Drug sting lawsuit closer to resolution
Sheriff’s Office released from suit over 2005 arrests
MANSFIELD — “Flip-flopping” testimony by Jerrell Bray led a federal judge to discount an affidavit from the deceased police informant in a lawsuit by several defendants from Operation Turnaround.
The controversial 2005 drug sting operation led the U.S. Attorney’s Office to seek dismissal of charges against 15 Mansfield-area people who previously had pleaded guilty to or been convicted of drug trafficking.
U.S. District Court Judge Donald C. Nugent issued a ruling Oct. 22 releasing the Richland County Sheriff’s Office from liability on issues of whether internal policy encouraged deputies to violate the rights of people arrested in the operation.
Sheriff’s Detective Chuck Metcalf was released from portions of the lawsuit related to claims made by one of those arrested, Lowestco Ballard.
That ruling could be the last step taken before the court decides whether the five-year-old civil rights case is dismissed, or goes to trial on remaining claims, attorneys say.
Geneva France, Lowestco Ballard, Charmin Ballard, Tequerrea Ballard, Joe Ward II, Johnnie Parker and Dwayne Nabors filed the federal court action in 2007, alleging their civil rights were violated during a widespread investigation of the drug trade in Mansfield.
The lawsuit remains one of eight cases still pending in federal court.
Operation Turnaround began after Timothy Harris was found dead south of Mansfield Dec. 31, 2004, in what authorities believed to be a drug-related murder. Local law enforcement officials asked the DEA for help. A task force headed by Lee Lucas was set up, with Bray, a Cleveland-area drug dealer, used as an informant.
In November 2005, more than two dozen people were arrested.
Two years later, while jailed in Cleveland for an unrelated shooting, Bray told a public defender he and Lucas had lied, arresting innocent people in Operation Turnaround. The paid drug informant admitted to framing France and Nabors by using stand-ins during staged drug “transactions.”
Bray, who implicated local law officers as well, pleaded guilty to perjury and deprivation of civil rights charges. Some defendants whose cases had gone to trial were released from prison, at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s office.
In 2009, Metcalf pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of violating the civil rights of Dwayne Nabors, for falsely identifying Nabors as a participant in a videotaped drug deal and testifying that a videotape of the transaction had not been made.
Lucas was indicted on 18 counts of perjury. In early 2010, he was acquitted on all charges.
Over the past five years, as the France lawsuit proceeded, several defendants have been dismissed or partly dismissed from claims. DEA employees were released in 2008. Qualified immunity was given to Sheriff Steve Sheldon, Sgt. Matt Mayer and Capt. Larry Faith — but the court reserved for later the question of whether the county was liable because of practices or policies. Metcalf also was given qualified immunity, except for claims of false arrest, malicious prosecution and fabrication of evidence specifically brought by Lowestco Ballard and Dwayne Nabors.
The court had not ruled on claims Bray violated plaintiffs’ civil rights.
During Lucas’ lengthy trial, the informant changed his story, saying no law enforcement officers conspired with him to fabricate cases against individuals. Bray testified he did that on his own. “I was trying to get myself out of trouble (with the shooting), so I was lying, sir,” he said in court.
Asked at the Lucas trial if he made false allegations against any of the Richland County officers, including Metcalf, he told jurors he did not recall.
However, Bray reversed himself again, in a July 11, 2012, affidavit which the plaintiffs in the France lawsuit hoped to use in court. He again asserted that law enforcement officials were involved in a conspiracy to fabricate evidence.
“None of the officers ever contacted any of my friends or contacts to arrange for them to deliver drugs. But Metcalf, Mayer, Faith and Lucas definitely knew that the people we were identifying as the culprits were, in many cases, not the right people,” Bray said in the affidavit.
“Metcalf, Mayer, Faith and Lucas all knew what was going on, that we were setting people up. After deals were over, if any of them had questions or if there were any doubts as to what the story would be, we would all meet and get our stories straight. Sometimes this involved deleting parts of audio and video records,” he said. “The local officers in particular just wanted these folks off the streets and didn’t care how it happened.”
On Sept. 9, Bray died in federal prison in Butner, N.C., at age 40. A spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office in Chapel Hill, N.C., said late this week a determination on cause of death has not yet been made.
In his Oct. 22 ruling, Nugent said there were serious questions whether Bray’s affidavit would be admissible at trial, considering his death.
Beyond that, the Lucas trial trasncript “reflects Mr. Bray’s admission that his lies were so extensive that he could not remember with any certainty or completeness what his false accusations were, or which officers he falsely accused,” wrote the judge. “No reasonable jury could consider it to have any evidentiary value.”
The court ruling addressed defendants’ motion that the court dismiss claims made by Lowestco Ballard against Metcalf. The judge noted he had not ruled earlier on that issue because there appeared to be evidence the detective had prior dealings with Ballard, and could have known that the man videotaped during a Sept. 9, 2005, “drug transaction” wasn’t actually Ballard, but a stand-in, Darren Transou.
In his ruling, Nugent said that it appeared Metcalf wasn’t directly involved in the video surveillance, and did not see the tape before trial. So the only evidence suggesting he might have committed any Fourth Amendment violation by identifying the wrong man was Bray’s affidavit, which has been disallowed, he wrote.
The federal judge also released Richland County from claims that it maintained policies which encouraged deputies to deprive plaintiffs of their rights. Bray, while invited to act as an informant, was not a county employee, Nugent wrote.
Although Sheldon is a policy maker for the sheriff’s department, no evidence turned up showing that he was involved in actions that deprived Nabors of his civil rights, he said.
The sheriff’s decision to speak favorably about Metcalf at the detective’s sentencing hearing does not support a claim that the sheriff’s department had a policy of tolerating abuses of civil rights, the ruling said.
The judge also said the DEA, not the sheriff’s department, was at the helm of Operation Turnaround, determining policy for the drug sting.
Sheldon could not be reached for comment.
Columbus attorney Benjamin A. Tracy, part of the team representing the plaintiffs, said the the judge has yet to rule on motions filed related to some claims made by plaintiff Dwayne Nabors.
Nabors was acquitted of one drug charge and the jury deadlocked on a second, but he was sentenced to five years in prison on a firearms charge.
Tracy said the court was being asked to rule on claims made by a different person arrested under different circumstances.
Either the case goes to trial to be heard for damages, or it will be dismissed, he said.