Friday, February 02, 2001

Carrie's relatives win $3.75M award

Jury cites conduct of Blanchester's police chief

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Citing the “shocking” conduct of the Blanchester police chief, a federal court jury on Thursday ordered the Clinton County village to pay $3.75 million to relatives of Carrie Culberson, a Blanchester woman missing since 1996 and presumed dead.

        Jurors faulted Richard Payton, then chief of Blanchester police, for halting a search for Ms. Culberson in a junkyard pond, despite indications her body might be there. Mr. Payton also failed to secure the scene, allowing someone to remove Ms. Culberson's remains, the jurors concluded.

Debbie Culberson
Debbie Culberson
        Mr. Payton, who has pleaded no contest to dereliction-of-duty charges, retired and moved to Florida and could not be reached.

        Through their lawsuit in U.S. District Court, Ms. Culberson's family tried unsuccessfully to compel Vincent Doan, Ms. Culberson's boyfriend who was convicted of killing her, to reveal where her remains could be found.

        Thursday's verdict validated the family's contention that Mr. Payton ruined their best chance for recovering Carrie's body, said her mother, Debbie Culberson.

        Alphonse Gerhardstein, an attorney for the Culberson family, called the monetary award “one of the highest — if not the highest” in a Cincinnati-area police misconduct case.

        Ron McHenry, solicitor in the village of about 5,000 people, said Blanchester's insurance might cover damages, but Mr. Gerhardstein said he expects an appeal.

        Jurors were required to answer six key questions, the first being the most important: Whether any part of Mrs. Culberson's missing 22-year-old daughter Carrie's body was contained in a junkyard pond on Sept. 3, 1996.

        The answer: Yes, although no trace of her has been found.

        Four more times: Yes, in total affirming that the Blanchester police chief acted in a shocking way by calling off the search for Carrie and depriving the Culberson family of their right to her remains. Then came the final question, the damage award: $3.75 million for the Culbersons, payable by the village of Blanchester.

        “By the time they'd gotten to the fifth question, I didn't care what the sixth one (the damage award) was,” said Mrs. Culberson. “I have to thank the jurors because they gave us something we've been needing — they held (former Blanchester police chief) Richard Payton accountable. I cannot even begin to thank them for what little bit of peace that is going to give us.”

        Mrs. Culberson sat clutching the hand of attorney Jennifer Branch Thursday morning as she waited for the verdict in a lawsuit many considered unwinnable.

        Mr. Gerhardstein, who worked with Ms. Branch to represent the Culberson family, said people in legal circles thought pursuing the case was a bad idea because the hurdles were so high.

        “It was very intense to have to sit there and wait and listen to the answers to those questions — because if the answer to any one of them had been "no,' we would've lost,” he said.

        “The village of Blanchester had denied for four and a half years that they had control of the remains of Carrie Culberson — and now we have a jury saying they did.”

        Not knowing where Carrie is has tormented the Culbersons, Mr. Gerhardstein said.

        “That pond was Carrie's first grave and she was taken from it,” he said. “That's why this family doesn't have her, hasn't been able to bury her, and can't even go through the normal process of grieving.”

        In horrific nightmares, Mrs. Culberson pictured how her daughter might have died — and how her body might have been disposed.

        “It's because of the rumors that we've been told over all these years. Every time we hear one, we always visualize what might have happened to her,” Mrs. Culberson said.

        The jury began deliberating Wednesday — which would have been Ms. Culberson's 27th birthday. “I thought that was fitting,” Mrs. Culberson said. “I had hoped the verdict would come back that day, for Carrie. I think she knows we're doing this for her.”

        Mrs. Culberson said she has spoken at schools, prisons and community groups, warning people about abusive relationships like the one Carrie and her boyfriend, who was convicted of killing her, had shared.

        If Mrs. Culberson receives the $1.5 million that the jury awarded her, she hopes to further her anti-domestic violence efforts. Other portions of the $3.75 million award were awarded to Carrie's father, Roger, and sister, Christina Knox.

        “The verdict, yes, has given us some sort of peace,” she said, “but we'll never have closure until we find Carrie.”


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