By Van Smith
Published by City Paper, Nov. 13, 2013
Close to midnight on Jan. 16, a SWAT team used a battering ram to break down the front door of 4823 Aberdeen Avenue, a rowhouse near Herring Run in Frankford. Inside, they found their man: 19-year-old Kyle Brandon Wills, a suspect in two armed robberies in Howard and Baltimore counties. After two days in jail, Wills made bail in Howard County, but was immediately arrested by Baltimore County police and spent another day locked up there.
Turns out, though, it was the wrong man. What’s more, in order to convince a judge to sign the raid warrant leading to Wills’ arrest, the detectives on the case—Mark Claypoole of Baltimore County and Wade Zufall of Howard County—falsely claimed Wills had recently been arrested with the other suspect in the armed robberies, according to a lawsuit filed Nov. 6 in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
After prosecutors in Howard and Baltimore counties learned of “the terrible mistake that had been made,” the lawsuit explains, the charges against Wills were dropped and another man—Wills’ cousin, Stanley Berry—was charged instead. But the damage wrought by the raid and Wills’ detentions, all based on the detectives’ allegedly false claim, had already been wrought: three days in jail, two strip searches, a required medical intravenous injection, emotional trauma, still-ongoing monthly payments to pay back the bail money, and an arrest record for serious charges in two jurisdictions.
As a result, Wills, his mother, Vickie Wills, and brother Calvin Clifton—the three people present when the SWAT team came through their door—are suing Claypoole, Zufall, and their police forces for false arrest, assault, battery, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, seeking $75,000 in compensation and another $75,000 in penalties. Their attorney, Charles Curlett says Wills, a 2012 Patterson High School graduate, is employed at University of Maryland Hospital, helping prepare operating rooms for surgery.
“I don’t see how this could be an honest mistake,” says Curlett, adding that the detectives’ allegedly false claim that Wills had been arrested was the “lynchpin of probable cause” in the affidavit that supported the raid. “I think it is a very strong case.”
Howard County prosecutors declined to pursue the charges against Wills on Feb. 13, and two days later his Baltimore County charges were dismissed. The cases against Berry and Michael Elliott Dickey—the man who was originally charged with Wills—remain intact, though. Both pleaded guilty in their Howard County cases, receiving 10-year sentences with five years suspended, and both are scheduled for trial in their Baltimore County cases.
Howard County initially was proud of the detective work in the case, issuing a press release on Jan. 24 announcing the charges against Dickey and Wills—and repeating the detectives’ false assertion that Wills had previously been arrested with Dickey.
“Wills is a known associate of Dickey’s,” the press release states, “who was recently arrested with Dickey for an unrelated incident in another jurisdiction. Surveillance video in both cases show Dickey and Wills together, each wearing the same clothing in both incidents.”
The details of how Claypoole and Zufall pursued the case are spelled out in the lawsuit. The two-county probe was spawned after two men robbed an Exxon gas station in Columbia by throwing hot coffee on the clerk’s face and then taking cash out of the register while brandishing guns. That was on Jan. 5—three days after the exact same tactics were used by two men in an armed robbery of a Quick Mart in Cockeysville.
Dickey’s fingerprints were found on the coffee cup at the Exxon, and it was soon discovered that he’d been arrested the day after the Quick Mart robbery for petty theft at a Walmart store—and at that time had been accompanied by a man who had not been arrested, but who identified himself as “Kyle Wills.” So Claypoole showed the Wal-Mart security officer Wills’ driver’s license photograph, and the security officer confirmed it was the same man who’d been with Dickey during the theft.
At that point, Claypoole and Zufall wanted to raid Wills’ home and arrest him—“but they had a problem,” the lawsuit explains. In order to get a warrant, they “needed to establish a likelihood that Dickey’s friend from Wal-Mart was also Dickey’s accomplice in the coffee robberies,” yet “nothing had been done to reliably confirm that person’s identity.” The security officer’s confirmation was not sufficient—but an arrest would be, since “his identity would have been established through fingerprinting, and they would have been able to rely on the arrest to tie that person to Dickey,” the lawsuit explains.
Absent an actual arrest, Claypoole and Zufall allegedly made one up. “Rather than admit what they did not know,” the lawsuit states, “they misled the court” with the following information that was stated in the raid-warrant affidavit: “Arrested along with Dickey during the Theft at Wal-Mart was the following individual: KYLE BRANDON WILLS BM 507 150 DOB = 9/18/1993.”
“When I saw the affidavit” for the raid warrant and saw the assertion that Wills had been arrested, Curlett recalls, he looked for it on the online court records and couldn’t find it. “‘Where is it?’” he says he asked himself. “‘Why isn’t it here? It is there for the other guy.’”
Not only was Wills not arrested at the Walmart, he wasn’t even there. But, according to the lawsuit, his cousin Berry—a man who was wanted on several open warrants—was, and told the security guard that he was Wills, who has no prior criminal record.
Based on the detectives’ “perjured testimony,” the lawsuit continues, a no-knock warrant was issued for the Wills home and a SWAT team “broke through the door of the suspect’s Baltimore City home and restrained his family at gunpoint and in handcuffs while they searched the house.”
Given that anyone, including a judge who’s considering signing a warrant, can check online to see if someone’s been charged with a crime, it seems a risky proposition for detectives to lie about such a thing. Curlett speculates that such “hubris may be borne of the unlikelihood that anybody’s going to challenge” the information. “So many cases plead out,” he continues, “the risk of airing dirty laundry like this is slim.”
With the Wills’ lawsuit, though, Claypoole and Zufall have run headlong into that risk.