After spending 76 days in jail, a white man who intentionally drove his vehicle through a crowd of racial injustice protesters in Iowa City last summer will have his record cleared and avoid prison if he stays out of trouble during three years of probation.
Michael Ray Stepanek, 45, of Iowa City, drove his 1998 Toyota Camry through a group of protesters in late August, injuring at least one person, according to police.
Stepanek told police the protesters needed “an attitude adjustment.” He was charged days later with one count of assault while displaying a dangerous weapon, an aggravated misdemeanor, and one count of willful injury causing bodily harm, a class D felony.
But last month, a district court judge dismissed the first charge and deferred the second. Judge Paul Miller also suspended a $1,025 civil fine, according to court filings.
According to the criminal complaint, Stepanek was in his car behind other vehicles, which were backed up due to the protest. He started “honking, and eventually making a U-turn while squealing his tires to turn around,” according to the complaint.
Stepanek “shut off his lights, and drove around the block, where he chose to turn southbound … where there were no vehicles between him and the protesters. The defendant intentionally struck multiple protesters with his vehicle and sped away,” the complaint said.
Police said one victim “complained of pain due to being struck intentionally by the defendant’s vehicle.”
Erik Fisher, 20, a University of Iowa student who spoke with USA TODAY, recorded video of the incident from the window of his second-story apartment. He captured the moments Stepanek began honking and, in a separate video, the moment Stepanek drove through the crowd.
Screams erupt as the vehicle enters the intersection, hitting several people and carrying at least one on the windshield for several yards. “Oh my god, oh my god,” Fisher can be heard saying.
“He was honking his horn and revving his engine. I remember him seeming pretty mad, and that’s when I started recording,” Fisher said. “I thought it was crazy. I couldn’t believe he would actually do that.”
Stepanek’s lawyer, Assistant State Public Defender John W. Bruzek, said in a statement that his client was “remorseful” for his actions. Bruzek said Stepanek had been “inundated” with “propaganda” that characterized protesters as “criminal, thugs, terrorists,” which he initially used to justify his actions.
“He apologizes for his conduct and to those he harmed. Michael is being held to account with a full and clear recognition of how much worse things may have been,” the statement said.
Bruzek argued that Stepanek received a “meaningful and just sentence.”
“The court gave Michael an opportunity to prove himself during a statutory term of probation and expects him to be a decent person and that he not conduct himself like he did. If Michael doesn’t, the court will have the opportunity to convict him and take away the deferred,” Bruzek said.
As protests cropped up across the nation this summer in the wake of a series of police killings of Black Americans, researchers recorded more than a hundred incidents of people driving vehicles into protests.
Ari Weil, a terrorism researcher at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats who spoke with USA TODAY this summer, began tracking the incidents after the killing of George Floyd. He documented at least 104 incidents of people driving vehicles into protests from May 27 through Sept. 5, including 96 by civilians and eight by police. Weil concluded that, of those incidents, at least 43 were malicious, and 39 drivers had been charged.
Fisher, the college student, said protests continued to take place at the same “prominent” Iowa City intersection over the summer in the wake of the incident. He said he did not understand the judge’s sentencing.
“I can’t believe there’d be someone who hates the organization so much that they’d be willing to possibly kill people just because they’re blocking the road,” he said. “It is all crazy now that’s he’s not getting in very much trouble or anything.”
*story by USA Today