Kennewick club manager believed patron was going to punch him (with video)

Herald staff writerJanuary 31, 2013 

The head of security at a downtown Kennewick club said he was holding up a drunk and aggressive patron at chest height when he suddenly let go of the man to avoid being punched.

Matthew Thomas Hibbard admitted he didn’t give Ben Ensign any notice that he was about to be dropped, which might have allowed the man to break his fall with his hands.

But Hibbard, testifying Wednesday in his assault trial, said he believed Ensign was trying to hit him with clenched fists and he needed to protect himself.

“What I anticipated was going to happen was when I let go of (Ensign) like this, he was going to roll off perhaps the side of me, down my leg,” Hibbard told jurors while leaning to the right side and unclasping his hands, as if removing his arms from around a person. He was talking about what happened outside Jack Didley’s at 11:39 p.m. July 4.

The general manager, who is 5-foot-11, said he didn’t realize another bouncer had Ensign by the feet so, when Hibbard backed off, Ensign’s head and upper body fell a good distance to the sidewalk.

Hibbard said he wanted to “completely disengage any contact” with Ensign and be prepared if he got up and continued to fight. He didn’t call 911 because he thought Ensign was just knocked out.

Hibbard took the stand Wednesday in Benton County Superior Court for about one hour and 10 minutes to explain that it was not his intention to hurt Ensign.

Ensign, now 32, had gone out for drinks with friends after watching the fireworks show. He was told to leave the bar after security saw him kick over chairs, sneak into the off-limits VIP lounge, drink a stranger’s drink and take off his shirt while dancing around. He had gone down the street with his friends, but ran back and was going through the front door when Hibbard grabbed him from behind.

As a longtime security officer and manager, Hibbard explained that he has been hit in the face and head several times — including being knocked unconscious in August 2011 after removing someone from Jack Didley’s — so he is extra cautious.

Hibbard said he repeatedly asked Ensign if he was done, telling him it wasn’t a huge issue at that point and he would let him go if he just stopped. However, Ensign was squirming and became combative, he testified.

He said that as Ensign’s body was splayed out on the sidewalk, he suggested a move to one of Ensign’s friends that might help wake him up but was “told to f off.”

When Ensign didn’t get up off the ground, Hibbard said he “did not feel good about it at all.” And later learning that Ensign had a severe brain injury made Hibbard “sick to my stomach.”

Ensign had a fracture in his skull on the left side and internal brain damage, and spent weeks on life support at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland. He was transferred in August to a Spokane rehabilitation facility for treatment of the long-lasting effects of the brain trauma.

Hibbard, 41, is charged with third-degree assault with aggravating circumstances.

The trial started Monday and is expected to go to the jury today after closing arguments. Hibbard was the last defense witness. Prosecutor Andy Miller, in cross-examining Hibbard, said questions from defense lawyer John Jensen about the defendant’s intent are irrelevant because that’s not an issue in this trial.

The charge is that Hibbard’s criminal negligence caused Ensign’s injuries.

Miller said Hibbard held Ensign in a chokehold and either dropped or thrust the bar patron to the ground.

Miller questioned why Hibbard told Kennewick police an hour after the incident that bouncer Raymond Anderson had scooped up Ensign’s feet, when he now says he didn’t realize that at the time and it was only later when he watched the video with officers. “That night was a very stressful night,” Hibbard replied.

Miller went through a series of pictures taken from the security video that showed 13 seconds passed from the time Hibbard grabbed Ensign and Anderson got his feet, to when Ensign was dropped. Miller pointed out that they were in a different location from where they started, and questioned how Hibbard didn’t notice his bouncer just feet from him as he had to move across the sidewalk.

Hibbard said one of the pictures shows Ensign with a clenched fist trying to hit his face. He said he didn’t know Anderson was there, and denied that he pushed Ensign down.

“I didn’t want to get hit as much as the next guy, so I just let him go,” Hibbard said.

Miller asked if he thought there may have been another cause to Ensign’s injuries other than being dropped.

Hibbard said it possibly could have happened when Ensign’s friend lifted his head up onto his lap while trying to help Ensign and it slid down several times onto the sidewalk. Hibbard acknowledged that Ensign already was unconscious, but added that he is not a doctor and doesn’t know if the head injury could be from something else.

Nine people testified for the defense on Wednesday, including Jack Didley’s owner Todd Jones, who has known Hibbard for 20 years. Jones said Hibbard started working with him in 1998, and six years ago, he promoted Hibbard to general manager because of his honesty and integrity. He said under state law they are required to remove anyone from the establishment who is displaying disorderly conduct.

In discussions with Hibbard about handling unruly customers, Jones said they had agreed that it should always be in a peaceful manner and security should try to talk them down.

“That is one of the skills that Matt had always been incredible at,” Jones said. The last thing they want to do is be hands-on with people because they want that customer to come back again, he added.

Closing arguments will be given this morning once Judge Vic VanderSchoor reads the legal instructions to jurors. Court resumes at 9:30 a.m.

VanderSchoor on Wednesday agreed with Miller that the jury will not be given the lesser option of fourth-degree assault. That charge requires intent, and Miller has said that never has been a factor in this case.

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com

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