4,100 miles for an arrest that just goes bust
Kentucky sheriff drives to California only to bring back the wrong man
By Andrew Wolfson • firstname.lastname@example.org
• August 18, 2008
Two weeks ago, the Butler County sheriff and a deputy hopped into their cruiser and drove to California and back -- more than 4,100 miles -- to bring a man to Kentucky for failing to appear in court on the minor felony charge of fleeing from police and drunken driving, a misdemeanor.
On the way there, they stopped to sightsee at country music star Buck Owens' Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, Calif. On the way back, they bought T-shirts at a souvenir shop.
Only when they got back to Western Kentucky and turned their prisoner over to the jail did anyone confirm through fingerprints and mug shots what their prisoner, 27-year-old Joe Oros III, had been saying all along:
They had the wrong man.
Embarrassed by the mistake, the county swiftly put Oros on a plane back to California.
"We decided with our attorneys that the best thing to do was get him back home as quick as we could," said Butler Judge-Executive David Fields.
But the cross-country jaunt may prove to cost the county a little more than the expense of a plane ticket.
As he was being freed, Oros ran into a helpful Kentucky lawyer who agreed to sue Butler County and the state of California, if necessary, to try to get extra compensation for the 2,000 miles he rode in shackles.
In an interview, Butler County Sheriff Joe Gaddie said he did nothing wrong -- "I had a valid warrant and I served it," he said. And Oros himself may have contributed to his involuntary road trip by signing a waiver of extradition.
But sheriffs and prosecutors in other Kentucky counties question whether it was worth the time and money to retrieve a suspect from such a distant state for such minor offenses.
"Is it sensible to do that?" asked Jim Crawford, the commonwealth's attorney for Carroll, Grant and Owens counties. "I'd have to look at that real hard."
Ed Ross, controller for the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet, which reimburses sheriffs for out-of-state travel, said driving to California for such an offense is probably "excessive" and that he plans to review Gaddie's application for reimbursement.
Gaddie said he thought the trip cost about $1,300, but under state mileage rules, the state could be billed for more than $5,400.
A stolen identity
The comedy of errors began in February 2004, when a man who had apparently stolen Oros' identity was charged with driving under the influence and evading police, then failed to show up in court.
Four years later, the California Department of Corrections -- about to parole the real Joe Oros, who'd been serving time for domestic violence -- spotted a warrant for him in an FBI computer system. They notified Butler County authorities that they could come get him if they wanted.
Gaddie, a former state trooper who was elected sheriff in 2006, had taken long road trips before, driving to Utah and New Mexico to bring back suspects to Morgantown, about 25 miles northwest of Bowling Green.
This time, he said in the interview, he initially thought it might not be worth it -- "That is a long trip for what's not serious crime."
So, he consulted with county prosecutors.
County Attorney Richard Deye said he told Gaddie "don't bring him back on my account," but that he would help prosecute Oros if Gaddie did.
"You can't let people escape prosecution by running away," Deye said later.
Commonwealth's Attorney Tim Coleman said he also told Gaddie he'd prosecute Oros -- and throw in an additional felony charge of bail jumping. But Coleman said in an interview later that he thought Gaddie would fly to California to get Oros, as allowed by state rules for trips of more than 500 miles.
Meanwhile, at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, in California's Mojave Desert, Oros said he was dumbfounded by the news that he was wanted in Kentucky.
"That is totally impossible because I've never been to Kentucky, nor have I ever been out of California!" he wrote in a July 31 appeal form. Oros asked prison officials to verify his claim by checking his picture and fingerprints against the wanted man's.
Though the appeal was granted, California officials apparently never ran the check.
Oros also signed a waiver allowing him to be taken to Kentucky without an extradition hearing, at which the state would have been required to prove his identity.
In an interview, Oros' lawyer, Gary Logsdon, of Edmonson County, Ky., said his client had no choice but to sign the waiver because he would have had to spend months more in prison if he'd elected to fight extradition.
But Gaddie said that by signing the document, Oros was in effect saying, "Take me to Kentucky."
'A friendly guy'
Other than the handcuffs locked tightly around his wrists, Oros said he enjoyed the 30-hour ride to Kentucky -- his first chance to states outside California.
"They fed me good," he said. "They were entirely nice people."
He also said he had no problem with Gaddie and Deputy Mitchell Russ doing a little souvenir hunting along the way.
"Praise God, let them shop," Oros said.
Gaddie said there was nothing wrong with it because they had to stop for gas and food anyway. And he said they developed a good rapport with their prisoner. "He was a friendly guy," Gaddie said. "He said this was the best he'd ever been treated by anyone."
Oros repeatedly insisted they had the wrong man, but Gaddie said that every convict has a story, and that he didn't believe Oros'.
Besides, Gaddie said, he had a valid warrant and the waiver.
"I asked him why he signed the waiver of extradition," Gaddie said. "And he said he didn't know what he was signing."
Free man, free haircuts
After a night in the Butler County Jail, Oros repeated his story, and this time, somebody listened.
Jailer Terry Fugate pulled the mug shot of the wanted suspect, and it obviously wasn't Oros.
"That guy is ugly," Oros said of his impostor. "I'm pretty."
When their fingerprints didn't match either, Oros was removed from his cell and given a cup of coffee. Oros, who recently graduated from barber college, was so grateful that he gave the deputy jailers free haircuts.
"They all look good now," he said.
The county bought him a set of clothes, and put him up at the Green River Lodge on Aug. 6, while he awaited his flight to Los Angeles the next morning.
Chief deputy jailer Rocky Tyree said he asked Gaddie to drive Oros to Nashville International Airport, about 85 miles away, but the sheriff refused. "He said he didn't have a transportation order, and he wouldn't be paid," Tyree said.
Gaddie said in the interview that driving Oros to the airport would have left the sheriff's office empty, and besides, it wasn't his job: "I arrest people and take them to jail."
So a deputy jailer took Oros to catch his plane, and this time, he got to sit in the front, with no handcuffs.
"Sometimes, there is the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do," Tyree said, "and we thought this was the right thing."
Reluctant to sue
Oros, who lives in Earlimart, Calif., said he's never sued anybody before, and he is reluctant to sue Butler County, in part because of his affection for Gaddie.
"I love that guy," Oros said.
But he said he's poor and needs the money, in part to pay $10,000 in restitution on a previous conviction for theft.
So Logsdon said he is prepared to file lawsuits seeking damages for Oros from California, for failing to check the warrant, and from Butler County. He said Gaddie would have known he had the wrong guy if he'd simply brought a mug shot of the wanted man to California.
Oros said he views the road trip as a mixed blessing. He said he was "traumatized" -- but got to take his first plane ride, and got to see Kentucky.
"It's so green, and the people are so nice," he said. "I just might move there."