A Middleton man is facing felony charges and is out of a job after a June 30 altercation in which he says he defended himself against a disgruntled Goodwill donor who used racial slurs against him.
Matthew Smiley, 38, has lived in Madison for just a year, having moved here from the DC area when his wife got a teaching job in Madison. She’s also from DC, but is a University of Wisconsin alumna. It was her dream to return to Madison, Smiley said. It didn’t take long for him to see the appeal.
“I went to a Badgers game and I went to the Farmers’ Market, and I was sold,” he said.
Smiley worked a supervisor at the Goodwill in Middleton. On June 30, Smiley says he saw an employee accepting a donation that he thought was questionable. In an interview Tuesday, he said it’s Goodwill policy not to accept donations that can’t be readily sold. He said this donor had a pick-up truck full of a variety of items that he would have accepted, but it was just one old metal step-stool that he couldn’t accept because it was “beat up.” That didn’t sit well with the donor.
“Soon as I said, ‘Unfortunately, we can’t take it,’ he went right into the, ‘What are you talking about? This is an f-ing antique! … F that. Go get your supervisor,’” Smiley said. “So I turned my badge around and said, ‘I am the supervisor.’ So he said, ‘BS. You know what? That sounds about right, though. Goodwill will hire a n***** as a supervisor.’ So I said, ‘What?’ So he’s just like, ‘You heard me, boy.’ … I was looking at him now. I kind of walk up on him. As I was walking up on him he must have seen whatever I was feeling. He must have seen it on my face, because he was like, ‘That’s right. Go ahead. Hit me, n*****. You’ll be gone so f-ing fast.’ I said, ‘I ain’t going to hit you.’”
Smiley said he did ask the man to leave, but the man continued unloading donation items and muttering under his breath.
“So I’m following him around the car like, ‘Hey, excuse me. I’m asking you to leave. Leave,’” Smiley said. “So he picks up like a toy chest off the left side of his truck, and I was kind of maybe two feet behind him, so when he turns he has the toy chest between himself and I. And when he sees me there, next thing comes out of his mouth, ‘Didn’t I tell you to get out of my face, n*****?’ So when he says this that last time, I slapped the toy chest out of his hands. At this point I just wanted him to leave.”
Smiley said the man turned and “bolted” toward the door of the truck, which made Smiley nervous.
“It looked like he was going under his seat, in between his seats,” Smiley said. “I know that in Wisconsin you all have that conceal and carry law, so this gentleman could have been reaching for anything. And the way things had been turning lately for people of my color and people that look like me, I’m not going to wait for you to present a weapon or any kind of thing to me. When he turned, he turned so quick and made that move to that car, it was like a reaction just told me, don’t let him get in that car. So I kind of pushed him, I bumped him, I rammed him out the way.”
Smiley said he got the man in a “bear hug” until another coworker could close the truck door. Smiley said at that point he noticed the man had a small amount of blood above one eye.
Smiley said both he and the man called police. He said police interviewed him, a younger coworker who witnessed the entire encounter, another coworker and the donor. They also viewed security video. The video did not have accompanying audio, and the younger coworker told police he did not hear any racial slurs.
“I want to say he should have heard it because it was right there, but he was a newer employee. So I don’t exactly know his temperament,” Smiley said. “Maybe when things started rising to the level that they did, he kind of just ignored the whole situation. Kind of his way of dealing with it. I don’t want to fault the kid for anything. I just wish he would have heard it.”
Smiley said the police took him to their station and told him he’d be facing a felony substantial battery charge because the man reported having a loose tooth.
“I was over-charged,” he said. “I’m this far along in my life and I don’t have any felonies. As an African-American, that’s kind of amazing, considering how things are kind of set against us.”
In an interview Wednesday, a Middleton police officer said the responding officers’ reports corroborate Smiley’s account, including the fact that a witness said he didn’t hear racial slurs. The officer confirmed that charges had been referred to the Dane County District Attorney’s office, but prosecutors have not made a decision on charges. Online court records show no formal charges have been filed.
Smiley said he intends to plead not guilty, if charges are brought. “That tooth could have been loose before,” he said. But he’s ready to accept the consequences nonetheless.
“Whatever happens in that courtroom, I pray it goes in my favor, but I’m an adult and I have to live with the decisions that I made,” he said. An online fundraiser set up to help Smiley retain an attorney has already raised over $14,000.
He said the police officers “handled it well,” never placed him in handcuffs and even gave him a ride back to his car when all was said and done. He holds no ill will toward Goodwill either, he said, even though he’s now out of work.
“They were kind enough to let me resign without facing any termination,” he said. “They’ve already notified me that this won’t be any kind of mark on my work record or anything else. They’ve offered to give me recommendations and everything. Goodwill did what they could as far as my situation went. I thank them for everything that they did, going above and beyond with the handling of this situation, because I’m pretty sure they probably could have made things a lot rougher for me as well.”
Smiley said he’s had a few job prospects, and intends to stay in the area.
“I will not let this lone experience shape my view of Dane County overall or Madison or Middleton overall. I just hope to never get put in that situation again,” he said. “I operate in respect and I’m not taking any disrespect. I’m just not doing it. We’re in a world full of bullies, and the only way to diffuse a bully is by standing up.”