A man who spent two years in jail before a jury acquitted him of murder has sued the King County Sheriff’s Office and two detectives, accusing them of using false statements and cherry-picked evidence to charge him with a crime “he did not commit and had no involvement with whatsoever.”
Rodney Wheeler, through his attorneys, alleges sheriff’s detectives Eleanor Broggi and Matthew Olmstead “made false statements and omitted important facts that would have undermined their allegations” against him in search warrants and charging documents filed in King County Superior Court.
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,” the lawsuit alleges. At one point, before showing witnesses a photo lineup, Broggi “sent a copy of Wheeler’s photo to the prosecutor with the message: ‘This is going to be our shooter,’ ” according to the document.
Just days before the case went to trial in January 2019, defense attorneys obtained a 2016 email written by Broggi throwing doubt on the validity of a key witnesses’ identification of Wheeler. Prosecutors had not turned the email over to the defense during discovery. Wheeler’s attorneys obtained it on the eve of trial only after serving a subpoena on the Sheriff’s Office.
The error was so serious that 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 witnesses’ statements — a mortal 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.”
Moreover, 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, according to a transcript of a hearing held Jan. 15, 2019. The judge allowed the case to proceed, but a jury unanimously acquitted Wheeler on March 1.
Whitney Keyes, a spokeswoman for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, declined to comment on the lawsuit. She said Julie Kline, the deputy prosecutor who handled the case, has since left the office to work for Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. Kline — who is not named in the lawsuit — declined to comment on the investigation.
Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Ryan Abbott said both Broggi and Olmstead continue to be employed by the Sheriff’s Office. Abbott said he could not comment on the merits of the lawsuit.
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: Michael Meyer and William Newell — both friends of Love — and Brian Falgout, who was parked nearby.
Meyer, who was next to Love when he was shot, later described the shooter as a small, thin black man in dark clothing with dreadlocks. Newell likewise told officers at the scene that the shooter was wearing black pants and shirt, had a brown backpack and drove away in a dark car, according to the lawsuit.
Falgout said the shooter was wearing black and driving a black car. He called 911 an hour after the shooting and said a man matching the shooter’s description was across the street watching the crime scene.
But police focused almost immediately on Wheeler, who was seen on motel video surveillance cameras near the scene before the shooting. Wheeler, an African American man, 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.
Newell was sent six photos to identify, which the lawsuit alleges were of poor quality and “highly suggestive.” Three of the photos were of Wheeler and he was the only one of the six wearing a backpack. Newell said he thought the shooter might be the one with the backpack, but said he needed to see a better photo to be sure, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that, from that point onward, Broggi and Olmstead concentrated their investigation on Wheeler to the exclusion of all other suspects.
Neither Newell nor Meyer were able to pick Wheeler from a photo montage, the lawsuit said. Newell said none of the photos were of the killer; Meyer picked two of the other photos.
However, in the probable-cause statement used to obtain the murder warrant, Broggi stated that Newell identified a black man with a brown backpack, gray sweat suit and baseball cap as the shooter.
“This statement was false,” the lawsuit alleges. Newell had only said that he “thought it was the one with the backpack” but said he needed to see a better photo. The probable-cause statement did not mention that he failed to pick Wheeler from the photo lineup.
“The detective clearly decided who the shooter was before she had any basis to do so,” defense attorney Matt Sanders said in an article appearing in a Department of Public Defense newsletter published on Aug. 21. “It’s one of the most egregious situations I’ve ever seen.”
The lawsuit comes just weeks before the the family of a young man targeted by King County sheriff’s detectives is expected to file a federal civil-rights lawsuit. That case involved an incident in which a young man who was targeted in a sting as being a suspect in a theft ring turned out to not have been involved in the crimes at all. Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens was shot to death by deputies who said he drew a handgun after they tricked him into coming out of his home. His parents have filed a $10 million claim against the county.