EXTRA CONTENT: Brutality accusation against Whitley deputies settled out of court
Above, a photo taken by family members shows injuries Delbert Bray suffered during his arrest in May. He claimed they came at the hands of Whitley County Sheriff's Deputies.
Accusations that three Whitley County Sheriff's deputies severely beat a local man during a traffic stop in early May were quietly settled out of court in advance of a potential lawsuit, but questions still remain surrounding the details of exactly what transpired that led to the legal wrangling in the first place.
The Kentucky Association of Counties (KACO), on behalf of the Whitley County Fiscal Court, agreed recently to pay 53-year-old Delbert Bray an undisclosed amount of money to resolve claims he made regarding the conduct of Sheriff's deputies Ken Shepherd, John Hill and Joe Prewitt earlier this year. The terms of the settlement are, at this time, confidential.
According to documents unearthed in a News Journal investigation of the case, Bray was in a vehicle on the night of May 5, 2012 that tried to evade a police road block set up near the intersection of Keswick Road and Fayette Lane in southern Whitley County. Police gave chase, but what happened from there depends on whom you ask.
According to a citation issued in the case by police, Bray was driving the vehicle and backed up in the roadway to avoid the checkpoint. When they went after him, he "drove through the front and side yard of the first residence on Red Hill Road and came to rest in the back yard behind the home."
Police say he tried to flee on foot, but was captured and placed under arrest.
He was taken to Baptist Regional Medical Center for medical treatment. Blood test results show that his blood/alcohol content was .16 - twice the legal limit. He was charged with third-offense DUI, fleeing or evading police and for driving on a DUI suspended license.
But Bray's attorney, P. Stewart Abney, claims in a letter to the county on Aug. 13 that his client was wrongfully charged because he was actually a passenger in the vehicle, not the driver. And, worse, Abney claims officers savagely beat his client when he would not tell them who was really driving the car.
"When Mr. Bray did not answer the officer's questions to their satisfaction, Mr. Bray was dragged out of the squad car, thrown onto a gravel driveway, and stomped and kicked numerous times, all while handcuffed."
Abney claims Bray suffered a fractured rib, and cuts and bruises to his face, left knee, chest, and shoulder. Photographs taken by family members shortly after the incident show Bray with multiple injuries. At least one of the cuts to his head required stitches. In his letter, Abney said he was authorized to settle out of court in advance of any potential lawsuit for $500,000. The offer expired Aug. 20, the same day London attorney Jason Williams, representing KACO, wrote a letter saying the dispute had been resolved. Like most Kentucky county governments, Whitley County pays into the KACO "All Lines Fund" which is, essentially, an insurance policy against claims for things like employee misconduct, property damage, etc.
Deputy Sheriff Ken Shepherd, who was the arresting officer in the case, did not return calls seeking comment on the incident.
Bray died Nov. 30 after being diagnosed with advance-stage cancer in his brain, lungs, kidney's and liver.
His sister, Ruth Elswick, said her brother would have been physically unable to flee from the police or give them much of a fight when they stopped him on May 5 because of ongoing physical problems.
"He was my baby brother and I sure didn't like what they did to him," Elswick said. "They need to get a whole different attitude. They are sworn to uphold the law themselves and they broke it ... I definitely think they should be charged with a crime."
Elswick said her brother had to be hospitalized again a day after the alleged beating due to pain he was having as a result of his injuries.
In documents obtained by the News Journal through an open records request, the Sheriff Department's version of events is initially provided by John Sparks, a Senior Litigation Examiner for KACO, in a letter to Bray's attorney dated Aug. 14.
"Based on a preliminary investigation, it appears your client was the only known occupant of the vehicle in question that evening. You are correct in the fact, your client was taken to the ER by an officer, but this was due to injuries he sustained after he fell while attempting to leave the scene."
Sparks said he got the information from the Sheriff's Department. He also wrote that Kentucky State Police were exploring Bray's allegations.
An audio recording of radio traffic between officers and the county's E-911 Dispatch Center seems to contradict the official account of the incident. An officer can be heard telling the on-duty dispatcher that one of the people that was in the vehicle fled on foot and got away, while the other, presumably Bray, was in custody. It indicates police knew he was not the only occupant of the vehicle.
Elswick claims Bray's second cousin was actually the driver of the vehicle that night. She did not provide his name.
Other strange circumstances also surround the case.
A citation was issued to Bray the night of the incident, but charges were never filed in Whitley District Court until Aug. 13.
Bray's lawyer claims that's because "... the officers and departments have attempted to cover this incident up by eliminating any record that the citation existed."
One explanation for the delay is contained within a notation handwritten on one of the documents obtained by the News Journal. It says that the letter from Bray's attorney to the county demanding a settlement reminded police that they hadn't yet filed charges in the case. They immediately did so thereafter.
Whitley County Judge-Executive Pat White, Jr. would not comment on specifics of the incident, but did say he wrote down the explanation for the delay in filing the charges during a meeting with officials from KACO. He said the explanation came from Chief Deputy Sheriff K.Y. Fuson.
Abney notes in his initial letter to the county that Bray thought Williamsburg Police Officer Elijah Hunter, referred to as Elijah Hunt in the letter, was the one most responsible for the alleged beating. White clarified that Hunter was not involved in the arrest and that no Williamsburg city police officers were at the scene that night. Bray had mistaken one of the officers for Hunter.
Neither the letter, nor any of the other documents obtained by the News Journal, give specifics about which officers supposedly hit Bray.
Whitley County Sheriff Colan Harrell said he did not know all of the details surrounding all the arrest, but called the incident a "controversial issue," and defended his officers. He said none of the deputies involved has been sanctioned or removed from duty in the wake of the allegations or the settlement.
"It never amounted to anything ... There is not going to be a lawsuit," Harrell said.
Harrell said he was told there was a video of the arrest, but that either Bray's attorney, or a KACO lawyer, informed him it was inconclusive as to what happened.
"There was some kind of video that was mentioned by the attorney, but it never showed anything to really amount to anything," Harrell said. "This is according to the attorney."
Harrell said he was busy in a meeting and could not answer follow-up questions regarding this story Tuesday.
Elswick said she was told a video existed as well, but that it was in the possession of her brother's attorney. She had not viewed it, but said it was captured by a homeowner's security system.
Bray's attorney refused to comment on the incident or legal settlement, but said he does still represent the interests of the family.
Elswick said, as far as she knows, the family has not been provided any money from the settlement yet, but added she hopes some comes soon to help pay for the cost of Bray's funeral and burial. She added that she was afraid to speak out about the case because she feared some sort of retaliation, but decided to do so as a way to warn others of what she sees as a pattern of misconduct by police.
"I'm sure Delbert was probably mouthing off and I'm sure he was drunk, but that still didn't give them the right to hit him," Elswick said. "He's still somebody's brother, somebody's daddy and somebody's son."
"This is the kind of thing that makes me afraid of the police ... I'd be afraid to stop for them just to tell you the truth."
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