Strasburg, police threatened with lawsuit

STRASBURG – Town officials had little to say Thursday about an attorney’s letter accusing several police officers of violating the civil rights of a man described by a special prosecutor as mentally challenged.

Harrisonburg attorney Michael Araj sent the letter in February to give notice of a “possible” lawsuit over an incident in September at the apartment of town resident Timothy Lam.

The letter accuses officers John Magdinec, Eric Ramey and Matt Troxell of violating Lam’s rights against “unlawful seizure of his person.” The letter also accuses Police Chief Tim Sutherly of conspiring “to cover up the incident.”

Sutherly has denied the officers did anything harmful during a 40-minute visit to Lam’s apartment at Massanutten Manor. Sutherly has depicted the visit as a casual, friendly engagement that he encourages police to initiate with citizens as a way of strengthening mutual trust and respect.

Sutherly also rejected the accusation of a cover up. On Tuesday, special prosecutor Suzanne Mackall issued a report clearing the officers of any violations of criminal law in the incident.

Mackall’s report describes Lam as a “friend of the town police department” and “somewhat of a town celebrity.”

But Mackall also denounced the officers’ behavior, which she described as “shameful,” “unprofessional” and “a form of bullying” aimed at a man she called mentally challenged.

Araj’s letter was submitted in the form of a notice of claim, a document that many states and communities require before a lawsuit can be filed against the government. As of Thursday, Araj had yet to file a lawsuit. He refused to comment on the letter.

“Mr. Lam will be alleging that the three Strasburg officers, without warrant, without probable cause and without exception forced Mr. Lam to give them entry into his residence for the sole purpose of harassing him,” Araj wrote, adding that the officers “continued to detain and harass Mr. Lam without justification and outside the scope of their authority. Upon information and belief, dispatch was unaware of any officers ordered or present at the location.”

The letter identifies the town, the police department, Sutherly and the three officers as the subjects of any lawsuit that could be filed in connection with the incident.

Mackall’s report places the time of the incident as after 11 p.m. and estimates the officers were at the apartment for 40 minutes. Araj’s letter states it “occurred on the evening of September 7, 2014, into the early morning of Sept. 8, 2014 . . .”

Town council member Jocelyn Vena, the chairwoman of the town’s public safety and recreation committee, which has jurisdiction over the police, refused to comment on the letter.

Another council member, Richard Orndorff, cited the need to meet with town attorney Nathan Miller before commenting.

“I would only say that I take this very seriously, and it gives me concern, but I would defer anything to our town attorney, Nathan Miller, at this point,” Orndorff said.

An employee at Miller’s law firm said he was out of the office Thursday afternoon and unavailable for comment.

Phone messages left for Mayor Timothy Taylor were not returned.

Sutherly said in an interview Wednesday that accusations of a cover up stemmed from his insistence on defending his officers’ rights to due process during an initial investigation conducted by the Page County Department of Social Services.

In a letter to a member of the Department of Social Services on Oct. 22, Sutherly described himself and the officers as “more than willing to cooperate with any investigation if there is a legitimate complaint against the officers. An ‘anonymous’ source, as described by you during our phone conversation, does not constitute a legitimate allegation. I have spoken with the officers involved and do not feel they did anything excessive that violated Mr. Lam’s rights and in fact helped him hang wall fixtures after being invited into his place of residence.”

Sutherly concluded the letter by recommending that the social worker interview the “supposed victim, which would eliminate the third party anonymous caller.” Sutherly added that the social worker could “file a written complaint with specific allegations” if it was deemed necessary after interviewing Lam.

Mackall’s investigation, which was conducted with the assistance of the Virginia State Police, made no mention of a cover up. She and Sutherly identified Lam’s caretakers as David Mason and a woman who is either Mason’s wife or partner. Sutherly and Mackall both stated that Mason, a long-time member of the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office, was the source of the complaint that triggered the investigation of the Strasburg officers’ interactions with Lam in his apartment.

Mason has denied he is Lam’s caretaker and has refused to comment further on the case.

Araj’s letter stated that Lam “was injured as a cause of the officers’ actions” but gave no details. Sutherly said in a brief interview Thursday that he had no knowledge of any injuries to Lam.

Sutherly also denied a statement in the letter in which he is quoted as calling the incident a “prank gone wrong.”

“I don’t know where they got their information,” Sutherly said of the quote attributed to him in Araj’s letter.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com