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False testimony didn’t end these Kentucky state troopers’ careers

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Kentucky State Police
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Screenshot

When the commander of Kentucky State Police Post 4 had the opportunity to recommend a trooper of the year for 2020, he chose James Cameron Wright, a field training officer whose strengths included “molding probationary troopers into excellent troopers.”

“His motivation, dedication, and pride that he exudes while wearing our gray uniform is what sets Trooper Wright apart,” Capt. Daniel White wrote last March.

The nomination didn’t mention that Wright had participated in the April 2020 beating of Alex Hornback in the basement of his Bullitt County home, gave false testimony about it under oath, and denied seeing a fellow trooper pummeling Hornback with a flashlight while kneeling next to him.

The post commander knew about the incident. Less than two months before nominating Wright for the award, spurred by a federal lawsuit alleging excessive force, White had requested an internal affairs investigation into the troopers on the scene that night.

But Wright was neither disciplined nor prosecuted, even though the other trooper who took part in the beating resigned under threat of termination and now faces a criminal charge of perjury.

The lawsuit, filed by Alex Hornback and his parents against the state police in October 2020, is pending. Their attorney, Chris Wiest, declined to make Alex Hornback available for an interview until the case is resolved.

Wiest contends that both officers lied about striking Hornback, and should be facing criminal charges.

“You cannot lie under oath,” Wiest said. “Today, we do not need people that are willing to cover up use of force incidents [in law enforcement].”

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting examined five cases, including Hornback’s, in which someone with state police either gave false testimony about using force or failed to disclose the details.

Five of the nine troopers involved suffered no administrative punishment or criminal consequences, and at least some of them continue to testify against criminal defendants, according to a review of state police and court records.

Some troopers downplayed or misrepresented in arrest citations the force they had used. On other occasions, they misrepresented the facts under oath about what they or others had done, recordings and documents obtained by KyCIR show.

A common thread in each of the cases: independent video evidence that contradicted the troopers’ accounts.

The Kentucky State Police has long been beset by issues including controversial training, a high number of fatal shootings, and little independent oversight. Unlike many law-enforcement agencies, state police do not require troopers to wear body cameras. But after several news outlets, including KyCIR and The Marshall Project, detailed a lack of accountability at the state police, Gov. Andy Beshear proposed $12.2 million in this year’s budget for troopers to be equipped with body cameras.

State police declined to make Wright or post commander White available for interviews, or to answer most questions about the five cases. Instead, agency spokesperson Capt. Paul Blanton said in a statement that the state police “holds all personnel, both sworn and civilian, to the highest of ethical standards.”

Similar testimony, different outcomes

The three troopers didn’t know they were being recorded when they went into Alex Hornback’s home to serve him with an arrest warrant for failing to appear in court.

Wright and Trooper Thomas Czartorski were deposed under oath in January 2021 in the family’s lawsuit. Both testified to a relatively calm interaction where Hornback was taken to the floor during the arrest, but no other force was used.

The troopers also didn’t file any reports indicating they used force, even though agency policy required that they disclose it.

Czartorski and Wright both denied in their depositions that they struck Hornback.

“He did not need to be [hit],” Wright said.

Wright also testified that he placed his knee on Hornback’s “shoulder”, that he never put his arm around Hornback’s neck, and that he didn’t “recall” seeing Czartorski strike Hornback with his flashlight.

The third trooper, Kevin Dreisbach, entered the room after Hornback was already on the floor. Dreisbach testified in his January 2021 deposition that neither Wright nor Czartorski said they struck Hornback, and that he thought they would have told him had they done so.

After the depositions, the Hornbacks’ lawyer released a home-security video that clearly showed Wright grabbing Hornback around the neck and slinging him to the floor, though he was not visibly resisting. The two troopers were kneeling side by side while Czartorski struck the 29-year-old Hornback with his flashlight, and Wright hit Hornback twice with his right forearm. Wright’s left knee was on Hornback’s neck, pushing his face into the floor.

