More than a week after an alleged aggravated assault incident near the North Lawrence camp for people experiencing homelessness, the people involved are still reeling emotionally.
A local couple reported to police that a camp resident had approached them carrying a hatchet over his head and made them fear for their lives. The resident said he didn’t raise the hatchet, and that he didn’t intend to hurt or scare anyone.
Brandon Snow, who grew up in town and graduated from Lawrence High School, has stayed at the city-sanctioned camp since fall of 2022. Snow, 32, has been charged with two counts of aggravated assault in connection with the Saturday, July 15 incident.
Snow said he was standing with a small group of camp residents near the camp entrance early that morning when a man came onto the levee and started taking photos of the camp. Snow was not wearing his glasses and couldn’t see the man clearly, he said.
The residents were growing upset over the man taking photos, Snow said. Some people yelled at the man, asking why he was taking pictures, and telling him to stop. Some joked that the man should pay them for their picture.
Snow said he was frustrated that the man ignored the residents. He was also frustrated that city staff at the camp hadn’t attempted to defuse the situation.
“Because nobody else was doing anything about it, I was going to go and see what he was doing,” Snow said.
Snow asked Lindsey Ebenstein, another camp resident, if he could borrow her hatchet.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be in any danger or if my safety was at risk when I went up there because I didn’t know who they were,” Snow said.
Under Kansas law, it is legal to carry a knife or blade of any length. The legality is extinguished and could lead to a charge of criminal use of a weapon if the intended use of the blade is to cause bodily harm.
Ebenstein carries the short-handled, double-sided hatchet on her belt for utility purposes and for self-protection, she said. She handed Snow the hatchet.
Snow started out on his bike and carried the hatchet low as he rode, he said. Nearing the levee, he got off his bike and approached the man to ask about the photos. He walked quickly, and still carried the hatchet low — never over his head, Snow said.
April Evans, 66, said she saw Snow approaching at a brisk pace and immediately became afraid. Snow said he saw April for the first time once he climbed the levee — she was further back and out of his range of sight, so Snow did not know she was present, he said.
Done taking photos, April’s husband, Steve Evans, 72, had turned around to walk toward his wife and hadn’t seen Snow yet.
Steve was taking photos of the camp in order to gain a better idea of its location relative to land parcels owned by the Kaw Drainage District, of which Steve is a board director, he said.
Steve went on alert once his wife screamed, “We are being chased.”
“We were standing. I was waiting for Steve to catch up with me,” April said. “(Steve) was a few feet in back of me, and I saw an individual coming up from the camp. And that’s when I said, ‘We are being chased.’ And that’s when Steve turned around (to see the man).”
April started to run away, toward the bridge.
“She hopped up and immediately started running toward the bridge and screaming for help,” Snow said. “And before I could say anything, he started running with her.”
April was afraid for her life, she said.
Steve turned around and saw Snow, who he said held the hatchet over his head. Steve did not take any photos of Snow because he was too afraid, he said.
Steve began to run away, too, but not for long.
“I realized that it wasn’t going to help, running, and that I needed to turn around and be prepared to defend myself,” Steve said. “At that very moment I turned around, he dropped the ax.”
“We don’t know why he dropped the ax for sure,” April said.
Snow said he threw the hatchet aside as he registered that the couple was not a danger to him. He did not anticipate that his presence would terrify the couple, he said. Hatchets and blades at the camp are commonplace for self-defense and utility. Snow said he did not intend to use the hatchet to hurt the couple.
Distraught and shocked over how the incident has unfolded, Snow has avoided reading media coverage of the incident. He said he has talked candidly with the police about what happened.
Snow told police he asked Steve why he was taking pictures. “Out of curiosity,” Snow said Steve told him. This perplexed Snow. “If you’re curious about us, why not come ask us questions instead of taking our picture?” Snow said he told Steve.
Steve said he didn’t answer any of Snow’s questions.
“He said to me three things,” Steve said. “‘Why are you taking pictures? What are you going to do with them?’ and ‘Don’t you think we are human beings?’”
Steve said he was too shaken to answer Snow. Steve kept walking to the sidewalk; Snow turned the other direction as Steve walked off. Snow did not pursue the couple or touch them, Steve and Snow said.
It did not occur to Steve to explain to anyone at the camp the reasons he was out taking photos, he said.
“I don’t think very many people are going to be comfortable going down to the camp to get permission to take photographs,” he said. “We didn’t think it was any big deal. I took three or four pictures. … We are still emotionally shaken by this.”
Steve, who lives in North Lawrence with April, is also involved in the RiverFront & CENTER’s Kaw River COMMONS project, an improvement project that proposes adding a new pedestrian bridge over the river with viewing decks. Steve said he could not comment on whether that project was ongoing.
Snow was arrested and later charged with two counts of aggravated assault for allegedly placing the Evanses “in reasonable apprehension of immediate bodily harm with a deadly weapon, to wit: a double-bladed hatchet/axe,” the charging document states. A judge allowed Snow to be released from jail on a signature bond, which is common in aggravated assault cases.
Under Kansas law, “assault” is defined as “knowingly placing another person in reasonable apprehension of immediate bodily harm,” or essentially threatening someone. Aggravated assault is a level-7 (low-severity) felony. A charge of battery would indicate that a person made physical contact with another person.
Ebenstein, who witnessed the incident, said Snow might have carried the hatchet over his head for a moment, but asked if she thought Snow intended to hurt the man at the levee, she said “God, no.”
Ebenstein said Snow tossed the hatchet away from the couple. It is in police custody, much to Ebenstein’s dismay.
“That’s the only way I stay alive out here,” she said. “It’s my meditation. … I normally carry it everywhere I go.”
She trusts Snow, she said. “He is only one of like two or three people that even are able to hold my ax.”
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Chansi Long (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from July 2022 through August 2023. Read more of her work for the Times here.