Woman accuses Norwalk cops of menacing, unlawful restraint

Matt Roche • Apr 28, 2014 at 10:07 PM

A Norwalk woman who backed her vehicle into an unmarked police car filed a criminal complaint against a pair of police detectives, alleging menacing and unlawful restraint.

Norwalk Police Chief Dave Light countered that a Huron County sheriff's detective is trying to deflect attention away from the sheriff's office following a controversial raid that has generated much public interest.

Light said the woman who faces a May 6 court hearing "is probably squirming" because she was caught driving without a license and her allegations are an attempt to avoid prosecution.

The accident took place in the early afternoon on April 9 in the Rustic Hills Mobile Home Park. Jessica Rothgeb, 27, of 5144 N. U.S. 250, Lot 135, was backing out her driveway when she collided with a vehicle containing police Detective Sgts. Seth Fry, Jim Fulton and a woman.

The detectives were parked there, Light said, because they had just finished a drug investigation at the Midtown Manor mobile home park at 520 Milan Ave., which is inside city limits. They had followed the suspected drug dealer's vehicle into Rustic Hills, which is located just outside the city limits and were in the process of getting the suspect's license plate number when the accident occurred.

"He was very pissed off because I ruined their investigation," Rothgeb said about Fry.

Young children with disabilities

Rothgeb, whose 1-year-old son was a passenger in her car, said she was on her way to the bus stop in the mobile home park to pick up her other children, ages 5 and 7, both of whom have disabilities.

"I looked and nobody was behind me," she said. "As I started to back up, I just tapped them. I hadn't made it out of my driveway."

Rothgeb and the detectives exited their vehicles.

Fry was "very offensively rude" during the ensuing conversation, Rothgeb said, including asking her: "What the (expletive) is your problem?"

When she inquired whether the detectives were OK, they responded, "It doesn't matter because we're undercover cops," Rothgeb said. But the pair never showed her their badges, she added.

Rothgeb said she was told, "Keep your mouth shut and sit there."

Fulton and Fry called the state Highway Patrol and the sheriff's office to investigate the accident.

"They told her she could not leave the scene," Light said. "They didn't want her to move the car. ... I'm not sure how she could have interpreted that."

However, Fulton and Fry didn't physically detain the woman, the chief added.

Rothgeb said her 7-year-old son is "half deaf," while her 5-year-old daughter has "huge sensory problems and is in the process of being diagnosed as bipolar."

The mother fretted about her children's safety, wondering what they would do if she wasn't at the bus stop. Because of her son's hearing problem, she said "he could have got hit by a car."

"He's not going to hear it speeding by," Rothgeb added. "They put my kids in danger."

Between 15 and 30 minutes later, Rothgeb said Fulton inquired about where her children were and "finally let me go to get my kids."

Light said "it was taking so long for the deputies to get out there," so his detectives permitted her to walk down to the bus stop and retrieve her children.

The son and daughter stayed at the bus stop, waiting for mom to arrive.

"I was very proud of them," Rothgeb said of her children.

At 3:37 p.m., sheriff's Detective Eric Bardar finally arrived at the scene. The detective had been assigned because the sheriff's office was short-handed with road deputies that day, Chief Deputy Ted Patrick said. Bardar was assigned to incident listed as a "private property crash."

Bardar and Patrick interviewed Rothgeb as well as Fulton, Fry and the woman who was in the back seat of the unmarked police car. The woman reported her "back was sore as a result of the accident," according to the report from the sheriff's office, but no one else was injured.

Rothgeb was charged with driving with a suspended driver's license. She also didn't have proof of insurance at the time, but was told to bring it to her court hearing in Norwalk Municipal Court.

'Trumped-up deal'?

Bardar returned to Rothgeb's residence April 11 -- the same day a story about the accident appeared on the front page of the Reflector. Following their conversation, she filed a complaint of menacing and unlawful restraint.

"She had filed a menacing complaint about Detective Fry from the police department," Patrick said Sunday. "She filed it with Detective Bardar. She has asked for an investigation. We'll investigate her complaint."

Light sees things differently.

"I think this is just a huge pay back and deflection, trying to take attention away from them," Light said about the sheriff's office.

Bardar recently was caught "speeding through town in an unmarked car, blowing stop signs," Light said.

Police Sgt. Jim Montana saw the vehicle and stopped it. Bardar then "turned on the red lights" and Montana realized it was a fellow law-enforcement person, Light said.

Bardar "was upset about that" and called Fulton about the traffic stop, the chief said.

Light expressed concern about the legality of Bardar's action during that incident.

And since Bardar returned to Rothgeb's residence two days after the accident, and now a criminal complaint has been filed against the detectives, Light said the matter "is a trumped-up deal."

"Eric Bardar, with his lack of knowledge of the law, is going to run along with her trying to deflect the attention to the Norwalk Police Department," the chief said.

As far as Fry and Fulton being out of their jurisdiction, the sheriff's office personnel "seem to be overly concerned we were 200 yards outside the city limits," Light said.

Light contends his detectives are being targeted because of the negative publicity generated from the sheriff's office's recent raid at 114 1/2 Benedict Ave. Light questions the methods used by sheriff's detectives.

"This all comes from people who mean well but they have a lack of experience and training on the job," Light said. "If you don't train them, this stuff is bound to happen."

Sometime before the controversial Benedict Avenue raid, Light said he spoke with Sheriff Dane Howard, asking his department to stay out of Norwalk when conducting drug investigations. Light said Norwalk has its own detective bureau, and the sheriff's detectives should be used in Huron County's rural areas and in communities that don't have their own detectives.

Light said Howard denied the request, contending that because Norwalk is part of Huron County, his deputies have every right to be there.

Due to deputies' uninvited involvement, however, several Norwalk police investigations have been hampered or ruined, Light said.

Light also questions deputies' tactics, training and knowledge of the law. He cited one raid on Henry Street in which a woman -- who had undergone a hysterectomy the previous day -- was sitting on the toilet naked when deputies burst the bathroom, "pointing a gun at her head." The woman's daughter was arrested after pills were found in the residence.

As for the allegations against Fry and Fulton, the case has been sent to the Huron County Prosecutor's Office for consideration of charges. No decision has been announced.

"We'll have to wait to see how this investigation plays out," Light said.

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