A March 3 tornado ripped Charles Steven Griffin’s two sons from his arms, leaving one dead and the other injured, and destroyed his Beauregard, Ala., mobile home. Griffin since has been living in a hotel with his girlfriend.
In the storm’s aftermath, he got arrested after a confrontation with authorities that a Ledger-Enquirer reporter recorded on video.
Griffin said he now wants to get back to a ”normal life.”
His scuffle with a deputy happened two weeks after the tornado as Griffin was trying to return to the place where his home once stood. That’s when he got stopped at a security checkpoint as deputies monitored who went in and out of the neighborhood off Alabama 51 at Lee County Road 38.
That was around noon, Central Standard Time, on March 15. Authorities said Griffin refused to show deputies his identification, and then lost his temper, triggering the ensuing ruckus.
Griffin said he tried to identify himself, but his driver’s license had an old address that didn’t match the area where he’d been living. He said he showed deputies a newspaper that had his photo with a story about a candlelight vigil for those killed in the EF-4 tornado.
Griffin, 30, the father of A.J. Hernandez, who at age 6 was the youngest of the storm’s 23 victims, said he’d had no trouble passing the checkpoint during 10 previous trips there, but on that day it was guarded not by Lee County deputies, but deputies from neighboring Russell County, working there under a mutual aid agreement.
Without showing proper ID, they would not let him pass.
Yet Griffin said it was a Lee County deputy who aggressively pursued him as he tried to walk away, and that sparked the confrontation.
“Get away from me. I don’t want to talk to you,” Griffin said he told the officer who followed him toward his pickup truck, which was parked along the highway.
The video shows a deputy taking Griffin to the ground amid a raucous exchange of words, and holding him down until the shouting ends and Griffin is released.
“After he had me on the ground, they told me I could leave,” Griffin said, adding the deputies gave him five minutes to depart.
He refused, because he had contacted a television news reporter who was supposed to meet him there, he said. Only then was he arrested, he said.
He was charged with disorderly conduct and third-degree assault, both misdemeanors. Authorities soon discovered a felony warrant for his arrest on a charge of unemployment compensation fraud, an unrelated matter he said he thought had been resolved.
Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said authorities are controlling access to some damaged neighborhoods to keep out looters by identifying everyone who comes and goes: “We’re still maintaining some security of the hardest hit areas to ensure that the authorized people have access, the proper people, and for the most part that’s gone very, very well.”
He confirmed that an outside agency was staffing the checkpoint the day Griffin was arrested.
“I don’t know if some of our guys knew that he was a resident in the area,” Jones said. “He may never have been asked specifically, who are you, and show me some ID. I don’t think that ever occurred in the initial phases.”
Griffin got angry when he was not allowed in, Jones said: “He became upset, and did not offer to identify himself. He indicated he didn’t have anything.”
Jones said Griffin got so angry he wouldn’t listen to what he was told. “It comes to a point that a person doesn’t want to hear what you have to say, and it continued, and he took a physical action toward one of the deputies,” the sheriff said. “And the deputy restrained him, and ended up arresting him for disorderly conduct and assault.”
The felony warrant came to light when Griffin was brought to the jail, Jones said. It was issued by state authorities, not the sheriff’s office.
Griffin admits losing his temper. “I was mad,” he said Friday. “I’m not going to try to play choir boy here.” But he maintained he did try to identify himself, and did not assault anyone: “I never put my hands on that officer.”
Of the felony warrant, he said: “That was a shock to me.” He had received letters from state officials saying he owed taxes on back wages, and letters regarding unemployment benefits. Those letters alleged he and a husband or male partner had benefited from such funds, but he has never been married, he said.
He called state agencies to clarify that, and was told the matter would be resolved, he said, and the letters stopped coming.
He said he suspects he might be the victim of identity fraud.
Griffin said he wants to resume something akin to a “normal life,” especially for his surviving son, 10-year-old Jordan, who stays with a grandparent during the week while in school.
He recalled the day the storm came. He and the boys had gone by a Subway sandwich shop to get food, then stopped to get gas before heading back to the rented trailer.
He got a tornado warning on his cell phone, raced home and had the kids watch a movie.
He saw the wind whipping through the trees outside, and then the power went out. His mother texted, telling him the tornado was headed straight for them.
He got the boys in a closet, and in 45 seconds to a minute, the sound of the wind became a roar. They clung to each other as their ears popped, and in 10 to 20 seconds, he said, “I hear the house tearing up.”
Everything turned “blackish-gray,” and the boys were torn from his arms: “It just jerked them right out of my hands.”
When he came to, he started calling his sons’ names. He found Jordan first — “he’s hurt pretty bad,” he recalled — and moved him to a safe spot. Then he searched for A.J., and found the child dead.
Another storm had been spotted, and he had to get Jordan to safety, so he walked up to Lee County Road 39 with Jordan, found a man he knew from work, and got a ride out.
He and Jordan were in the hospital for four days. Jordan had a hairline fracture, but will recover.
Since his arrest, Griffin has returned to his former home site around 10 more times, and had no more problems getting through the checkpoint, he said.
Now he just wants to get his family back together in one residence, whether a house or apartment he can rent, to resume that “normal” life.
“That’s what we want,” he said, adding, “We’re not going to be in another mobile home.”