RILEY: Best of 2019

WDRB digital reporter Jason Riley worked with the newsroom to uncover cases that left an impression on him and the Kentucky legal system. 

LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WDRB) – I did this once before, in 2015, and wisely called it my “first (NOT ANNUAL)” most memorable “stories of the year” list, as I knew it was doubtful I would both remember and take the time to make it a yearly tradition.

So let’s go for every four years, like the Olympics.

Again, these are not necessarily the most popular web stories, but they are the ones I remember the most at the end of this year.

For most of these stories, it's important to know I worked with a TV reporter and photo journalist. 

And both Marcus Green and Chris Otts would note that they edited the stories to make sense. 

1)    Kentucky social workers accused of illegally removing children from homes

I had heard about this story about a year earlier, but it was difficult to get to because Family Court cases are typically closed to the public. Reporter Travis Ragsdale and I managed to get the necessary documents and enough people in the system to agree to go on the record.

State Cabinet for Health and Family Services workers for years had been using blank removal orders with pre-signed judges' signatures to remove children on weekends and after the courthouse has closed for the day.

This was illegal, several attorney and judges told us. Meanwhile, complaints had failed to bring about change.

Cabinet workers were leaving copies of the blank orders – already signed by judges -- at the Home of the Innocents on Market Street. That gave the state workers the power to remove children without a judge reviewing the allegations on the order or filling out other necessary documentation.

Travis and I were also told that the process was being abused.

For example, cabinet workers had allegedly called judges after hours and told them about the need to remove one child from a home, but then used multiple copies of pre-signed emergency custody orders to take multiple kids.

Chief Jefferson District Court Judge Anne Haynie acknowledged that she believed this has occurred at least once, saying "a cabinet worker did something they shouldn’t have."

While Haynie and cabinet officials denied that any laws were broken, they agreed the process was flawed and needed reform. The judges, cabinet and state implemented a new method to allow workers to send an order to the judge to see and electronically sign.

2) Sex assaults highlight ‘crazy loophole’ freeing mentally ill defendants

This story came out of a piece reporter Chad Mills did in August about a Louisville man who authorities say raped and fractured the skull of an 8-year-old girl. In it, Chad reported that Cane Madden had previously been charged with a violent sex crime, but a judge had found him not competent to stand trial and he was released.

Chad and I were curious why Madden wasn’t placed somewhere where he could get treatment and not be a danger to himself or others.

We discovered that Madden had been arrested for multiple alleged crimes over the years but was always found incompetent for trial. He then ultimately went free. Why? Because he didn't meet Kentucky's criteria for involuntary hospitalization, a law that says, in part, people can only be held against their will if they will benefit from treatment, even if they are mentally ill and considered dangerous. 

In fact, Madden was released from a burglary case for incompetency just hours before he allegedly raped the child. He was involuntarily hospitalized and almost immediately released again.

And it turns out this has been a problem in Kentucky for decades: mentally ill defendants who aren't competent to stand trial but can't by law remain hospitalized. The result is a dangerous person walking free.

In Madden’s most recent case, the defense attorney has already filed a motion to release him, arguing that he’s already been found incompetent this year.

After we brought new scrutiny to this paradox, lawmakers, court officials, mental health experts and others began scrambling to craft a bill to change the law. And it’s not just Madden. In the past few months, prosecutors across Kentucky have told stories about similar cases called for changes to the law.

“I cannot imagine everyone involved in this case knowing exactly what’s going to happen, extremely predictable, but still having to do your job and go through the steps as the law currently is, knowing that … this guy is going to get out and someone else is going to pay the price for that ,”  Sen. Danny Carroll told other legislators in a follow-up story Chad, reporter Marcus Green and I did.

3)    Suicide or ‘rumspringa’ slaying? Kentucky Amish man fights his conviction

This was a story that Travis Ragsdale and I had planned to turn around in one afternoon. But once we met with Daniel Hostetler’s attorneys in Frankfort and started to look at documents, we knew it needed a much deeper dive.

In fact, a Hart County judge wrote in a court ruling that, although he has presided over "thousands of cases, this is the only one with the possibility of ever being telecasted on Dateline or 48 Hours."

Travis and I reviewed hundreds of documents, watched court hearings and called numerous people involved in the case.

Hostetler had spent several years in prison for killing Brandon Crain even though his attorneys claimed he didn't know Crain and was three hours away with his family in Fleming County without a vehicle when the teen disappeared.

In fact, Crain’s 2012 death had been considered a suicide. He was described as "depressed and suicidal" by his mother and had threatened to jump from a bridge over the Green River in Hart County.

The 19-year-old’s body was recovered from the river in the spring of 2012. His wallet and cell phone were left at home, and a gas station surveillance video appeared to show him walking toward the bridge the day he disappeared months earlier.

A medical examiner concluded Crain had drowned, and the Kentucky State Police ruled his death a suicide.

But about a year later, Hostetler said he made up a story about killing someone because he needed an excuse to not return to his Amish life in Fleming County in northeastern Kentucky. At the time, Hostetler was on “rumspringa,” the rite of passage for young Amish people away from their communities.

After telling his brother he had accidentally killed someone, Hostetler said authorities were notified and he was eventually coerced into confessing to killing Crain, who disappeared around the same time.

Earlier this month Former Gov. Matt Bevin pardoned Hostetler, calling his conviction a “sloppy and unjust prosecution.”

