King County has agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a civil-rights lawsuit filed by a man who spent two years in jail awaiting trial on homicide charges, only to be acquitted by a jury in a case where a judge found evidence detectives cherry-picked evidence and included “false and misleading” statements in court documents.
Rodney Wheeler, in a federal lawsuit filed in 2019, insisted he was targeted and prosecuted for a homicide “he did not commit and had no involvement with whatsoever.”
The lawsuit alleged that King County sheriff’s Detectives Eleanor Broggi and Matthew Olmstead “made false statements and omitted important facts that would have undermined their allegations” that he shot a man outside a Motel 6 in SeaTac following an argument in August 2016. Wheeler was arrested and charged with second-degree murder and second-degree assault and for being a felon in possession of a handgun. Wheeler was booked into jail on $1 million bail, where he remained until his acquittal at trial in January 2019, when a King County jury found him not guilty.
The settlement came last week, three weeks after U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Alice Theiler found there was evidence to support Wheeler’s claims of malicious prosecution, violation of his due process and “judicial deception,” stemming from allegations the detectives filed misleading or incomplete sworn statements to obtain a search warrant and, later, criminal charges against Wheeler.
In the same document, Theiler recommended the federal judge assigned to the case, John Coughenour, dismiss a counterclaim filed by the detectives against Wheeler alleging “malicious prosecution against a law enforcement officer.”
King County and the deputies “do not dispute plaintiff’s allegation the search warrant affidavits and probable cause certificate contained false or misleading statements and omissions,” Theiler wrote in a 32-page report and recommendation to Coughenour last month. “Nor do they address the issue of whether a jury could find such misstatements or omissions were reckless or deliberate.
“Defendants, instead, assert their entitlement to qualified immunity,” a controversial legal doctrine that shields government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations providing they did not violate “clearly established” law. Theiler recommended Coughenour reject that defense.
Tiffany Cartwright, Wheeler’s Seattle civil-rights lawyer, said her client had no comment on the settlement.
Sgt. Tim Meyer, a spokesperson for Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht, said the magistrate’s decision “does not represent a finding that either party has proven any of the disputed facts,” adding that the trial judge sent it to a jury instead of dismissing the case.
“This sequence does not mean that Mr. Wheeler was unfairly subjected to a criminal trial,” he said.
The lawsuit alleges that Broggi, the lead detective, “in a textbook case of tunnel vision … focused solely on Wheeler to the exclusion of other suspects, and misrepresented, concealed and omitted facts that did not fit her bias.”
At one point — before a scheduled photo lineup and while acknowledging probable cause for an arrest didn’t exist — Broggi sent a copy of Wheeler’s photo to the prosecutor with the message: “This is going to be our shooter,” according to the lawsuit.
When the lawsuit was filed in 2019, the Sheriff’s Office declined to comment but said Broggi and Olmstead remained deputies. The Sheriff’s Office did not provide a comment on the settlement, requested Wednesday afternoon, by press time Thursday.
Just days before Wheeler was set to go to trial in January 2019, his defense obtained a 2016 email written by Broggi throwing doubt on the validity of a key witness’s identification of Wheeler. Prosecutors had not turned the email over to the defense during discovery.
King County Superior Judge John Erlick excoriated the prosecutors for withholding evidence that would have helped Wheeler’s defense. In the end, he suppressed the witness’s statements — a major blow to the prosecution’s case.
“To put [defense] counsel in the position of the day before trial producing this email, which I think is one of the most critical pieces of evidence in this entire case, is outrageous and inexcusable,” Erlick told prosecutors. “I think it was gross mismanagement on the part of the state.”
In light of the email, the judge said he found the probable-cause statement supporting the murder charge “ambiguous” at best, “and at worst it was misleading and inaccurate.”
“And I tend to believe it was the latter,” he said.
Julie Kline, the deputy prosecutor who handled the case, has since left the office to work for Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. Kline, who was not named in the lawsuit, did not respond to an email sent Wednesday seeking comment on the case.
Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, said potential misconduct cases are routinely reviewed by an ethics panel in the office and that Wheeler’s case presents a “unique situation” that will likely be reviewed at the panel’s next quarterly meeting.
Wheeler was accused of the Aug. 31, 2016, shooting death of Justin Love, a construction worker from Oregon, outside a Motel 6 hotel on 47th Avenue South in SeaTac. A second guest at the hotel was also struck and wounded by a stray bullet.
According to court documents, Love was climbing a fence to confront an individual who was in a parking lot on the other side when he was shot.
Three eyewitnesses gave police detailed accounts of the shooting, all describing the shooter as wearing black or dark clothing. One of the witnesses told officers at the scene that the shooter was a thin Black man with dreadlocks; another said he had a brown backpack.
Police focused almost immediately on Wheeler, who was seen on motel video surveillance cameras near the scene before the shooting. Wheeler, who is Black, was wearing jeans, a gray Carolina Panthers hoodie sweatshirt and a cap. He had short hair, was 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, according to the lawsuit.
While Broggi’s probable-cause statement used to obtain the murder warrant said one of the witnesses identified a Black man with a brown backpack, gray sweatsuit and baseball cap as the shooter, the lawsuit alleges that witness was uncertain about his identification.
Initially, he was shown six “highly suggestive” photos — three of them of Wheeler, who was the only one pictured with a backpack — and said that it might be him but he needed a better photo to be sure. Neither he nor other witnesses were able to pick Wheeler from a subsequent photo montage, the lawsuit says
Still, the lawsuit claims, Broggi and Olmstead concentrated their investigation on Wheeler to the exclusion of all other suspects.
The settlement is the latest in a string of payouts by King County and the Sheriff’s Office in the past two years, all involving incidents with racial overtones, including $2.25 million to the family of MiChance Dunlap-Gittens, a Black 17-year-old Des Moines high school student killed in 2017 during a misguided sting operation; $5 million to the family of Tommy Le, 20, killed in 2017 by a deputy after threatening officers with a ballpoint pen, and $80,000 and an apology to two Black teens held at gunpoint after a deputy mistook them for car thieves.