob Mathis

From my right ear down to my Adam's apple-- staples. There's a lot. There was a lot.

Ben Calhoun

From there, the scar continued down onto Rob's chest. It turned out, decades before all this, when Rob was 19, a young soldier in the Army, he went out to a club with a few other soldiers. In the parking lot, Rob passed a guy sitting on a car. And he said, what's up?

Rob Mathis

And he said, you what's up, you know? He was like, you [BLEEP] N-words.

Ben Calhoun

This guy jumped Rob, and he cut his throat. He sliced both his carotid artery and his jugular vein. Rob got rushed to the hospital. When he woke up, he had burns on his chest from defibrillation. He'd had a stroke.

He couldn't speak. He couldn't feel his legs. He couldn't move them. He was paralyzed. It took years of rehab before he could regain his ability to speak, to walk, to use his hands.

Rob Mathis

In the beginning, it was like five years before I could walk without a cane. I can't pick up a pen with this hand, you know? I got to look at what I'm doing with this hand and tell it what to do. Can't just do it.

Ben Calhoun

Because you don't have the sensation in your fingers.

Rob Mathis

Right. I mean, it's been a struggle all my life. There's not a day that go by that I don't think about it. And you know, I think about the situation at least once a day, that this man stole my life from me because he was racist. I would've achieve my military goal and been Sergeant Major Mathis. That was what I wanted to be. But he stole that from me, you know?

And it changed me as a person to where I'm a little more cautious, and I pay attention to details. So with that situation when we went to that looking for a home to buy, and I seen that application on the wall, it wasn't even-- I couldn't stay in that house no more. I had to get out.

Ben Calhoun

These two experiences sat on top of each other for Rob. They blurred together. What he'd seen that day in Anderson's house, it placed him back in that feeling from that parking lot, when he was attacked out of nowhere and nearly killed.

Rob Mathis

I've had that feeling for over 40 years, the feeling of, OK, you know, something's wrong, but I'm going to keep going, you know? At the bar, I was having a good time. But when the guy jumped off the car and said, you what's up, you know, and when he started hurling the slurs at me, like, it went from good to bad like that. So walking through this house, I'm like, OK, it's good. It's a nice house, this, that, and the other. But every step of the way, it was just like, nah, nah. It just changed, changed, changed.

So that feeling of that racism was from the time he opened his mouth, and it was from the time we walked through the door of this house. Every step I took in that house made me feel more and more that this is racism, racism, racism. Let's go. Nothing to talk about. Nothing to say.

Ben Calhoun

Both of these experiences, four decades apart, came with the question, what would the institutions in charge do about it? In Kentucky, where Rob was stabbed, what the government did ultimately didn't amount to much. Police arrested Ron's attacker that night and recovered the switchblade he used at a parking lot full of witnesses. But the man seems to have served only two months for assault under extreme emotional disturbance before he was released on probation.

Flash forward 40 years to Muskegon, Michigan. How will the city handle a police officer accused of mistreating people of color and who's discovered to have racist memorabilia in his house?

Act Seven: The Investigation

Ben Calhoun

We get to that in our next act, Act 7-- The Investigation.

The one time in this whole process that we get a chance to hear Charles Anderson's side of this is when the police department's investigators brought him in for questioning. I don't have audio of this. I just have a transcript. It indicates Anderson sat down with a high-ranking officer working on the investigation, Captain Shawn Bride, six days after the Mathis' Facebook post. Anderson brought a police union representative to the meeting.

Right in the early questioning, Captain Bride asks Anderson to explain the KKK application. Anderson says, quote, "What it is is this is an antique room. Nobody-- nobody ever used it. That item was on the wall because I didn't take the items off the wall, just because I thought it would look better for selling. And I didn't even realize it was on there. I mean, yes, it's mine. Yes, I collect. But I didn't know that specific item was on the wall. I didn't really pay attention."

Anderson then tells the investigator he bought the application at a flea market for $20 or $30. The investigator asks, why? What possessed you to buy something that looks like that and contains that information? Anderson replies, it's part of history, and I love history. And I have thousands of antiques, and I could show them to you. I have thousands.

Next, they talk about the Confederate flags. Anderson tells the investigator, if you go downstairs, I have a very, very large collection of Dukes of Hazzard. You probably know, but The Dukes of Hazzard was a TV show in the '80s which featured a muscle car named the General Lee, which had a Confederate flag painted on the top. And Anderson's love of the show does seem real. Muskegon's city manager told me, at one point, Anderson was bringing his lunch to work in a Dukes of Hazzard lunch box.

