COVER- He fought the law and the law lost: Don't call Steve Shifflett a cop impersonator
Steve Shifflett has been on both sides of the law. As a deputy for nearly three decades, he lived his boyhood dream of a career in law enforcement, only to have it derailed by what he claims is a police vendetta against him that continues to this day. Those who've been on the receiving end of his million-dollar lawsuits might see things differently.
Has Shifflett been unfairly targeted, or has he– as many officers have alleged– actually done something wrong?
This spring, he's in court as a defendant, and the first thing he tells the judge is, "I am not the Steve Shiflett who claimed he was shot." He's referring to former Albemarle deputy Stephen R. Shiflett who in 2003 reported– falsely, it turned out–- that he'd been shot by a mysterious African American man.
Steven Wayne Shifflett, 57, is sensitive to that kind of confusion. He, too, was a deputy sheriff. He's been arrested–- twice–- for impersonating an officer, and both times, the charges have been dropped. And he's followed up those charges with litigation that has meandered through the courts for much of the past 13 years.
So this April 26 hearing is not his first time in a courtroom. He's in Charlottesville General District Court fighting a ticket for failure-to-signal. Only in his world, it's not just a traffic ticket, it's an abuse of police power.
On the evening of April 3, he'd been out with his 17-year-old daughter. Driving his Crown Victoria, the quintessential cop car, Shifflett has a pretty distinctive license plate, personalized by the DMV to read "SHERIFF," something that may have led to his troubles.
Anyway, on this night, he hears on his police scanner his license getting called in. Shifflett phones the police station to find out what's up with that. A couple of hours later, the same cop passes Shifflett again, and gives him a ticket for turning without signaling.
In court, Shifflett tells the judge that the 10-year-old car has passed every inspection but that he did find a loose ground wire in the steering column, and that may have caused the problem with the turn signal.
"Had I known that that night, I wouldn't have written the ticket," says Charlottesville Police Officer William Newberry. Shifflett is found not guilty, and afterward, outside the courtroom, Newberry apologizes.
"That doesn't excuse the fact that he abused his power," Shifflett says to a reporter.
Steve Shifflett was born and raised in Charlottesville, and he says he's had a keen interest in law enforcement at least since 1971 when he was 17. "I rode along with Albemarle sheriff's deputies almost every night, he recalls. "It was good hands-on experience."
Three years later, he hired on with the Charlottesville Sheriff's Office, which is responsible for transporting prisoners and for courthouse security, and he worked there until he got fired in 1996. The popular story– that he got canned after falling asleep in court–- is one that Shifflett vigorously disputes.
"I wasn't fired for that," he says. "I was suspended. I filed a grievance contesting being suspended without hearing my side of the story." Sheriff J.W. "Buddy" Rittenhouse fired him, and "in Virginia, a sheriff can hire and fire at will," acknowledges Shifflett.
Shifflett had filed grievances before, and two were against another boss, Sheriff Carlton Baird, whose son would end up on the defendant end of a Shifflett lawsuit.
Even now, 14 years after his career as a city deputy ended, critics sometimes taunt Shifflett, who has been quoted in Hook stories as a voice willing to point out what he sees as police misconduct. (He questions the wisdom of last summer's controversial police pursuit on Rugby Road and doubts the police claim that doomed teen Colby Eppard fired a shotgun with one hand out a window while driving.)
As for the whole courthouse-snoozing allegation, the incident occurred during a time, says Shifflett, when he hadn't been getting a lot of sleep during the protracted death of his father. A doctor prescribed Xanax, he says, without telling him it could cause drowsiness. And it was a time when the courthouse had its well-known bout of so-called "sick building syndrome," he adds.
"I was taking my glasses off and rubbing my eyes because of the burning," he explains. "I dropped my glasses and bent down quickly to pick them up."
His fellow deputies and Judge Jay Swett thought he'd nodded off, says Shifflett. So was he sleeping?
"No, absolutely not," he declares.
Still, to be fired after 22 years with the Sheriff's Office, to be let go from a calling he'd pursued since a teen, that had to be rough.
On April 29, 1997, about a year after leaving the Sheriff's office, Shifflett, who lives off Locust Avenue, is driving a Chevy Caprice, another car popular in law enforcement. He has his then four-year-old daughter, Caryn, in the car for a trip to Radio Shack on Pantops to buy her a toy.
On the way home, at 8:10pm, Albemarle County Police Officer Gary Pistulka stops Shifflett at Free Bridge for suspicion of having illegally tinted windows. Shifflett says he has a Virginia State Police exemption certificate, and besides that, according to his lawsuit, Pistulka didn't have a tint meter anyway. Pistulka allegedly called the document a "forgery," says Shifflett, and confiscated it.
