Former West Jefferson Police Officer Rodney C. Rutherford says others on the village police force routinely do as he did on June 18, 2013, and that he was singled out for dismissal by a vindictive council and mayor.
Mayor Darlene Steele fired Rutherford on July 3, primarily for allowing a suspect in a domestic violence case walk away from the East Main Street police department during a cigarette break. Her reasons also included prior disciplinary actions against Rutherford.
Chief Terry Ward had recommended Rutherford’s firing. Village council unanimously backed up Steele’s decision at a July 15 public hearing.
Rutherford appealed his firing in Madison County Common Pleas Court. His attorney, Michael Moses, said council did not follow proper procedure during the public hearing and failed to draw a “finding of facts” at its conclusion.
At the center of the controversy were Rutherford’s actions surrounding a June 18 domestic violence incident on Pearl Street.
Fellow Officer Mallory Wise accused Rutherford of failing to promptly assist her in responding to the call. Rutherford later allowed the suspect in the incident, Roger Lowe, to smoke and walk unsupervised from the police department.
Wise, who remained on Pearl Street, spotted the man as he approached home and alerted others. Lowe was eventually convicted of domestic violence, escape and telephone harassment in connection with the incident.
In a flurry of court filings since July, Moses argued council erred in handling Rutherford’s dismissal.
Moses said council President Ron Garver excluded evidence beneficial to Rutherford on July 15.
That evidence included transcripts of police radio conversations from June 18; a recording of a July 2 hearing involving Steele, Rutherford and Ward; and a sworn statement that other officers routinely allowed suspects to step outside police headquarters during interview breaks.
In addition, council member Doug Eakins conferred privately with an audience member during the July 15 proceedings and prejudiced other members against Rutherford, Moses said.
Judge Eamon Costello granted an April 1 hearing on the excluded evidence after learning a transcript of the village council’s hearing did not include a summary of facts in the case, as required by law.
At the hearing, West Jefferson Law Director Ron Parsons argued the evidence was irrelevant to Rutherford’s firing.
That evidence included a sworn statement by Ronald McDowell, a part-time officer from 1979 to 1994, that police routinely allowed suspects to step outside the department’s “holding area.” Once outside, only dispatchers kept an eye on the individuals.
McDowell recounted an incident in which a suspect was allowed to leave the holding area to make a phone call. The man walked away and was re-captured by McDowell behind a local bar.
Other excluded evidence was an admission by Ward that his department has no policy to prevent suspects from stepping outside during questioning if they are not under arrest. Moses said Ward made the statement during the July 2 hearing with Steele and Rutherford.
However, a recording of that conversation was missing from the court file. Also missing were eight other pieces of evidence from the July 15 public hearing.
Costello said all must be considered and gave Parsons and Moses two weeks to locate the missing items.
Costello also asked both attorneys to submit written arguments on the relevance of McDowell’s assertion, along with records that other officers were disciplined for allowing suspects to escape or go unsupervised while in custody.
Jane Beathard can be reached at (740) 852-1616, ext. 16 or via Twitter @JaneBeathard.