Anyway, Anderson goes on here about the TV series, how he's gone a few times to a fan event called Dukesfest down South. Quote, "I have an original script signed by Cougar. My wife bought it for me. I actually owned a car that was painted like the General Lee. I have all their videos. I watch them all the time. I love The Dukes of Hazzard, and that's the reason for the Confederate flags. They mean nothing other than it was part of that collection."

Captain Bride, the investigator, seems to try to help Anderson with this point he's building. Bride says, "So would I be safe in summarizing, as some folks are big fans of college football, people are fans of sailing, you're a fan of The Dukes of Hazzard?" "Yes," says Anderson, "I love them."

As they continue, Anderson flatly denies being a member of the KKK and says he didn't leave these items up to discourage people of color from buying the house. The investigator asks, so a Black Jew from Ethiopia would be welcome if they met your asking price? Yes, they would, says Anderson. Then there's a string of moments like that one, where it feels like the investigator, Captain Bride, is trying to throw Anderson life preservers, like a long stretch where they talk through things that Anderson was commended for, including how he stopped two men, in separate incidents, from killing themselves.

Investigators ask about each man's race. One was White. The other, who Anderson pulled off a bridge, was Black. Later, when Anderson mentions doing community work with someone whose name is blacked out, the detective responds, "Interesting. It's my understanding that one of the tenants of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is that they're strongly against anyone who is-- I guess the most correct way to say it these days is that LBGTQ community. Would it be fair to say that so-and-so is a strong proponent of that community, and maybe even a member?"

"Yes," says Anderson. "You consider him an associate or a friend?" "I consider him a friend," says Anderson, confirming, yes, he has a gay or trans friend. I asked to talk to Captain Bride about this and other parts of the investigation, but the Muskegon Police. Department said no.

There are lots of things Anderson is not questioned about, nothing about the complaints Duke Stalling and his family filed against him after they were pepper sprayed, nothing about any other specific incidents on the job or about how he treated Black people in general, other than a few broad and very generic questions-- if he's ever allowed implicit bias to affect his work. No, Anderson says. Has he treated people unfairly? No. Has he had diversity training? Yes, he has.

Just to be clear, investigators don't get into the details of Anderson's behavior on the job, because Chief Lewis didn't order them to. His instructions were to figure out whether this thing online was accurate. Did Anderson have the flags and the KKK application up in his house, and if so, why? So that's what they confined themselves to.

Most telling and relevant to our story is the way they wrap up. In the final pages of the transcript, Captain Bride literally invites Anderson to explain away the things he had up in his house. Quote, "For me, Chuck, if you would-- and the pieces have come together for you to do this-- what could you do to explain this away and allow the members of our community to accept you and place their trust in you to be fair and impartial in policing them?"

Here's how Anderson responds. "I would explain as exactly what I already explained to you, why it was there and that it meant no intent. And I apologize if it did, why it created this mess. I mean, I didn't even know it was up there. And it was a mistake. And I meant no harm against anyone. And I've been an officer for 22 years, and this is the first time something like this has ever came out, you know, like this. And I think I've done well. I've treated everyone fairly. I've never had a problem before like this."

Jeff Lewis

It just didn't make sense, you know what I mean?

Ben Calhoun

One person who did not think Officer Anderson was doing a good job explaining this away was the person who ordered the investigation, Muskegon police chief Jeff Lewis. Lewis told me, at first, sure, the Dukes of Hazzard, American history collector thing seemed possible to him. But he says they asked Anderson to produce evidence of that, pictures of the collection, receipts and stuff. But even with Anderson's job on the line, Lewis says he never did.

Jeff Lewis

Nothing was produced. And I'm not calling him a liar, but I'm just saying that it didn't hold any water. That bucket didn't hold water.

Ben Calhoun

For Lewis, the stuff in Anderson's house seemed pretty damning.

Jeff Lewis

Like, let's say I'm really into governors, for instance. And so when you come to my office, I have just one portrait on the wall behind me, Governor George Wallace.

Ben Calhoun

George Wallace, famous southern segregationist.

Jeff Lewis

But I tell you I'm just into governors. But you see that. Doesn't that governor tell you something? Why is that governor in my office behind me on my wall?

Ben Calhoun

After reading Anderson's transcript and talking to the chief, I still didn't really understand what these items meant to him. Was the KKK application some random thing he picked up like he said, or was this something important to him? Rachael Anderson, Officer Anderson's wife, agreed to tell me more if I kept all my questions to the subject of their collecting and how the KKK application fit into it.

Rachael Anderson

Hello?

Ben Calhoun

Hi. Rachel?

