ATLANTA — A citizen journalist honored by several Georgia groups for increasing access to open government is now facing serious criminal charges after simply recording an event billed as a public political rally.
Nydia Tisdale entered a plea of not guilty last week to felony obstruction of an officer and misdemeanor counts of obstruction and criminal trespass.
"This terrifies me, it really does scare me," Tisdale told Channel 2 investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer, "I was doing absolutely nothing wrong."
Prosecutors are proceeding with the case, which didn't result in indictment until 15 months after the incident and just weeks after Tisdale's attorneys notified Dawson County of her intent to sue for more than $500,000.
"I think one has to wonder why now," said attorney Michael Caplan. “Did it really take 15 months to prepare these charges? Or was this an effort to derail a civil case during a political campaign?"
During those 15 months, Dawson County sheriff's captain Henry 'Tony' Wooten who forcefully arrested Tisdale at Burt's Pumpkin Farm in August 2014, announced he is running for Dawson County Sheriff. He qualified for the election earlier this month.
"It deeply concerns me that someone who would abuse my constitutional rights and abuse his power and his authority could be the sheriff of this county. I think everyone should have grave concerns about that," said Tisdale.
The whole encounter started with a comment made during a speech by Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens.
"I thought I was gonna absolutely puke listening to her," Hudgens told the crowd, referring to U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn.
Hudgens pointed at Tisdale's camera right in front of him and added, "I don't know why you're videotaping but yes, I said that."
In the minutes that followed, Tisdale says she was approached by three different man, none of whom identified themselves to her.
"A campaign staffer sat down next to me and whispered in my ear saying you have to stop filming or leave," Tisdale says she told him she had permission from the farm owner, Kathy Burt, who had graciously welcomed her when she arrived.
When a second political organizer arrived he told Tisdale there was a no-filming policy, which she asked to see a copy of.
Next, a hand appeared in front of Tisdale's camera and witnesses say she was forcibly lifted from her seat and dragged away.
"What is your name, what is your name?" she can be heard screaming as her camera continues to roll.
The 2014 Dawson County political rally was advertised in local newspapers and on Facebook as free and open to the public.
Brian Pritchard from FetchYourNews.com sat directly behind Tisdale at the event.
"I still don't understand it to this day," Pritchard said, recounting how he witnessed her encounter with Captain Wooten.
"He started lifting her physically out of the chair, she was not responding or fighting with him in any way," said Pritchard.
Tisdale's camera recorded much of the encounter as she was dragged to a barn, where Wooten twisted her arm behind her and bent her over a counter.
"Please loosen your grip, I'm not going anywhere," Tisdale begged the officer.
Wooten replied, "As soon as you decide to act like you're somebody and stop fighting with me."
"I'm not fighting you, I'm not resisting you," said Tisdale.
Less than a minute later, Wooten can be seen swiping at the camera. It turns and the shot freezes and Tisdale yells, "Ow. That hurts, you're hurting me."
The video stops shortly thereafter.
The head of Dawson County's Republican Party witnessed what happened inside the barn.
"I am sorry people are treating you this way, this is wrong," Linda Clary Umberger can be seen saying to Tisdale.
Outside, Attorney General Sam Olens spoke up too.
"What are we hiding? There's no reason for that. That is not right," Olens told the crowd, "What are we afraid of with a lady having a camera filming us?"
It is unclear whether Olens knew his remarks were being recorded by Pritchard, who only recorded audio that day. Pritchard posted the recording and his photos online, including one he took of Tisdale standing with Olens earlier that day.
They were each honored by Georgia's First Amendment Foundation last year for their efforts to champion open government.
Tisdale can routinely be found standing behind her camera recording public meetings around North Georgia; she considers herself a citizen journalist.
Her YouTube page has hundreds of thousands of views for her videos which she calls "Nydeos" as a public service to keep everyone informed.
As the speakers continued that day, Pritchard captured audio of Tisdale's screams for help in the background.
She was arrested and her camera was confiscated for about a week.
"If they did that to me with the governor there with the attorney general there, what are they doing to others?" Tisdale worries.
When Tisdale's attorneys sent notice of her intent to sue Dawson County in August 2015, they noted that the charges she was arrested for were never prosecuted.
That same month, Capt. Tony Wooten announced his campaign for Dawson County Sheriff.
In November 2015, the Dawson County District Attorney took the case against Tisdale to a grand jury, which indicted her on the three counts.
Her attorneys not only plan to call Attorney General Olens as a witness, but possibly other state officials who were at the rally.
Pritchard questions why prosecutors never asked him what he saw, even though he had publicized his pictures of the arrest on his website.
The Sheriff's Office completed an internal affairs investigation of the incident, which reportedly cleared Wooten. However, despite an open records request from Channel 2 Action News, the department is refusing to release the report.
Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle declined to comment about the incident, citing the threat of pending litigation.
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