In Capt. White’s request for the internal-affairs investigation, he acknowledged that the video contradicted Czartorski’s testimony. But he didn’t mention Wright’s.

Czartorski resigned from the agency on February 2, 2021, in lieu of being fired, and has been charged with perjury.

The state police said its investigation found Wright did not violate standards of conduct.

State police didn’t answer emailed questions about Wright’s sworn testimony. Spokesperson Blanton’s response simply stated: “KSP does not condone employees being untruthful.”

KSP reluctant to conclude troopers were ‘untruthful’

In two cases reviewed by KyCIR, consequences for trooper misconduct were relatively swift.

After Trooper Aaron Tucker downplayed the severity of a physical altercation in the sallyport at the Bowling Green jail in March 2019 and was caught on video, a state police internal investigation found that the force he used “appears to be excessive.” The probationary trooper was fired in May 2019.

In March 2020, Trooper Houston Ethan Lewis claimed in an arrest citation that he “assisted” Jared Johnson to the ground and used only “softening blows” during an incident in Rockcastle County.

But after Johnson’s attorney obtained a video from the home that showed Lewis striking Johnson in the head and side numerous times with his flashlight, Lewis was fired, pleaded guilty to assault and to forgery, for the false citation, and was briefly incarcerated.

In other instances, however, records show that state police officials were reluctant if not unwilling to draw conclusions about a trooper’s truthfulness — even when video and other evidence suggested dishonesty.

In 2016, Trooper Jimmy Halcomb told a Harlan County grand jury that he had helped arrest 67-year-old Lewis Lyttle for alleged indecent exposure in a Harlan County parking lot. Lyttle kicked him and another state trooper and refused to obey their commands, Halcomb testified.

“Sgt. (Rob) Farley and me had to pick him up and carry him to the cruiser,” Halcomb testified, according to a recording obtained by KyCIR.

The grand jury indicted Lyttle on charges including felony assault and resisting arrest. Later, videos came to light that showed Halcomb and three other troopers slapping, punching, or kicking a non-resistant Lyttle.

And contrary to what Halcomb told the grand jury, once Lyttle was handcuffed and lifted to his feet, Halcomb and Farley walked with him to a state police cruiser.

Lt. Jason Adams, who worked out of the Harlan post along with the troopers, investigated their actions. All denied using excessive force.

Farley said he believed Lyttle was about to spit on him, according to Adams’ report.

But a dozen hospital employees later gave sworn affidavits, saying they watched from inside the building as Halcomb, Farley, Detective Kevin Miller, and Detective Josh Howard slapped, kicked, or otherwise beat Lyttle.

In recordings obtained by KyCIR, Adams called Lyttle “that idiot” in a conversation with a hospital employee, and disparaged witnesses who alleged state police wrongdoing.

Misty Mullins, a hospital employee, said in her affidavit that Adams seemed intent on exonerating the troopers.

“After he took my taped statement he even went as far as to tell me that if that old man had exposed himself to my child and I had beaten the old man up that ‘we’ (I guess he was referring to the Kentucky State Police) would not even arrest you for it,” Mullins wrote in her affidavit.

“I told Lt. Adams that it didn’t matter what the old man had been accused of, the officers couldn’t just beat him like that.”

Although Adams had one of the videos and interviewed several witnesses, he concluded none of the troopers violated agency policy.

Adams could not be reached for comment. He retired in January 2017. Handwritten notes on Adams’ retirement letter state without elaboration that he should not be rehired.

After other videos of the beating surfaced on social media, state police commissioned an internal affairs investigation, which found that Farley — but no one else — had used excessive force in arresting Lyttle. But the investigation also concluded that Farley didn’t violate agency policies on truthfulness, and that there was “no dishonesty” in what Farley or Halcomb told investigators about the incident.

The troop commander blamed the “poor quality” of the first investigation for creating doubt about whether initial statements attributed to Farley were accurate enough to assess his honesty.

