Thursday, April 8, 2004

A son dead, couple looks for answers


Police killed Clayton Helriggle in drug raid

By Jon Gambrell
Enquirer contributor

[photo]
Michael and Sharon Helriggle hold a photo of their son Clayton, who was shot and killed during a Preble County drug raid in 2002.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/ERNEST COLEMAN
LANIER TOWNSHIP - Sitting in their wood-paneled living room, Michael and Sharon Helriggle are mostly quiet, lost in their memories as smoke from their cigarettes rises into a blue haze.

It's been more than a year since police killed their 23-year-old son, Clayton, in a raid that continues to hang over this rural community in Preble County, 50 miles north of Cincinnati. A grand jury declined to charge officers in the shooting, and an independent police investigation shut down without reaching a conclusion after officers who were involved refused to talk.

But the Helriggles keep looking for answers. They have filed a civil suit in federal court, seeking damages in Clayton's death. But a trial isn't expected for nearly two more years. There had been public discussion of a new grand jury probe, but there are no official plans for such action.

"From the beginning of this, we knew something wasn't right," says Sharon Helriggle. "Anyone who knew Clayton or our family knew it."

To Preble County investigators, Clayton was thought to be part of a high-volume marijuana ring selling in this area just north of Butler County. They say he had a gun when he approached police during the chaotic raid Sept. 27, 2002, at a rented farmhouse on Ohio 503.

The Helriggles and others maintain that the raid was excessive, and that poorly trained officers botched it and needlessly killed their son, who had no record of violence. They still have trouble believing Clayton was armed. A friend at the scene claims Clayton was holding a cup; police say a 9 mm handgun was recovered near Helriggle.

In this county of about 42,000 residents, where police shootings are rare and homicides happen about once a year, the incident has divided residents who don't know whose story to believe.

Some 600 people turned out for Helriggle's funeral. For months, residents have argued back and forth about blame on a Web site forum, eatonlink.com. Even today, stares and whispers greet the Helriggle family and friends.

"Everybody was shocked," said Eaton resident Michael Hiles, who operates the Web site. "This kind of thing doesn't happen in Preble County."

The night it happened

Living with a group of friends in a rented, two-story red brick farmhouse, Helriggle returned home after work on the evening he died with a plan to pay off his pickup truck and later see his girlfriend, friends say.

Meanwhile, police had been secretly watching his house for 20 hours and had a warrant to search it on a tip that 13 pounds of marijuana were stored there.

The subsequent investigation showed that information came a day earlier from Kevin M. Leitch, a burglary suspect arrested when Eaton police pulled him over and found several stolen guns in his car. Police had heard Leitch was planning to rob Helriggle's farmhouse, a report by the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office said. Leitch allegedly told police that his girlfriend had bought marijuana at the house.

The Montgomery County investigation reported that:

 An affidavit for the search warrantincluded several inaccuracies, ranging from dates and times to people alleged to be involved in drug dealing.

 Preble County's SWAT-like Emergency Services Unit, made up of officers from several agencies, had only four hours of tactical training before the raid.

 The group of officers scrapped initial plans and rushed the house after being spotted by a passing car. The wrong entry team entered the house first, adding to the confusion that included gunfire and the explosion of flash-bang grenades.

 Lewisburg Police Sgt. Kent Moore, who erroneously thought he had been wounded, fired his shotgun at a figure who surprised him in a back staircase. The blast struck Helriggle in the chest.

Helriggle's roommate, Ian Albert, said police opened fire on three dogs inside the house and forced him down on the stairs.

"Then Clay came around the corner and I was going to say 'The cops are here,' " Albert said. "He started to say, 'What.' Before he could get it out, they shot him."

A Ruger 9 mm pistol owned by Helriggle was later found by his side, but Albert remains adamant that his roommate was holding only a blue cup.

Police found a few ounces of marijuana in the house, and Wesley Bradley, a roommate, later admitted selling about an ounce of marijuana a week from the house.

The civil suit

Then-Preble County Sheriff Thomas A. Hayes, who has since died, disbanded the county's tactical unit because of "budgetary constraints." Current Sheriff Mike Simpson, who took part in the raid, said he had no plans to re-establish it and declined further comment.

He is named in the federal civil lawsuit. The suit names more than 20 officers involved in the shooting and the investigation leading up to the raid. James A. Climer, a Cleveland attorney defending Simpson and several others, declined an interview.

The Helriggle case led Wright State film students to produce a short film, which was shown this month in Cincinnati as part of a youth-oriented film festival. The 61/2-minute film by Julie Hidalgo and Gabriel Trainer focuses on interviews with Helriggle's family and friends.

E-mail jgambrell@fuse.net




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