A little over a year earlier, Shifflett had been sworn in as an auxiliary deputy under Greene County's colorful Sheriff Willie Morris, according to court documents.
The Albemarle officer notices Shifflett's Greene County badge, a Virginia State Police replica badge, and his Charlottesville deputy badges in a recess on the dashboard, and asks to see them. Shifflett refuses, and Pistulka becomes "highly upset and visibly shaken," according to court documents.
"Contempt of cop" is how Steve Shifflett often describes the allegedly dangerous practice of showing disrespect toward police officers. Perhaps he realizes that this evening, and he decides to let Pistulka examine the badges.
Pistulka, who is still employed with the county police but who did not return phone calls from a reporter, calls the sergeant-on-duty that night, Stan Batten, who happens to be Shifflett's brother-in-law. In many cases, a familial connection might quickly help clear things up, but this was not one of those cases.
"There has been bad blood between [Shifflett] and the defendant, Sergeant Stan Batten, for almost a decade," says the subsequent lawsuit, which notes that Shifflett had filed "numerous complaints" about brother-in-law Batten. According to the lawsuit, Batten had reciprocated by contacting Sheriff Morris in April 1996 to get his brother-in-law terminated.
"He knew I worked for Greene," says Shifflett. "He tried to get me fired."
"I did not try to get him fired," says Batten, who was himself fired from Albemarle police in December 2000. Batten, who eventually became chief of police in the town of Louisa until he retired earlier this year, denies knowing that Shifflett was a Greene deputy at the time of the stop.
"[Greene County officer and now Sheriff] Scott Haas told me on the phone, 'Hell no, he's not a deputy,'" says Batten.
Back on the side of the road near Free Bridge, Shifflett, sitting in his car, supposedly overhears Pistulka on the cellphone talking to Batten, and jumps out of the car to request a different supervisor to come to the scene, according to the lawsuit. Pistulka refuses, the suit contends, and orders Shifflett back in the car– at gunpoint.
The Chevy Caprice bears District of Columbia presidential inauguration license plates– Shifflett says he's a license plate fan with probably a thousand plates in his collection– that have expired. At that point, Pistulka confiscates those and some Virginia license plates, and he arrests Shifflett for impersonating an officer.
"I know you well," Pistulka tells Shifflett, according to the lawsuit. "You used to be a cop. You can't accept the fact that you no longer are a cop."
While Shifflett sits handcuffed in the back of Pistulka's vehicle, four-year-old Caryn is left alone for up to 45 minutes inside the Caprice, a dangerous situation, according to the suit, because her dad had a loaded shotgun in there.
Around 11pm, at the county police department, Shifflett is told he'll be charged with possession of a sawed-off shotgun and burglary tools in addition to the impersonation charge. Shifflett denies that his shotgun was sawed-off, and as for the burglary tools, he says they were just pair of lockout devices called "slim jims," standard issue, Shifflett says, for Greene deputies to help people locked out of their vehicles.
At 2:30am on what is now April 30, Shifflett is taken to the magistrate's office, where Pistulka says he'd can't confirm an affiliation with the Greene Sheriff's Office. And at 2:45am– six and a half hours after Shifflett was pulled over– a magistrate issues an arrest warrant.
Particularly galling to Shifflett is that Batten had already issued a press release about the arrest at 9:45pm before charges had been filed, he complains in his suit. He notes that, when he goes to court, Judge Coy Kiser asks Pistulka about holding Shifflett in custody for nearly seven hours without formalizing the charges.
The three charges are dropped a month later. But today, 13 years later, the case is far from over.
The first lawsuit
Shifflett's August 31, 1998, motion for judgment against Batten and Pistulka asks for for $500,000 compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages. He sues them for false arrest, unlawful detention, malicious prosecution, felony child endangerment, trespassing, and assault and battery.
More than two years into the suit in January 2000, his attorney, Allison McKeel, asks to withdraw as his counsel, citing fear of retribution by Albemarle police. On the other hand, she also notes deterioration of her working relationship with Shifflett, as well as second thoughts about her contingency fee, according to court documents.
Three months later, Shifflett finds a new lawyer in Richmond, David Simonsen, who asks for $150,000 in compensatory damages, $350,000 punitive, a trebling of damages under state code, and of course, attorney's fees. The case against Batten and Pistulka is settled in January 2003, but the terms remain confidential.
"I didn't make [a settlement], and didn't want to make one," says Batten. "That's what the county decided. Neither Gary [Pistulka] nor I wanted to. We wanted to go to court."
