A special prosecutor continues to investigate the circumstances surrounding a confrontation between Warren County deputy sheriffs and a man injured during an April traffic stop.

Ralph C. Ennis, 77, died on April 15 in the care of Blue Ridge Hospice, 13 days after sustaining a head injury during an April 2 traffic stop in Warren County.

The Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled that Ennis died from “natural causes.” However, Ennis’ son, Ian Ennis, claims in an ongoing $6 million lawsuit that his father died from severe head trauma caused by deputies’ use of excessive force.

The Virginia State Police investigated the incident at the request of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office. The agency presented its findings to Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney John Bell.

“The state police had opened their investigation, consulted with me,” Bell said by phone Friday. “After reviewing their initial findings, I had requested that we appoint a special prosecutor to look at the case.”

Bell said he requested that Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth take over the investigation.

“As special prosecutor, they are working with the state police on the investigation and they have the final decision, you know, as to what should be done with the case,” Bell said. “If they elect to bring any charges, (the special prosecutor) could ask the state police to obtain (arrest) warrants or to present them to the Warren County grand jury,” Bell said.

Ashworth said by phone Friday that her office continues to look into the matter.

“The case is still under investigation and our office is assigned to handle the prosecution if charges are brought,” Ashworth said.

In response to a request for information about the state police’s findings from its investigation, Sgt. Brent Coffey, public information officer for the Culpeper Division, provided a statement in an email Thursday.

“This case is still active and ongoing,” Coffey stated. “We are waiting on a prosecutorial decision from the Commonwealth's Attorney Office.”

Sheriff Mark Butler said by phone Friday that he has not received information from the investigating agencies. A committee formed shortly after Ralph Ennis’ death conducted an internal investigation into the office’s handling of the incident. The committee concluded its investigation about a month ago, Butler said.

“We’re very confident in (our investigation),” Butler said. “We requested help from other agencies and also individuals from the public that did not know any of the people involved ... and we set up a committee.”

The panel reviewed the Sheriff’s Office’s evidence and the policies, which Butler said are comparable to those of the Department of Criminal Justice Services and the national Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Inc. The committee then came up with its findings.

“But we can’t comment on that because there’s still ongoing investigations going on,” Butler said, noting that his office doesn’t want to impede the Prince William prosecutor and state police investigations. “Like I said, I’m a true protector of the Constitution and everyone deserves due process, which is the Fifth (Amendment), and I will protect that to the fullest with the Constitution.”

Butler said he couldn’t comment on whether or not his office put any of the deputies involved in the incident on paid administrative leave or reassignment. Nor would he comment on whether or not anyone who may have been put on leave have since returned to duty. Butler said they were personnel matters. The sheriff did say that law enforcement agencies in general commonly take such actions while they conduct internal investigations.

Butler went on to say that he stands behind his agency and how it handled the incident.

“My prayers and heart go out to all the families involved,” Butler said. “It was just a situation no one really wants to be into.”

The two-count civil complaint accuses Deputies Tyler Poe and Zachary Fadley of using excessive force in violation of Ralph Ennis’ Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

A deputy running radar in the early morning hours of April 2 clocked Ralph Ennis’ pickup traveling 63 mph in a 55-mph zone and tried to get the driver to pull over, the lawsuit states. The deputy reported seeing the vehicle sway, the lawsuit states, and Ralph Ennis eventually pulled into the 7-Eleven parking lot on Crooked Run Road.

The Sheriff’s Office stated in a news release issued in late April that Ralph Ennis failed to comply with deputies’ orders during the encounter, resulting in a deputy approaching him from behind and grabbing his arms in an attempt to arrest him. The news release also stated that the deputy continued to give commands to Ralph Ennis to stop resisting, drop the keys to his pickup and place his hands behind his back.  The deputy then escorted Ralph Ennis to the rear of his pickup, according to the news release.

Ian Ennis states in his lawsuit that Ralph Ennis appeared confused by, or could not hear, deputies’ commands but did comply. Citing the video recording, the lawsuit states that Ralph Ennis appeared to not understand the deputy’s command to drop his keys, at which point Poe rushed Ralph Ennis, grabbed him and slammed his face and body into the rear of the pickup. Fadley rushed in from the side then pushed and tackled Ralph Ennis and Poe to the pavement behind the pickup, the lawsuit states.  Deputies handcuffed and searched Ennis, the lawsuit states. Emergency medical services workers arrived to tend to Ralph Ennis’ injuries, then took him to Warren Memorial Hospital for treatment at approximately 2:15 a.m. after he appeared to have suffered head trauma, according to the lawsuit. 

Hospital staff diagnosed Ennis with a traumatic brain injury caused by the fall, specifically a bleed in his brain known as a subarachnoid hemorrhage in the left parietal and occipital lobes, according to the complaint. EMS workers transferred Ennis to Winchester Medical Center due to the severity of his trauma and he arrived at the hospital at approximately 6:30 a.m. Staff at the Winchester hospital diagnosed Ennis with terminal intracerebral hemorrhage. Ennis’ health continued to decline at the Winchester hospital and his family decided to change his level of care to comfort or palliative care, according to the lawsuit. Ennis then was transferred to Blue Ridge Hospice on April 14 for end-of-life care.

“Defendants unreasonably used excessive force against Mr. Ennis when they effected their arrest by slamming the elderly man face first into his vehicle and then tackling him (to) the ground after he was already restrained, causing a traumatic and ultimately fatal brain injury,” the complaint states. “No objectively reasonable law enforcement officer would have believed that the elderly and visibly confused Mr. Ennis posed any threat or significant risk of harm to himself or any other person. No objectively reasonable law enforcement officer would believe that the level of force used by the Defendants was necessary to subdue an elderly and visibly confused man during a routine traffic stop.”

The second count accuses the deputies of battery leading to Ralph Ennis’ wrongful death in violation of Virginia law.

“At all relevant times, both Defendants had a duty to use only the amount of force necessary in subduing Mr. Ennis,” the lawsuit complaint states. "Defendants’ excessive physical force against Ralph Ennis was utilized without proper verbal warning and was not justified in any way," the complaint adds. 

 

– Contact Alex Bridges at abridges@nvdaily.com

(1) comment

Varider424

Liberal Amy Ashworth. So much for fairness and objectivity for the officers.

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