New Orleans police Officer Tracy Fulton Sr. doesn’t deny that he landed a crunching blow to the face of Eladio Cruz following a minor vehicle scrape last year as Fulton drove along Earhart Boulevard in his Lexus while off duty.
Cruz suffered a broken nose, an injured jaw and a concussion when Fulton landed at least one blow after tracking Cruz to his home on Forshey Street on Sept. 4, 2013, following an attempt to confront him at a red light after accidentally trading paint.
What the 24-year veteran officer disputes, however, is a claim by prosecutors with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office that he unleashed a bloody fury of unprovoked road rage upon Cruz.
The incident, which seemingly escalated from a language barrier — Cruz speaks only Spanish — landed in front of a jury Wednesday in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, where Fulton, 47, faces a charge of second-degree battery, accused of assaulting Cruz without justification.
According to the officer’s attorney, Eric Hessler, Cruz swung at Fulton and brandished a machete when Fulton approached him outside the home, intending merely to exchange information for an accident report.
Cruz and two family members, along with other NOPD officers, testified about an incident that could mean up to five years in prison for Fulton if he’s convicted.
Shoulders hunched and brow furrowed, Cruz ambled slowly to the witness stand late Wednesday to testify that he didn’t even realize the two vehicles had scraped when Fulton approached his car as Cruz drove his girlfriend and their two children home from a shopping trip to Wal-Mart on a Sunday afternoon.
Fulton had been gesturing vehemently from the other lane, then got out and tried to open the driver’s door, Cruz and others in the vehicle testified. He had locked it, so Fulton pulled open the back door. Then he went back to his car and followed the group a few blocks to the Cruz house.
That’s where the stories diverge.
Cruz, his 13-year-old daughter, Melissa, and others claim Fulton landed several blows and pointed his service pistol in Cruz’s face, telling him, “I’m going to f***ing kill you, you stupid Mexican.”
Cruz, his girlfriend Maribel Rodriguez and her daughter, Nancy, testified Wednesday that Cruz reached for a machete in the cab of his four-door pickup only after Fulton decked him and went back to his car for his police weapon.
They all said Fulton never identified himself as a police officer or flashed a badge.
Cruz said Fulton first approached him and grabbed his shirt. He said he pushed the officer’s hand away and Fulton backed off, rubbing his head. Cruz said he turned and grabbed some grocery bags when Fulton cold-cocked him.
“He hit me hard, and I felt dizzy. My legs were shaking. I thought he was going to continue to hit me,” Cruz testified through a translator.
“He hit me in the face, and that’s why I took out the machete. He was threatening me there with a weapon. I was just really dizzy. I saw that he was with a gun and that he was going to kill me right there. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but it was like, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ ”
Rodriguez, who had been in the passenger seat, said Fulton approached the car on Earhart in a fury.
“With his behavior, I thought he was just any hooligan on the street,” she testified, also through a translator.
Hessler, however, insisted that the officer acted in self-defense after Cruz cocked an arm to strike him, then did.
To the jury of three men and three women, he highlighted discrepancies between what Cruz told police and what he alleges in a federal lawsuit filed two weeks ago against the city, Fulton and former NOPD Officer Paul Dimitri, now a Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy.
Dimitri responded to the scene of the fight, spoke to Fulton and issued a citation to Cruz for hit-and-run, driving without a license and careless operation of a vehicle. Police had called an ambulance for Cruz to take him to the hospital for his injuries.
Criminal District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier allowed Hessler to question Cruz about the allegations in the federal complaint, which says Cruz lay helpless on the ground as Fulton “repeatedly kicked plaintiff Cruz in the stomach and violently smashed (his) head into the cement.”
Although woozy, the complaint states, Cruz “was able to crawl closer to his truck and eventually stand to grab a machete out of the bed of his truck. Plaintiff Cruz did not wave the machete at Fulton or brandish the machete, but hoped it would deter (Fulton) from striking him anymore.”
Under questioning by Hessler, Cruz was far more vague on the details of the altercation, and Rodriguez and her daughter also recalled only one punch. Cruz testified that he recalled Fulton threatening his life but didn’t remember the repeated mauling that he claims in the lawsuit.
“All I felt was the first punch,” he testified. “I just lost consciousness and then I just felt the pain, and my nose is broken.”
Cruz insisted he never knew the two cars had touched, and that he wasn’t intentionally driving away from an accident. He said the others in the car also didn’t know why Fulton angrily approached the car.
“I wasn’t running because of a hit-and-run,” he said. “I was trying to get away from the crazy man.”
Hessler, in his opening statement, said Cruz cocked his fist and that Fulton ill-advisedly told him, “I hope you f***ing do” before leveling him.
The comment was basically a warning, Hessler said.
“Tracy certainly didn’t hope that man hit him. And guess what? The guy hit Tracy,” Hessler said.
“Tracy’s a citizen trying to exchange information that the law requires,” Hessler added. “Tracy recognizes the position, the fact this guy draws back, and he says, ‘I hope the f*** you do.’ I wish he didn’t say that, but he did, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
“Tracy did what he’s been trained to do, and what most anybody else would do. He defended himself, and he hit him one time. One time.”
Hessler noted that police who arrived on the scene reported no signs of Fulton’s knuckles being bloodied, suggesting that the beating wasn’t as severe as Cruz and his family claim.
The trial is slated to continue Thursday. Hessler told the jury Wednesday that Fulton will testify.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.