Rachael Anderson

Yes.

Ben Calhoun

Rachel told me she and her husband have collected all kinds of old stuff for decades. They're not history buffs collecting artifacts from the Civil War, or World War II, or anything like that. They're people who stop at flea markets and antique shops and buy stuff randomly.

Rachael Anderson

Just, if it's old, if it's cool, if we think it's cool or different.

Rachael texted me photos of their house, of a room they call the radio room, with 30-some vintage radios on shelves all around, of a room they call the toy room that has old toys, dozens of old lunchboxes and thermoses, some from TV shows like Charlie's Angels and Knight Rider, vintage appliances, pots and tools in the kitchen, a big shelf full of old piggy banks. She says Officer Anderson has a collection of old hair dryers.

Rachael Anderson

Oh, I don't know why he likes the hair dryers. He's got some old ones, you know, like handheld ones that have, like, a wooden handle. And there's not really much to them. And then he likes the old colorful ones that they-- they're like, in a round box, and you open them up. I think they're, like, from the '50s.

Ben Calhoun

As for the Confederate flags and the KKK application, like her husband told investigators, Rachael said the Confederate flags were part of a big Dukes of Hazzard collection.

Rachael Anderson

I would like to make one thing clear. I don't know if this-- if this is outstepping my boundary or not. But I am the one that found that specific item that everyone made a big deal about, just saying.

Ben Calhoun

Oh, the KKK application?

Rachael Anderson

Yeah. I was like, hey, this is so cool. This would look awesome in the antique room, just the way it looked.

Ben Calhoun

Huh. Can I ask, like, what your feelings were about that particular artifact?

Rachael Anderson

I didn't really have any. I just thought it was kind of-- it was different. It was cool. Looked, you know, just different. Honestly, it was put on the wall and kind of just forgotten about.

Ben Calhoun

Once people had a reaction to that, because of what it's associated with historically, did that change the way that you felt about it?

Rachael Anderson

Um, not-- it didn't really change the way I felt about it. I just thought it was kind of neat. It was, you know, old. It was part of history.

Ben Calhoun

But what about the fact that people were like, that's a scary thing for me to see because of who I am?

Rachael Anderson

I'm not really sure how to answer that. I mean, I'm not saying I don't understand people have feelings. But it's not like that described who we are. And the way things are now, I mean, everybody is offended over something. And who knows what that might be?

Ben Calhoun

I ended up feeling like Officer Anderson's account to investigators had mostly been true. He and Rachael didn't seem like card-carrying members of a White supremacist organization. I can see them buying that KKK application without ever expecting to offend anyone. But it said a lot that even two years later, she didn't seem to understand the fear and concern people had about this thing she thought was so cool. And she wasn't really interested in understanding that.

So the city's investigation is going. The Mathises are being harassed. And people are waiting. They're waiting to find out what the city is going to do and say about all this. And this did not play out the way I expected it to. Next time, what the city decides to do about Charles Anderson.

Ira Glass

Ben Calhoun-- he's one of the editors of our program. One of the things that he did not expect that we get into next time, the tour of Officer Anderson's house. Rob and Reyna had thought this was some random police officer. And they were shocked to learn that they'd crossed paths with him years before, an incident that they did remember very vividly.

Rob Mathis

I'm like, Reyna, just be cool. Be cool. Be cool. And he said, you're resisting. You're resisting. And then he swung her around, and he threw her on the hood of the car. I was worried that he was going to shoot her in front of me and the kids.

Ira Glass

That's next time, on our show.

[MUSIC - "O ME O MY" BY SON LITTLE]

Our program was produced today by Ben Calhoun me, with help from Zoe Chace and Dana Chivvis. Contributing editors for today's program, Stephen Henderson and Rob Wildeboer. Original music for today's show by Matt McGinley. The other people who helped put together today's program-- Elna Baker, Sean Cole, Michael Comite, Aviva DuCorinfo, Damien Grave, Chana Joffe-Walt, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Will Paco, Robin Semien, Elisa Ship, Orester Chesky, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuel Barry.

Special Thanks today to Eric Hood, Destiny Keener-Sargent, Jen White, Dustin Dwyer, Paul Butler, Sharon Fairley, Craig Futterman, Tracey Mears, and Timothy Maat. Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can stream our archive, over 750 episodes, for absolutely free. Also, there's video, lists of favorite programs, tons of other stuff there too. Again, ThisAmericanLife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Moeti. You know he visited the United Nations building in New York City last weekend, was not a fan of the decorations.

Reyna Mathis

There was, like, one flag here, one flag there. And I said something like, this is a lot of flags.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.