The city of Federal Way has agreed to pay $130,000 to settle a civil lawsuit filed by a man who claimed police chained him to a bench while they used manufactured evidence to obtain warrants to search his house and car during a 2008 homicide investigation.
Randall Fontana was a person of interest in the slaying of 75-year-old Jane Britt, who was found in the trunk of her car at a nursing home.
An employee of the facility was eventually arrested and convicted of Britt’s murder, but not before detectives initially focused on Fontana, who filed a civil-rights lawsuit in 2011 over his treatment.
Fontana alleged that detectives used questionable evidence to obtain warrants to search his house, obtain his DNA and seize his car.
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Fontana also says police used excessive force and chained him to a bench at the police station for several hours during the investigation, according to the lawsuit.
The settlement came after U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones in September found Fontana had presented substantial evidence questioning “whether detectives deliberately or recklessly made false statements or omissions” to a judge to obtain the warrants.
Without those statements, Jones said, police could not have obtained the warrants at all.
Jones also ruled that a jury could determine whether police used excessive force when they confronted Fontana, forcing him to the ground at gunpoint, and then again during a search at the police station where an office squeezed his groin so hard that it injured one of his testicles.
“It took a great deal of courage for Mr. Fontana to stand up against Federal Way and demonstrate the importance of respecting constitutional boundaries,” his attorney, Dan Fiorito III, said Friday. “There are limits to police power, and Mr. Fontana’s experience is a cautionary tale of what happens when that power is abused. Had the police respected the law, this would have never happened.”
Ann Trivett, an attorney representing Federal Way, said the decision to settle was based on consultations with the city’s insurer.
“The city of Federal Way strenuously denies any liability and stands by the lawfulness of its officers’ actions,” she said. “Its officers lawfully took Mr. Fontana into custody, consistent with a signed search warrant, to collect his DNA and exonerate him as a possible suspect in an investigation into a violent and random homicide.”
In court filings, Federal Way police have said they followed procedure and did nothing wrong during the investigation. They insisted Fontana was not formerly a suspect and was not arrested, despite being handcuffed and taken to the police station for hours while police searched his home.
According to court documents,
Britt’s body was found March 19, 2008, in the trunk of her Mercedes-Benz in the parking lot of the Garden Terrace Alzheimer’s Center of Excellence, where her husband was a patient. She had been beaten, strangled and her neck was broken.
She had fought her assailant, according to police, who found skin beneath her fingernails.
Fontana, whose father was also a patient at Garden Terrace, quickly became a person of interest. Staff at the nursing home said he complained regularly, acted suspiciously and had once approached Britt, who had told him to leave her alone. One employee described him as “creepy,” according to court documents.
On March 21, two Federal Way detectives, Brian Lauer and Douglas Laird, went to Fontana’s home. On their way to the front door, they walked by his car in the driveway, where they “observed a number of items that could have been evidence in the Jane Britt homicide investigation,” according to court documents.
In seeking a search warrant for the car, the detectives said Fontana’s behavior had been more “subdued” since the homicide and that Britt had been “upset” after a meeting with Fontana within two weeks of the killing.
Jones, the federal judge, said there was evidence those statements and others made in support of the warrant were not true.
On March 24, police obtained a second warrant — partly based on evidence presented in the first warrant for his car — to search Fontana’s home, his other vehicles and to obtain a DNA sample.
By this time they knew none of the material taken from his car had been linked to the crime, but did not relay this to the judge who signed the second warrant, according to the lawsuit.
When Fontana came out of his house that morning to go to work, he was swarmed by police. One officer had his gun drawn and ordered Fontana to the ground. When he was allegedly slow to comply due to a bad back, the officer, Thaddeus Hodge, “shoved his foot into Fontana’s back and twisted his arms, while Lauer, put him in an ‘arm-bar’ ” and forced him to the ground, according to court documents.
Fontana was handcuffed and taken to Federal Way police headquarters, where he claims another officer squeezed his groin so hard that it injured one of his testicles. Fontana claims he was handcuffed to a bench for more than four hours.
Federal Way maintains that, throughout all of this, Fontana was never a suspect and was never under arrest. Fontana points out the department’s own expert witness called in to review the case — former interim Seattle Police Chief Jim Pugel — said he was.
About two weeks after Britt’s body was found, police arrested Joseph Njonge, a nursing assistant at Garden Terrace, after they learned his DNA matched skin found underneath Britt’s fingernails and found Britt’s husband’s Costco card in his wallet.
He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to more than 16 years in prison.
However, Njonge’s conviction was overturned in 2011 by the state Court of Appeals, which ruled he had been denied his constitutional right to a public trial when a judge closed the courtroom during a portion of jury selection because of limited space.
The prosecutor’s office has appealed that ruling.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.