Federal jury gives small victories to victims of phony officer
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS -- For the four months that Bill Jakob pretended to be the law in the Franklin County town of Gerald, it was as if a tornado blew through, an attorney for almost two dozen of its residents told a federal jury here this week.
It was no innocent game of cops and robbers, attorney Bob Herman insisted. He claimed that in posing as a federal agent, Jakob left a trail of damage, violated civil rights and, in a crusade against small-time marijuana use, enlisted the local police as a willing accomplice.
"These are 22 people who have been hurt by this tornado," Herman said, pointing to clients who sued for damages from Jakob, the former police chief and two other officers.
But jurors took a case-by-case approach in delivering a mixed set of verdicts Friday night, awarding cash to some plaintiffs but not others.
The compensatory and punitive awards totaled less than $50,000 combined, with most plaintiffs receiving $1,000 to $4,000. The most any single plaintiff received in actual damages was $300. One man and one woman each received a combined total of $6,003. For plaintiffs who received damages, the jury ruled Jakob or a Gerald police officer violated protections against unreasonable search, interrogation or arrest.
The complaint did not specify damages. In closing arguments, Herman suggested the jury consider compensatory awards of more than $250,000 for anyone wrongfully arrested, and up to $1 million for one woman confined to a mental health facility. He suggested four to five times that in punitive damages, to send a clear message that "this behavior will not be tolerated."
The jury instead largely sided with the defense, which argued that if it was decided plaintiffs' constitutional rights were violated, only a nominal $1 award be entered because people didn't suffer any actual harm.
Defense attorney Renee Waters repeatedly asked jurors to separate the crime Jakob is serving time for — impersonating a federal officer — from the issue of the civil trial: whether people's rights were violated by the actions of Jakob and the police.
The impersonation in 2008 earned Jakob a Hollywood movie deal and a piece on TV's "60 Minutes." It also helped earn him a five-year prison sentence.
Jakob testified at the trial in an orange prison jumpsuit. It was the first detailed account of the searches, interrogations and arrests at issue. It also was the first public airing of Jakob's claim that the former police chief, Ryan McCrary, helped cook up the ruse.
Peter Dunne, attorney for McCrary and the officers, scoffed at the claims. He said that while McCrary did "a lot of stupid things," perhaps the biggest was trusting Jakob.
"Bill Jakob is the most accomplished liar — the most convincing liar — that any of us are ever going to encounter," Dunne said.
He also said McCrary missed the trial because he is working in Afghanistan as a medic.
Jurors heard claims that Jakob led police on a wild power trip, breaking down doors and searching homes without warrants. The plaintiffs said that following Jakob's lead, police arrested people without cause, interrogated them at gunpoint and threatened to take away their children or have them tossed into prison, where they could be raped.
Targets were not just pot smokers or dealers, the plaintiffs' lawyers claimed, but also their relatives.
One woman, Betty Jo Jarvis, claimed she ended up in a mental health facility after saying during an interrogation that she would rather die than implicate her brother. But Waters said it was really because she threatened suicide.
Dunne insisted that nothing unlawful or unconstitutional occurred. "The police have a duty to arrest people involved in the drug business, and that's really what happened here," he said.
Jarvis was awarded a total of $6,003. Jurors ruled Jakob and two Gerald police officers unreasonably searched her home.
Dunne said police only entered homes when invited or authorized by good reason. And he said questioning of relatives is routine.
Jakob testified that he always believed he was a legitimate police officer. He admitted threatening suspects with federal charges but said he never hit anyone, searched homes without permission or made more serious threats.
He had worked in five small departments and was what he called a "glorified security guard" at the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank when he approached McCrary for a job. In their third meeting, Jakob said, McCrary suggested he work conditionally, until sworn in by the City Council.
Jakob told the jury he received a badge, uniform and sergeant's rank but carried his own .45-caliber pistol. He said McCrary not only knew that he wasn't a federal agent but not a licensed police officer.
Jakob said, "We told people that I was a federal officer ... to take them out of their comfort zone" because McCrary felt the residents weren't afraid enough of local police to provide cooperation.
Apparently, no one checked Jakob's license status or discovered his past misdemeanor conviction for having sex with an underage girl.
Scott Ramsey, formerly Gerald's assistant chief of police, told jurors he was unaware that Jakob's credentials were bogus. He said Jakob had a task force badge and a Ford Crown Victoria better equipped than the department's vehicles.
Jakob 'stood tall, held his chest out" and "knew all the answers," Ramsey said.
Discovery of marijuana in the trunk of a car set off a furious weeklong series of arrests, interrogations and searches, Ramsey said, that arose out of information provided by arrested suspects trying to avoid federal charges.
Ramsey said any suspicions about Jakob were offset by his professional demeanor.
The pretense unraveled when skeptical residents contacted Linda Trest, a reporter with the Gasconade County Republican newspaper, who alerted Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke.
McCrary, two of his officers and a Franklin County sheriff's deputy eventually were fired.
The jury ultimately ordered that Jakob, Ramsey and McCrary each pay damages to some of the plaintiffs for violating their constitutional rights.
Asked about Jakob's allegations that McCrary knew about the ruse, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith responded, "We just couldn't base any, any investigation on Bill Jakob's word because he lacked any credibility whatsoever."
Jakob is serving a five-year prison sentence for two counts of false impersonation, 18 counts of false impersonation in making arrests and residential searches and one count each of wire fraud, mail fraud and lying to the FBI.
The fraud charges were from another scam, in which he pretended to win Army Corps of Engineers contracts worth more than $385,000 while working for a lock company in Maryland Heights in 2007. The company spent money on a contract that didn't exist.
Investigators said Jakob was fired from his job with the Federal Reserve when bosses discovered the sexual abuse conviction.
Officials said Jakob had lied to get that job, claimed he retired from the Army as a first sergeant and was injured overseas, and said he had a history degree from the University of Missouri.
In truth, he had an "other than honorable" discharge from the Missouri Army National Guard and faked paperwork showing his promotion to sergeant. He also wore a Ranger pin and air assault badge he had not earned, officials said.
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