In 1996, a young woman named Alicia Showalter Reynolds was abducted on U.S. 29 and her body discovered two months later. Her killer has never been found.
"Back at that time, we had all these concerns about females being stopped by unmarked vehicles," reminds Batten. "I'm not saying in any way that Steve Shifflett was involved. But there were a lot of reports of people getting stopped."
The lawsuit left a bad taste for Batten.
"I think the officer acted appropriately," says Batten. "I really had nothing to do with it except being the sergeant on duty that night."
Even bringing up the case again has him expressing concern to a reporter: "I don't want my name smeared."
At one point, Albemarle police Captain Doug Rhodes, Lieutenant John Teixeira, the County of Albemarle, and Chief John Miller were named in Shifflett's suit, but those defendants were dropped.
"If someone really feels they've been wronged, that's a remedy," says Miller, who recalls being sued five times in 21 years and admits he doesn't like it.
As for Shifflett's arrest, Miller expresses the lawman's equivalent of a rebuke.
"I think things got out of hand," sayd Miller. "It should have been handled differently by our department."
Miller fired Batten "for disciplinary actions" in 2000, and will not elaborate on the reasons.
The soon-to-retire chief objects to settlements being secret in lawsuits against government agencies. "If public funds are used for the settlement, they're wrong," says Miller, to not reveal how much.
The second arrest
Steve Shifflett, vindicated after the traumatic events of 1997, could have lived on quietly, working as tombstone salesperson at Hartman Memorials and collecting license plates and law enforcement memorabilia. But an event in Northern Virginia reminds him that the past is never forgotten and can continue to haunt–- even if your arrest record is expunged.
On December 16, 2004, Thomas Simpson, a former police officer in Arlington, is pulled over in Alexandria by a man with a badge.
Simpson suspected he had been speeding. He also displays a Fraternal Order of Police sticker on his rear window, and when the alleged cop sees it and learns that Simpson is a retired officer, he tells him to slow down and leaves, without writing a ticket.
The car of the guy who stopped him, a dark blue Crown Vic, had an "FOP 1" license plate, Simpson notices. He makes notes about what happened, and includes a description of a Hispanic male, 25 years old, 5' 8" tall, 140 pounds with thick black hair. No mention of any facial hair.
Let's note that Shifflett at that time is 55 years old, heavyset with gray hair, and he has worn a mustache since the 1970s. And as fond as he is with collecting license plates, he says he's never had an FOP1 plate.
Officer Julie Goble in Alexandria is assigned the case. She runs the "FOP 1" license plate, and it comes up registered to former Sheriff Carlton Baird, now deceased. When she calls his widow, Maxine Baird directs Goble to talk to her son, Mike Baird, chief deputy with the Charlottesville Sheriff's Office.
According to a narrative by Goble in the hefty lawsuit case file, Baird tells her that Shifflett had been fired as a deputy for misconduct but he was unsure of the specifics. He says Shifflett had a tendency to show up around town on police calls, to pull people over on traffic stop and that he "ghosted" radio transmissions. Baird suggests that Shifflett interchanged the tags on his cars, and told Officer Goble to contact Sergeant Richard Hudson with the Charlottesville Police Department, because he'd know more about "Mr. Shifflett's suspicious and impersonating activities."
When Officer Goble talks to Hudson, he mentions the 1997 arrest for impersonation, and says there was good evidence against Shifflett, but he inherited money from his father and hired attorneys "who were able to find a technicality on which to get the charges dropped," she recounts in her statement.
Hudson portrayed Shifflett as "a stalker, a hot head and a police impersonator," Goble says in her narrative of events, with emergency blue lights, spotlights, radios, uniforms, badges, weapons and license plates.
"They led her down a path she wanted to go down," Shifflett tells a reporter. "Even if she were misled, she still did a sloppy job."
Goble shows Simpson six photos, including one of the mustached Shifflett. Although it doesn't match his initial description, Simpson IDs Shifflett as the man who pulled him over.
On the bitter cold night of February 18, 2005, with his wife and daughter asleep, Shifflett hears a knock at the door of his house around 10:30pm.
"I didn't go answer it because I wasn't expecting anybody," he says. At a second knock, he hears his Norwegian elkhound in the back and goes outside to see what's going on.
"I only knew they were police officers when they got within 20 feet of me," says Shifflett. "They come into my house and handcuff me in front of my wife and daughter."
Even when he describes these events in 2008, the memory is still painful.
"I'm a deputy for 27 years," he says in apparent bewilderment. "I'm handcuffed and thrown in the car for a crime I hadn't committed. I'm treated like a common criminal after 27 years in law enforcement."
