Former cop sues city over firing

Dec. 17, 2013 @ 08:50 PM

Following through on an earlier threat, a former Durham Police Department lieutenant and Duke lacrosse case figure has sued the city and several key officials over his firing in 2012.

John Shelton alleges he was dismissed in retaliation for his willingness to testify truthfully against the city and fellow police officers in the trio of federal civil-rights lawsuits spawned by the lacrosse case.

Shelton’s testimony could have “pierce[d] the immunities asserted by the city” in its defense of the lacrosse lawsuits, said his attorney, Durham lawyer Bob Ekstrand.

Ekstrand filed Shelton’s lawsuit in state court on Dec. 11, ant send a copy to city officials the following day via Federal Express.

The move came nearly six weeks after he gave officials a Nov. 25 deadline for opening settlement talks to head off litigation with the former lieutenant.

But City Attorney Patrick Baker said there was “no discussion” between the parties before the deadline.

State procedural rules will eventually require the two sides to try mediating their differences, and it’s possible “if something changes” that they could open talks sooner, Baker said.

But “I didn’t think an attempt at settlement would be a good use of everyone’s energy at this stage,” Baker said.

Shelton’s tie to the lacrosse case comes because he was the first Durham police officer to question the stripper, Crystal Mangum, who in March 2006 falsely alleged she’d been raped at a party by members of Duke University’s 2005-06 men’s lacrosse team.

Then a patrol sergeant, Shelton by all accounts didn’t believe Mangum’s claims. But the watch commander on duty that night elected to call in detectives to investigate them.

The subsequent probe led to the indictment of three players on charges N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper eventually decided were contradicted by all available evidence. He dropped the prosecution in April 2007.

Shelton claims he began facing retaliation from department higher-ups in 2006, but made lieutenant anyway on the strength of his performance in objective promotion evaluations.

But he was passed over for a captaincy by Police Chief Jose Lopez, who by Shelton’s and Ekstrand’s account uses a largely subjective process for deciding who will fill senior command slots.

Shelton alleges he was eventually sacked on pretextual grounds, following allegations he’d mishandled a police chase and criticized the department.

His suit targets the city but also names Lopez as a defendant, along with City Manager Tom Bonfield, Deputy Chief Anthony Marsh, former Deputy Chief Steve Mihaich and two other police commanders.

Ekstrand said Lopez and Bonfield are among the officials who’ve faced claims in the lacrosse cases, an odd assertion given that neither is or has ever been a defendant in them.

Lopez took over as chief in September 2007, roughly five months after Cooper exonerated the players. Bonfield became city manager in August 2008, about 5½ months after the last of the lacrosse lawsuits was filed.

But Shelton’s lawsuit claims the two had reason to act against him because his testimony could raise the risk of the city’s losing to the players.

A U.S. appeals court a year ago tossed out all of the players’ federal-law claims against the city, ruling that even if their version of how the police investigation of Mangum’s claims went off the rails was true, governmental immunity meant there was no civil-rights liability.

It acted before any of the cases reached the point lawyers for the two sides would start gathering depositions and other testimony from lacrosse-case figures.

Last year’s appellate decision left the city exposed only to long-shot state-law claims from the players. The two detectives who investigated the lacrosse case also face a malicious-prosecution claim from the players Cooper exonerated.

Mangum was recently convicted of second-degree murder in an otherwise unrelated case. State corrections officials expect her to remain in prison until 2029.

Shelton now works as a deputy in the Durham County Sheriff’s Office.