Last summer Michael Ray Stepanek, a 45-year-old white Iowa City man, drove his car through protesters during a summer rally and later told police he did it because the racial injustice demonstrators needed “an attitude adjustment.”
Stepanek faced seven years in prison if convicted of the charges that stemmed from the August incident. But he was able to escape any prison time and was sentenced to probation instead last month.
That was all part of a lenient plea deal that saw a judge defer Stepanek’s most serious charge and agree to strike it from his record if he successfully completes his three-year state supervision period without hitch.
According to the Iowa City Police Department, the man barreled through a crowd of demonstrators gathered in an intersection at Burlington and Gilbert streets during an Aug. 21 protest. The Iowa Freedom Riders, a police reform activism group, staged the rally in downtown Iowa City.
According to The Associated Press, Stepanek was stopped in traffic and became infuriated that the protesters were blocking the intersection. He made a U-turn and circled the block, shutting off his headlights as he sped toward the throng.
“It was extremely jarring to have some stranger take it upon himself to punish a group of young unarmed people for inconvenience and/or political dissidence,” said Eva Sileo, one of the protesters that Stepanek struck with his vehicle.
An officer in an unmarked police car saw Stepanek speed away from the scene, but didn’t realize at the time that he’d just driven through the crowd, crashing his Toyota Camry into at least two protesters. The officer made a note of his license plate but didn’t give chase, citing the bottleneck of traffic and pedestrian congestion.
There were no reports of serious injury.
The following day, police learned of a Twitter video that showed Stepanek striking the protesters. Investigators used info from the officer who saw him speed away to identify and arrest the man. Stepanek was arrested three days later and told officers the protesters nedded “an attitude adjustment,” according to the criminal complaint filed against him.
He remained held without bond and spent 76 days in jail as he awaited trial, court records show.
Stepanek pleaded guilty to a felony count of willful injury causing bodily injury. District Court Judge Paul Miller granted a deferred judgment for that charge, which carried a five-year prison term, and agreed to erase it from Stepanek’s record if the man doesn’t commit a crime for the next three years.
He was originally charged with assault while displaying a dangerous weapon, an aggravated misdemeanor punishable by up to two years behind bars. Miller dismissed that charge, according to the Dec. 7 plea agreement, and agreed to expunge it if Stepanek stays out of trouble while on probation.
The judge also suspended the $1,025 civil penalty, court records show.
A restitution hearing was scheduled to be held Jan. 8. The results of that hearing were not immediately clear.
Sileo, a 21-year-old University of Iowa student, read a victim impact statement in court. She advocated for Stepanek to avoid prison time, but claimed she had no idea the charges would be expunged from his record.
“I think it’s dangerous to have this kind of case occur and just wipe it away,” she said, according to AP.
Stepanek was eligible for the favorable plea arrangement because he had no prior criminal history.
The man’s attorney, John Bruzek, told a judge Stepanek was influenced by anti-protester political rhetoric on social media that characterized the demonstrators as dangerous criminals. At the time, he believed he was legally justified in his actions, but Bruzek claimed he had apologized and realized what he did was wrong.
“Michael understands how his conduct could have resulted in a much more serious and harmful situation,” Bruzek said.
The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office endorsed Stepanek’s light sentence even as the agency pursues charges against multiple BLM organizers involved in summer protests last year.
One of the group’s leaders was accused of shining a laser beam light into a police officer’s eyes during an August protest. He now faces a slate of 15 charges that includes nine felonies.
Another protester who carried an assault rifle through a crowd at a June event in Iowa City was indicted on federal charges and currently faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty, according to The Gazette.
Iowa Freedom Riders, in a joint statement with another reform group, condemned authorities’ use of surveillance cameras to charge protesters with crimes. The groups cited the fact that video evidence in Stepanek’s case didn’t come from surveillance footage, but from an eyewitness’s cellphone recording.
“The discrepancy is clear: local law enforcement agencies specifically and intentionally target our Black community and its allies for surveillance and intimidation,” their statement read.