Willoughby awarded $1.25M in suit settlement
DCI investigation drawing closer to finale
by Joy Ufford
October 23, 2013
It is now public knowledge that Wyoming agencies recently agreed to a $1.25-million settlement for former convicted murderer ¬Troy D. Willoughby, once a Daniel, Wyoming resident and now of Wickes, Montana– who was later acquitted in a second trial due to revelations that county investigators withheld potential exculpatory evidence at his first trial in 2010.
At the same time, special prosecutor Matthew Redle continues working with the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) to determine whether or not criminal charges will be filed against the defendants in Willoughby’s suit, Redle said Tuesday.
Civil suit background
Willoughby filed a civil suit in Wyoming’s U.S. District Court on Sept. 17, 2012, seeking unspecified damages on claims that Sublette County sheriff’s (SCSO) and county attorney investigators – then Capt. Brian Ketterhagen, then-Deputy Sarah Brew and then county-attorney investigator Randall Hanson deliberately violated his constitutional rights, records show.
His suit argued they withheld a 1984 SCSO report about an incident hours before the murder for which he was charged and prosecuted in Sublette County and sentenced to life. After a year of filings, phone calls and motions, an August 27 settlement conference regarding Ketterhagen and Hanson was held before U.S. District Judge Scott W. Skavdahl in his Casper, Wyoming courtroom.
On August 20, Willoughby had moved to dismiss his complaint against Brew with prejudice, which Judge Skavdahl approved. The outcome of the August 27 settlement conference was unknown until September 30, when Willoughby filed motions to dismiss his suit against Hanson and Ketterhagen and the judge approved both, with prejudice.
"It is ordered that all claims brought on behalf of plaintiff (Willoughby) in the above-referenced action against (Hanson and Ketterhagen) are dismissed with prejudice with each party to bear its own respective attorneys (sic) fees and costs," Judge Skavdahl wrote.
Attorneys for Willoughby, Ketterhagen and Brew did not respond to requests for settlement information. Ketterhagen and Brew were represented by way of the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office; Hanson’s attorney Thomas Thompson replied that he could not comment.
The scheduled December 2 bench trial, with 10 days set aside in the judge’s Casper courtroom, was vacated and the case is "terminated" as of September 30, according to court records.
Although settlement terms were court-ordered to be confidential, The Associated Press (AP) filed a records request and received information from the State Auditor’s Office and Wyoming Local Government Liability Pool that each made payments of $625,000 to settle the suit, for a total of $1.25 million.
AP reported that the liability pool "pools money from counties and other entities to cover claims."
However, Judge Skavdahl has ordered that each party in the suit was to bear his or her own costs of attorneys and fees; Willoughby’s costs for the suit are unknown at this time.
Criminal case background
Willoughby’s suit argued that the three defendants kept back potentially exculpatory evidence from the defense before his first Sublette County murder trial in 2010 for the June 21, 1984, early-morning shooting death of Elisabeth "Lisa" Ehlers, of Jackson, Wyoming at a highway pullout just north of Bondurant.
The prosecution’s case presented that Willoughby, former friend Tim Basye and his ex-wife Rosa Hosking went to Jackson to drink on the afternoon of June 20, 1984, and that the next morning Willoughby encountered Ehlers at an early-morning party in Jackson, followed her south on Highway 191 through Hoback Canyon in his car with Basye and Hosking and shot her in a roadside pullout just north of Bondurant.
Willoughby’s team did not present a defense, nor did he testify in that trial. The Sublette County jury returned with a "guilty" verdict in about two hours.
After Willoughby was sentenced to life in prison and his appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court denied, he remained in the Wyoming State Penitentiary. He was initially taken into custody in Montana in 2009 when charged with Ehlers’ murder and extradited to the Sublette County jail, remaining there up to, during and after his first trial.
Shortly after his 2010 conviction was upheld, new Sublette County Attorney Neal Stelting announced that a SCSO investigator on the "cold case" team with Ketterhagen, Brew and Hanson secretly recorded pre-trial conversations with them.
The topic was a 1984 SCSO report that said Willoughby was at home at 12:21 a.m. on June 21, 1984, after smashing a car window during an argument with its occupants, the report shows.
The recordings apparently captured Sublette investigators’ talk of "burying" that report so Willoughby could not "walk" from the crime, a quarter-century after it occurred.
A new trial was ordered and a change of venue granted to Lander’s Ninth District Court. Basye and Hosking again testified again they had first-hand knowledge of Willoughby’s role in Ehlers’ murder, and investigator Hanson stated that perhaps the 1984 SCSO report should have been given to public defenders before the first trial, records show.
Willoughby took the stand at the second trial, as did his sister Gaylene Post, who said that she and her brother had gone to Astoria Hot Springs and not to Jackson, about 65 miles away. The defense argued the state’s timeline for Ehlers’ death could not include events as presented in the first murder trial.
Willoughby said under oath that he knew nothing of Ehlers’ death, despite a pre-trial statement to an FBI investigator that he actually saw her car at the pullout and stopped, seeing her lying dead, and then left. He recanted that statement and in 2012, testified that he never saw her body or stopped at the pullout.
The Fremont jury found Willoughby "not guilty" of first-degree murder and he was released from custody at the Lander courthouse.
Tuesday, special prosecutor Matthew Redle, Sheridan County Attorney, said that his investigation into possible criminal charges against the Willoughby trial investigators is ongoing.
"We’ve been working on this, myself and an agent for the Division of Criminal Investigation, for some time and we continue to work on it," Redle said.
He said he expects to have a more complete update in November.
When asked if he was serving as a special prosecutor for the state of Wyoming or for Sublette County, Redle explained that he received a telephone call with both former State Attorney General Greg Phillips and Stelting on the other end.
"They asked me to take on this responsibility and I agreed to do so," Redle said.
Stelting, previously a private defense attorney who acknowledged assisting Willoughby’s public-defender team before the first trial, replaced former county attorney Lucketta McMahon in 2012. McMahon was not named as a defendant in Willoughby’s civil suit.