And Shifflett issues a blanket defense.
"I've never been to Alexandria," he says, "Why would I drive 120 miles to pull someone?"
In court April 25, 2005, Simpson again identifies Shifflett as the man who pulled him over. In a transcript of that hearing, Simpson concedes that the suspect who pulled him had no mustache, and explains Shifflett's: "Well, you can grow them."
The charge is dismissed.
His wife and daughter suffer with this latest incident, "They're like me–- totally embarrassed and humiliated by it," says Shifflett.
Even his best friend says to him that the first time, everybody knew it was a mistake. The second time, they start to wonder whether where there's smoke, there's fire. "That was humiliating, coming from my best friend," says Shifflett.
When Shifflett files suit in January 2006, he names six defendants. Not only Goble in Alexandria, but also the Alexandria police spokesman, John Crawford. Baird and Hudson are named, and two non-cops come into the mix: Evelyn "Joy" Lloyd in Louisa and Wendy Dressler Mannion in Pennsylvania.
It seems on the Louisa online message board, Lloyd had remarked that Shifflett "is guilty as hell." Mannion claimed that Shifflett "started pretending to be cops just to pull people over for kicks."
The defendants are variously accused of conspiracy, malicious prosecution, defamation, gross negligence (by Goble), and interference with a contract. On the latter count, Shifflett accuses Baird of bad-mouthing him at the Elks Lodge so that Shifflett's membership is denied.
And he asks for higher damages: $2 million compensatory, $2 million punitive, and a trebling of damages.
Baird, who unsuccessfully ran for city sheriff last year, settles the case April 21, 2008, and once again, the terms are confidential. He declines to comment when reached by the Hook.
"I will say that I never felt that Mike Baird was trying to be malicious," Shifflett's attorney, David Simonsen, tells a reporter after the settlement. "I think it was an unfortunate situation that he got pulled into. The way it played out was damaging to Steve, but I never thought it was malicious. You can tell by how quickly he settled."
Shifflett receives judgments against the message board women, neither of whom the Hook was able to reach.
Alexandria's Officer Goble and its spokesman, John Crawford, who is no longer with the force, settle in May 2009. Crawford did not return phone calls from the Hook.
Goble, now a detective, and current Alexandria Police spokesman Jody Donaldson decline to say how they feel about the settlement, but they do dispute that Shifflett was falsely arrested.
"There was probable cause," says Donaldson. "He was lawfully arrested, and a magistrate issued a warrant. The victim identified Steve Shifflett in a photo line-up and in the courtroom."
"I conducted a very thorough investigation," says Goble. "I had enough evidence to go before a magistrate. At the time, I believed I was given solid evidence by Charlottesville."
The amount of the settlement with Alexandria also is secret. Donaldson lists factors that can go into a decision by a city government agency to settle, such as a venue outside Alexandria with significant travel time.
"All the factors that led to the arrest of Mr. Shifflett would still line up today," says Donaldson. "I absolutely feel the case was handled appropriately."
That leaves Hudson as the final defendant. He worked for Charlottesville police for nearly 27 years, and retired in May 2009; He, too, declines to comment.
In March, a demurrer is heard in which Hudson's lawyer, Rich Milnor, argues that Hudson had nothing to do with the alleged "malicious prosecution" because Officer Goble swore out the complaint in Alexandria after the victim identified him from a photo spread. "That's probable cause," says Milnor.
He also argues against the defamation count, asserting that Hudson has immunity as a police officer and that law enforcement frequently contacts other agencies for information. Hudson, says Milnor, reported what he knew or remembered about Shifflett, even if the charges had been expunged.
Judge Thomas Wood denies the demurrer, but cautions Shifflett's lawyer, "Mr. Simonsen, you've got your work cut out."
Hudson and Shifflett are scheduled for mediation in September.
The wall of Steve Shifflett's garage is covered with license plates– his father used to collect them, too– and he tries to explain his penchant for collecting the badges and hats and shirts of police officers: "I was a deputy sheriff for 27 years. That's part of my life."
Even another settlement won't erase "dragging my name through the mud or the character assassination," says Shifflett. "That's the only form of compensation they can give me."
Thirteen years after that first arrest of a man who says he never even had a parking ticket, Shifflett assesses the damage.
"After all this, I just withdrew from society," he says. "Before, most of my friends were cops. It got so I couldn't trust anybody."
Shifflett says what happened him isn't supposed to happen at the hands of law enforcement in America. "And if they can d this to one off their own," he cautions, "what are they capable of doing to an ordinary citizen?"