A lawsuit alleging that a former Botetourt County sheriff’s deputy manipulated legal proceedings to keep a man in jail while the deputy had an affair with the man’s wife will go forward to a jury trial, a judge has ruled.
Former deputy Landon Kyle Johnson disputes the allegations, as does a second former deputy accused of being complicit in the events that began in 2016. Their attorneys have asked to have the entire case thrown out of court and said they still want to see that happen.
U.S. District Judge Glen Conrad last week dismissed three of the lawsuit’s claims as legally or procedurally deficient but deemed one claim by Derrike Ethan Walker of Botetourt County appropriate for trial.
In that claim, Walker, 29, contends that Johnson and Chadwick Wayne Custer wrongfully used the legal process to keep him jailed for the purpose of enabling Johnson to carry on a sexual relationship with Walker’s wife. Malicious prosecution of a civil or criminal case is actionable under the law.
That Johnson began the affair after Walker was incarcerated isn’t in dispute because an employment investigation found that Johnson had an improper relationship and he discussed the affair in a deposition. In addition, Conrad said the pre-trial evidence could justify a jury finding that “multiple irregular acts occurred in the course of the criminal proceedings against Walker,” who was charged with drug crimes.
However, the judge barred Walker from seeking relief on grounds that the deputies violated his right to due process under the law, engaged in a conspiracy and intentionally inflicted emotional distress. A jury trial has been scheduled for June in Roanoke federal court. The suit names only the former deputies as defendants. They are being defended by the Division of Risk Management of the Virginia Department of the Treasury.
Johnson and Custer were drug investigators when they confronted the drivers of two cars at a gas station in Botetourt County on April 29, 2016, based on what they described as suspicious activity. Drugs were seized from Walker, who had 1 gram of methamphetamine in his green Subaru Outback and 1.3 grams of cocaine in his pocket, court papers said. He was not arrested, nor was the other driver.
Five days later, Walker struck a deal to work as a confidential informant. Walker engaged in two drug buys, leading to the arrest and charging of another individual. His service to police ended soon after he told his probation officer from a Montgomery County drug case that he had used drugs. In July 2016, Walker was jailed for flunking a drug test and was later sentenced to 11 months for a probation violation.
The lawsuit alleges that the deputies sought to prolong Walker’s time in custody through various acts and omissions.
They recommended state prosecutors charge Walker with possession of drugs with intent to distribute stemming from the gas station encounter, without first obtaining laboratory analysis of the seized drugs. Charging recommendations “are typically prepared after” lab results come back, the ruling said.
Walker was charged as recommended a few days later. Had deputies waited for the lab to confirm the presence of illegal substances, the process could not have moved forward until early September when the test results did come back.
In addition, the deputies’ report to the prosecutor, former Botetourt County Commonwealth’s Attorney Joel Branscom, “made no mention of the assistance that Walker had provided while working as a confidential informant,” the ruling said, even though deputies had told Walker that his cooperation would be shared with prosecutors, who have discretion to give favorable treatment to defendants who assist police.
Later, deputies struck a deal with Walker’s wife, who had sold marijuana to a confidential informant, for her to become a confidential informant herself with Johnson as her primary contact, the ruling said. Custer dropped off Johnson at the Walker home when she was there on one occasion, “although male narcotics officers were not allowed to be alone with female confidential informants unless they were being observed by another officer,” the ruling said.
Johnson’s work cellphone records showed that he and Walker’s wife “called each other over 90 times during the month of August ,” the ruling said. Johnson testified in a deposition related to the suit that they first had sex in September 2016.
In October 2016, Walker pleaded guilty to the drug charge stemming from the gas station encounter with police, a conviction that yielded an 18-month sentence. Walker didn’t yet know about the affair, nor had either deputy revealed the information to the prosecutor or Walker’s defense attorney, the ruling said.
In November 2016, the sheriff’s office advanced a second criminal case against the still-jailed Walker. Deputies asked a lab to identify drugs found during a search of the Walker home three and a half months earlier, shortly after Walker had gone to jail. Normally, the sheriff’s office would seek such an analysis immediately after the search, but “that practice was not complied with,” Conrad’s ruling said.
A grand jury charged Walker with five more drug counts. His wife was not charged.
A few days after the second set of charges was filed against her son in June 2017, Walker’s mother told then-Botetourt County Sheriff Ronnie Sprinkle that Johnson was having an affair with Walker’s wife. Sprinkle, after an investigation, fired Johnson, the ruling said. Branscom’s office dropped the second set of charges. Custer also left the sheriff’s office. The circumstances of his departure weren’t clear this week.
Walker was released in August 2018 after more than two years behind bars. He sued two months later.
“A reasonable jury could find from the totality of the evidence that Johnson acted to ensure that Walker remained incarcerated in order to maintain his affair” with the wife, the ruling said. A jury could also find that Custer “was aware of” the affair and shared Johnson’s “ulterior motive,” the ruling said.