Farley was suspended for 120 days in July 2017 and demoted from sergeant to trooper. But the consequences he incurred were temporary: In September 2018, the state police promoted Farley back to sergeant. He declined to be interviewed.

“By not disciplining the other individuals who were present, and giving Farley a slap on the wrist, KSP sends a message to these individuals as well as all troopers: ‘If you engage in this behavior, there are no real consequences,’” said David Ward, one of Lyttle’s lawyers in a lawsuit against the troopers and state police.

Blanton, the state police spokesperson, declined to answer questions about why Farley was the only one disciplined.

The criminal charges against Lyttle eventually were dismissed, and in 2018, state police settled his lawsuit for $130,000. Lyttle died in June 2020.

Evidence withheld from grand jury

State Police Lt. Lonnie Bell led the investigation after Fulton Police Lt. James Buckingham shot and killed Charles Christopher McClure on January 16, 2017.

Kentucky state police employees investigate most fatal police shootings across the state, and often testify before the grand jury that is deciding whether the officer committed a crime.

The grand jury voted not to indict Buckingham, based solely on Bell’s testimony, and it did not hear about or see a key piece of evidence: Buckingham’s body camera recording of the shooting.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Stacy also never mentioned the video to the grand jury, though he too was aware of it, according to Bell’s later testimony in a lawsuit brought by McClure’s three daughters against Buckingham, the city of Fulton and others. Stacy declined an interview request.

An audio recording of Bell’s testimony shows he told grand jurors about a chain of events that differed in several key respects from the body camera video — and from what Bell later acknowledged in other sworn testimony was true.

Blanton, the state police spokesperson, said Bell “would have to reply himself” as to why he didn’t share the video with grand jurors. Bell, who retired in July 2019, could not be reached for comment.

“If you’re wanting to sway a jury, either way, you’re going to give them the information that you want them to know. Not the whole truth,” Tobi McClure, Christopher McClure’s sister, said in an interview. “He (Bell) told them what he wanted them to know. “There was no lying and hiding in that video. It was the truth.”

McClure was an emotionally troubled, 43-year old father of three young girls. He was walking through downtown Fulton, in far western Kentucky, smashing car windows with a metal pole that had a knife affixed to one end when he encountered Fulton Police Chief Terry Powell — and broke the back window of his cruiser with the pole. Powell called for backup.

Buckingham arrived, and his body camera footage shows him shooting McClure from the rear driver’s side of Buckingham’s cruiser as McClure swung the pole from the passenger’s side to shatter the vehicle’s rear window.

McClure fell on his back and dropped the pole, which clattered to the pavement several feet away, the video shows. As he struggled to his knees, Buckingham yelled, “Get down, get down,” and shot McClure again, this time from point-blank range, and just eight seconds after the first shot. McClure died soon after at a local hospital.

Bell told the grand jurors that the shooting was justified in part because McClure “raised the pipe in a threatening manner” toward Buckingham.

But in a sworn statement Bell gave in August 2019 in connection with the lawsuit, he acknowledged that he did “not recall” McClure raising the pipe in a threatening manner, or approaching Buckingham with it in a threatening manner, after breaking the window.

“The video doesn’t show that,” Bell stated.

Bell also told the grand jury that McClure’s hands were “hidden” after Buckingham fired the initial shot and McClure fell to the ground, suggesting that he might have been holding or reaching for a weapon.

But Bell acknowledged in his sworn statement that McClure’s hands were clearly visible, and that he wasn’t holding anything.

In addition, Bell told the grand jury that once McClure was on the ground, the knife he had attached to one end of the metal pole, and that had fallen off, “was just inches away,” implying that it still could have posed a threat.

But Bell acknowledged in his sworn statement that the body camera video showed the knife lying on the ground behind Buckingham, at least several feet away and well out of McClure’s reach.

There is no indication in state police records that Bell was investigated, disciplined or prosecuted for his grand jury testimony, and Blanton did not respond to a question about why none of that occurred. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that it was “objectively reasonable” for Buckingham to shoot and kill McClure.