For example, prosecutors told Hostetler's attorney about the gas station surveillance video but didn't turn it over, according to court records and testimony.

And the confession was full of inaccuracies that should have easily been caught by police and Hostetler's own defense team, Hostetler’s attorney said. One example involves the man whom Hostetler said in his confession asked him to pick up Crain.

The attorneys argue Hostetler hadn't yet met the man on January 26, 2012, the day Crain disappeared.

“I am a combination of sickened, saddened, and outraged at the multiple degrees of incompetence displayed by many individuals during their multiple efforts to incarcerate a simple man for a crime that zero evidence shows that he committed,” Bevin wrote in the Dec. 6 pardon. “There is however, much testimony and evidence to the contrary.”

4)    “Toxic Culture” of sexual misconduct and cover-ups gripped Kentucky prison

When Department of Corrections Commissioner James Erwin was fired in February, the Kentucky Justice Cabinet offered no details. In a wrongful termination lawsuit the next month, Erwin claimed he was let go for refusing to fire two employees he believes weren't afforded due process.

But the allegations against the employees and the larger issues at the prison where they worked, the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange, were still a mystery.

The story ended up being about much more than a disagreement between Erwin and his boss.

Reporter Travis Ragsdale and I dug through hundreds of documents obtained through open records requests, and interviewed past and current employees, officials and attorneys. We found that the impetus for Erwin’s termination stemmed from what the state had deemed a ‘toxic culture’ at the Kentucky State Reformatory.

Supervisors were accused of covering up claims that male employees sexually abused and harassed their female co-workers and had sex with an inmate, a state investigation found.

In fact, the documents we obtained suggested that a pattern of alleged sexual assault and inappropriate conduct at the prison in La Grange were ignored for years by the internal affairs director and the prison’s Equal Employment Opportunity Coordinator.

Erwin acknowledged that he refused to fire two supervisors, but said it was because the investigations were not done properly and needed to be more thorough.

Meanwhile, the problems prompted two lawsuits this year and a slew of ongoing investigations and firings, including two supervisors at the prison. And the former warden at the prison, Aaron Smith, was also fired in April.

As a result of the problems, the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet late last year took over the state correction department’s internal affairs process.

5) Body cam video shows Louisville police officer tasing woman sitting on her hands

The above story by me and reporter Gilbert Corsey was about former Officer Greg Satterly, who was only fired after he was found to have used excessive force in three separate incidents. He was also allowed to stay on active duty after at least the first two incidents while being investigated for more than two years. The police department has yet to explain why this was allowed. 

But this was just one of many LMPD stories we did this year. There were numerous lawsuits that accused LMPD of "racially biased policing" and other civil rights violations during traffic stops of black people.

In one, an officer assumed Marlo Brown was “probably fu**ing driving around buying dope” after pulling him over for failing to use a turn signal to switch lanes, according to body camera video of the stop.

In another lawsuit, police pulled over Tyrone Daugherty in the city's West End last September for failing to use his turn signal. Police body camera video showed Daugherty had used his signal.

The officer ordered Daugherty out of the vehicle, frisked him and a passenger, brought out a drug sniffing dog and had officers look inside and under the car as well as pull speakers out of the trunk during a 30-minute search before Daugherty was let go with only a traffic citation.

Anthony Parker also filed a lawsuit this year after being pulled over while driving home from church with his fianceé and 9-year-old son last August. Officers told him he failed to use his turn signal at 28th Street and Broadway.

When Parker’s girlfriend, Demetria Firman, was frisked, in her church dress, while her purse and vehicle were “torn apart without consent,” she asked Officer Josh Doerr if “something was wrong,” according to a federal lawsuit.

“This is how we conduct all our stops,” Doerr responded, according to his body cam video. “We're a different kind of unit that works a little different than traditional.”

Chief Steve Conrad implemented new traffic stop guidelines, raising the threshold for pulling over drivers and add rules on when people can be removed from their vehicles or handcuffed as well as limiting the number of police and cruisers that can be involved.

In addition, three LMPD officers were convicted of faking overtime hours to boost pay and increase retirement benefits, falsifying arrest citations to justify the hours. The October 28 plea deal came nearly two years after a WDRB News investigation exposed overtime abuse by several officers, including the three who have now admitted to the scheme.

A jury awarded $2.25 million to a former University of Louisville student who was wrongfully arrested by a Louisville Metro police detective more than a decade ago. There are four more trials pending.

The lawsuits followed an investigation by me and reporter Ralph Dunlop when we were with The Courier-Journal. In a series of articles in 2010, we reported that Det. Crystal Marlowe arrested more than a dozen people over a two-year period who could not have committed the crimes, either because they were already in jail at the time, or because of other evidence that supported their innocence.

In a more recent wrongful arrest lawsuit, a woman claims a Louisville Metro Police officer arrested her and falsely testified there was surveillance video showing she stole from her employer -- even though the evidence clearly showed she didn't.

Shayla Simpson was initially charged in a criminal case in Jefferson Circuit Court, but the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office requested it be dismissed. Her attorney said a surveillance video of the theft "clearly" showed another employee stole the money.

Another employee was arrested and convicted. 

Thanks for reading along this year. Please read this column again in 2023. 

Copyright 2019 WDRB News. All rights reserved.

Digital Reporter

Jason Riley is a criminal justice reporter for WDRB.com. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after 14 years with The Courier-Journal. He graduated from Western Kentucky University. Jason can be reached at 502-585-0823 and jriley@wdrb.com.