HOT SPRINGS -- The trial of a Bentonville firefighter arrested in March in connection with an altercation with an Asian man outside Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort was held Friday in Garland County District Court, ending after a day of testimony with Judge Joe Graham taking the matter under advisement until Oct. 1.
Benjamin Snodgrass, 45, who later resigned from his position as captain in the Bentonville Fire Department, was charged with misdemeanor counts of third-degree battery and public intoxication stemming from the March 13 incident involving Liem Nguyen, 35, of Hot Springs, during which Snodgrass reportedly made racist remarks and threats to him.
Nguyen testified Friday he had been at Oaklawn playing craps in the casino that night and left to go home, calling an Uber to pick him up. He said he was waiting outside in the "half circle" area at the front of Oaklawn where Ubers and cabs pick up customers.
"I was just standing there minding my own business, playing on my phone, smoking a cigarette," Nguyen said, adding Snodgrass was sitting on a curb nearby when he began making comments to Nguyen, including, "'Do you know you're in America?'"
Nguyen said he repeatedly told Snodgrass he "didn't want any trouble" and moved away from him, but he came toward him again. Nguyen got the attention of an Oaklawn employee, Mickey Davis, and asked him for help.
At one point, after Nguyen and Davis walked over to talk to a security person, Snodgrass began walking away, Nguyen said, so he returned to where he was but asked Davis to stay with him until the Uber came.
He said Snodgrass "came at me" a second time and "put his hands on me" and "told me he was going to kill me and my kind of people." He noted Snodgrass was "very loud" and he could "smell the alcohol on him, he was right in my face."
Nguyen said he put his hands up in the air, but Snodgrass continued to push him so he began punching him to defend himself, noting, "He was bigger than me, I'm way smaller than him." He said they both fell to the ground and Snodgrass still had hold of his shirt, which was ripped during the struggle.
He said he told Davis to call Hot Springs police and officers arrived "within a minute or two" and he had no interaction with Snodgrass after that. He said he suffered a wrist injury, which he later admitted was from punching Snodgrass, and a scrape on his knee from hitting the pavement.
Attorney Joe Churchwell, who represented Snodgrass along with attorney Brent Miller, hammered at Nguyen's testimony during cross-examination, while showing security footage from Oaklawn of the incident, some of which was obscured by a pillar.
At one point, Nguyen testified Snodgrass put his hands around his throat for "about a minute" while he had his hands in the air, but when Churchwell pointed out that didn't appear to match the footage they could see, he then said Snodgrass had his hands "in the vicinity of his throat" and then he grabbed his shirt.
Churchwell also questioned why Nguyen had returned to the area near where Snodgrass was if he was concerned about his safety, repeatedly asking him about his Uber app and if it indicated when the Uber was coming.
He also questioned apparent inconsistencies in the exact nature of the threats Snodgrass made, but Nguyen repeatedly insisted Snodgrass had threatened to kill him.
Davis testified he worked in maintenance at Oaklawn and had just gotten off work for the night when Nguyen got his attention. He said he heard Snodgrass saying, "'You don't belong here. You don't belong in this country. What are you doing in this country?'" and noted Snodgrass was "looking directly" at Nguyen while saying it.
"The next thing you know," Davis said, Snodgrass grabbed Nguyen, who kept telling him, "'Let me go!'" and that Nguyen was punching Snodgrass "trying to get him off him."
Davis said he had called his manager after the initial confrontation to warn them there was going to be a fight. He noted Snodgrass was "very drunk" and "slurring his words" and "couldn't stand up." He said Snodgrass actually fell after grabbing Nguyen's shirt, pulling Nguyen down with him.
When asked why he called the manager instead of 911, Davis said they had officers on the grounds at Oaklawn and he thought it would be faster. He later called police when Nguyen asked him to, he said.
Hot Springs police Officer Tyler Ward, who worked the incident, testified he spoke to Snodgrass and could immediately tell he was under the influence of alcohol, noting he could smell it and Snodgrass "wasn't making much sense."
He said Snodgrass mentioned Nguyen "not being from America," but didn't admit to attacking him. He said he charged him with third-degree battery since the injuries to both men appeared minor.
Under cross examination by Miller, Ward noted Snodgrass was "very polite and very cordial" after his arrest and "never gave us an issue." He said Snodgrass mentioned something about "gases being pumped into the casino" at Oaklawn and that he told officers he was "hammered."
Deputy Prosecutor Drew Middlebrooks rested his case shortly after 11:30 a.m. and Miller motioned for a directed verdict, noting Nguyen's testimony wasn't consistent with what they could see in the video.
"His account is not accurate," Miller said, and noted Nguyen's only injuries were from hitting Snodgrass and falling on the ground. He said he had no argument for the public intoxication charge but felt there wasn't enough evidence for a conviction on the battery charge.
Graham denied his motion, noting Nguyen had indicated he was injured during the attack and that the trial should proceed. Miller said he expected to have at least four witnesses for the defense.
Snodgrass worked for Bentonville's Fire Department for 14 years before resigning March 26. He had been promoted to captain in 2019.
At the time of the incident in question, Snodgrass and his wife were in Hot Springs to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary, according to Miller.
A small group of demonstrators held a peaceful rally Friday morning outside the Garland County courts building to support Liem Nguyen. The group included Joshua Price, a Democratic candidate for secretary of state, and Erin Holliday, a member of the Hot Springs Board of Directors. Price, who organized the demonstration, said he’s founding president of the Asian American Pacific Islander Caucus of Arkansas.