Bell also said in his sworn statement that he had investigated 11 officer-involved shootings since 2011, and none concluded that any police wrongdoing had occurred.

Credibility issues not tracked, routinely shared

When law-enforcement officers’ credibility is questioned, it can have ramifications the next time they’re under oath.

Police and prosecutors sometimes use what’s called a “Brady list” to keep track of law-enforcement officers with a history of questionable conduct and whose court testimony might face challenges from the defense. But 15 commonwealth’s attorneys polled by KyCIR said they don’t keep such lists.

The Louisville Metro Police Department keeps its own list of its officers with problematic backgrounds. But the Kentucky State Police does not.

Instead, the agency “provides information regarding that individual trooper’s disciplinary issues, if any, to the prosecutor upon request,” said Michelle Harrison, executive advisor to the state police legal services branch.

But when asked by KyCIR for records related to prosecutors’ requests and the agency’s responses to them, state police said it had none.

Several prosecutors who replied to KyCIR about Brady lists, said they inform the defense about witnesses’ potential credibility issues on a case-by-case basis prior to trial.

But Damon Preston, head of the state Department of Public Advocacy, is skeptical that this regularly occurs.

“I think it is highly likely that the officers you are learning about have not had this information disclosed in subsequent cases,” Preston said. “The problem is that defense lawyers don’t know what they don’t know.”

Wright and other current or former state police troopers with credibility issues have been witnesses in cases that resulted in grand-jury indictments.

Although Tucker, the probationary officer, was fired by state police in connection with the incident at the Bowling Green jail, he continues to testify under oath, as a McCreary County sheriff’s deputy. Court records show he has been the complaining witness in at least a dozen criminal cases since 2020.

Tucker and Sheriff Randy Waters did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Commonwealth’s Attorney Ronnie Bowling said it was “not unusual” for Tucker to testify before grand juries, but Bowling refused to discuss Tucker’s background or whether grand jurors should be aware of it.

Alissa Heydari, a former prosecutor who is now deputy director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said it’s best practice to reveal issues that could compromise the credibility of a witness as early as to the grand jury — even if the case is likely to ultimately end in a guilty plea.

“To have a blanket policy in which prosecutors never disclose material impeachment evidence before trial — particularly about police witnesses — fails to promote accountability and transparency,” Heydari said.

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Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting
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J. Tyler Franklin
Kevin and Sonya Hornback

In 2021, Wright testified under oath before grand juries in at least five Hardin County criminal cases that resulted in indictments, according to court records. Hardin Commonwealth’s Attorney Shane Young said that none of the cases have gone to trial, and that information about Wright’s background would be submitted to the court for review if one did.

But since Wright wasn’t disciplined or prosecuted in connection with the Hornback case, his background largely reflects that he’s been a trooper of the year.

In one case based on Wright’s testimony, his arrest citation said that after he stopped Michael Sietsema for speeding last June 1, Sietsema refused commands to get off his motorcycle and put a bag of suspected drugs inside the gas tank, “destroying” the bag. Wright then struck Sietsema several times with a Taser, according to the citation, after which he “became compliant.”

Sietsema was charged with offenses including resisting arrest, tampering with evidence, and driving under the influence of a controlled substance. The case is scheduled for trial in March.

Nearly two years after Wright participated in the beating of Alex Hornback, his parents said the pain from witnessing it is still fresh, and intense.

Wright “really and truly is the instigator,” Kevin Hornback said, “and he is getting praised for it.

“He is the one that grabs him, slams him to the ground. He’s the one that puts his knee in the back of my son’s neck.”

Sonya Hornback, whom Wright threatened with his Taser when she objected as he knelt on her son’s neck, added: “I’d be ashamed to have him as my trooper of the year.”

Contact R.G. Dunlop at rdunlop@kycir.org.

R.G. Dunlop is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has exposed government corruption and resulted in numerous reforms.
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