HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - For the Dayton family, it's been a hard week. Russell Dayton, of Huntsville, said his family drove up to the St. Louis area to Pontoon Beach, Illinois, where they stayed to organize and attend his father-in-law's funeral on Monday.
But on the trip, he never expected his family to be mistaken for carjackers the next morning.
Pontoon Beach Police told WHNT News 19's sister station, FOX 2 St. Louis, that they had been patrolling the motel where the Daytons were staying.
Officers decided to run the plates on a black Honda, belonging to Dayton's daughter. It came back reported as stolen during a carjacking in Huntsville back in October.
So, they initiated a raid in the hotel, identifying which rooms the Daytons were in.
"We had a knock on our door, I think it was around 5:00, 5:30 a.m.," said Dayton. "I heard, 'Police, Sheriff's Department, open the door!' I was in a daze, I undid the latch and opened the door. It was thrown open, I was shoved back, pushed against the wall, pistol in my face. I'm basically in shock, because I don't know what's going on. I'm thinking they've got the wrong room or something."
Dayton said it became clear the police were trying to figure out who drove the Honda CRV. He heard noise coming from the next hotel room where his daughter was staying and knew police had come to that door too.
"I kept saying, it's not possible! I'm still standing with my hands up, gun in my face," he said. "[The car is] my daughter's, she's had it from day one, she bought it brand new."
Dayton said it was a scary ordeal, and he felt as if the police in Pontoon Beach were being "overzealous" with their approach.
"We had no idea what was going on with our kids. Later, we found out they had them in handcuffs on the floor in the hallway," he explained.
Later, it came to light that the Daytons were correct about their ownership of the vehicle. Pontoon Beach Police Chief Christopher Modrusic said while the plates belonged to the stolen car, the Daytons' vehicle's VIN and year differed from the one that had been reported stolen.
"We still don't know how that plate got on the car," said Chief Modrusic. "It's a very unfortunate circumstance, wish it had never occurred. We're out there trying to get bad people off the streets."
Dayton said the chief also called him to apologize. But by then, the Daytons had left town, eager to get back to Huntsville.
They said they've turned the problematic plate to the Huntsville Police Department.
As for how the plate got on his daughter's car, Dayton has a theory. He believes someone switched them, because she came to him a few weeks ago asking him to tighten the screws that hold it on. He never noticed the numbers were different.
In the meantime, though, the Daytons feel traumatized by this mistaken raid.
"This could have been taken care of in five minutes. Instead, they drag my family through this ordeal. Making all the arrangements for the funeral was hard enough, we had a pretty bad weekend. And then, to be attacked by a SWAT team out of your dead sleep and almost killed. It could have easily happened if we hadn't been thinking straight," he said. "We're definitely shaken. We're even talking about, I don't know if I could even stay in another hotel room. It's that bad."
Chief Modrusic said the department's Internal Affairs division is reviewing the incident.
Dayton commented that he and his family have always supported police, and are very proud of the officers working the streets in the Huntsville and Madison County area. They would just like to see accountability with the Illinois department, to keep these kinds of mistakes from happening again.
"This was lack of training, lack of common sense. Overzealous," he said. "It was an accident that could have been very easily prevented with five minutes of good police work."