ST. LOUIS – They just wanted to sit in the wheelchair section.
Friends Nate Hutchens and Daniel Mellenthin had gone to the ballgame last week to watch the Cardinals play the San Francisco Giants. Mellenthin uses a wheelchair, so the men were hoping to snag a seat in the accessible section. But first the usher wouldn't let them into the section and then police kicked them out of the stadium, throwing Hutchens to the ground outside, and arresting him.
"We feel totally disrespected," Hutchens said. "I don't understand why it happened."
Busch Stadium officials said Hutchens was removed because he was being disruptive to other fans, and that he got into a "physical altercation" with police. Stadium officials said they did not remove Mellenthin.
Mellenthin has used a wheelchair user for the past 13 years, since suffering a spinal injury when he was 20. He's a huge Cardinals fan and went to the game Sept. 3 with electronic tickets already purchased.
The two were running late. They had a single shot of Patron tequila at Mellenthin's house and talked for a while. But Jack Flaherty was pitching, and the men wanted to catch the last few innings of the game before hanging out around Mellenthin's fire pit that evening.
The plan, they said, was to go to their section and exchange the tickets for wheelchair-accessible seats, in an open space with folding chairs at the top of some sections. The seats they paid for could only be accessed by stairs.
Mellenthin, 33, and Hutchens, 29, arrived during the sixth inning and asked an usher to swap their seats. Mellenthin said he's done this several times in the past.
"We kindly asked the attendant if we could be seated there," Mellenthin said. "There were three open seats at the end of the row."
But the usher denied their request. And when they asked why, he didn't answer.
Mellenthin, a disability rights advocate, said he was incensed. Other people were in the wheelchair-accessible area. Mellenthin asked them if they were disabled, and some admitted they weren't.
"There's no kind of safeguard in place to make sure that the people that actually need those seats are getting them," he said.
Busch Stadium officials said they "strongly" encourage people who need accessible seating to contact the stadium before the game.
"When an individual requesting accessible seating arrives with a standard ticket and requests accommodation during the game, options may be very limited," said the statement, attributed to Matt Gifford, vice president of stadium operations. "When this situation occurs, the ushers do their best to find an area to accommodate guests."
Hutchens said after the first usher refused them seating, another usher arrived in the section and Hutchens tried to explain the situation to him.
"We weren't raising our voices. We were being cordial," Hutchens said. "He said, 'You don't have to make a scene,' and I said, 'We just want to sit and watch the last three innings, man.'"
At this point, Hutchens said, the usher radioed for police. At least three police officers arrived in the section, the men said. Hutchens tried to ask if he could get his money back for the tickets if they were being removed, but he said he was "laughed at" by police.
Busch Stadium officials said Hutchens refused to leave and became "belligerent," until Mellenthin persuaded him to leave.
But Mellenthin said he was kicked out, too: Two police officers began pushing his wheelchair out of the stadium. "They're literally shoving me. One said, 'I've had enough of you," Mellenthin said. "I asked them, 'Am I under arrest? Am I being detained?'"
As they were escorted out of the stadium gates, Mellenthin and Hutchens said they started to move toward Mellenthin's car, which was near where they were exiting. Police insisted on taking a longer route, Hutchens and Mellenthin said.
Hutchens said he was getting tired of one of the officers prodding him in the back. He got out his phone and started to film the officer, and that's when the men say the situation escalated.
First an officer slapped Hutchens' arm, knocking his phone out of his hand. Then one tackled him face-first into the pavement. Another officer put a knee in his back.
Mellenthin watched, stunned, as his friend got arrested and taken back to the stadium.
Hutchens spent the night in jail and was issued summonses for misdemeanor trespassing and resisting arrest.
"I've never had PTSD in my life until I was watching my buddy get brutalized for no reason," Mellenthin said. "It's messed with my sense of balance and justice."