Scientist wins damages in case of false arrest

April 06, 1991|By Ann LoLordo

A Baltimore jury awarded $1 million yesterday to a former University of Maryland scientist after concluding that two colleagues falsely accused him of stealing computer data from a Baltimore laboratory in 1988.

The Circuit Court jury, after hearing three weeks of testimony, decided that the allegations by Anthony Sestokis and Philip J. Krause led to the false arrest of Robert W. Thatcher, the former head of the Applied Neuroscience Institute at the university's Eastern Shore campus. The three men worked together at a special clinical service that Mr. Thatcher helped to establish at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

"The passion of my life was science, and that was taken from me," Mr. Thatcher said yesterday in an interview from his lawyer's office. "The jury's verdict greatly helps to remove the stigma of having been charged with a felony of which I was totally innocent."

Steven Leder, an attorney for Mr. Sestokis, said he thought the jury's award was subject to a state-mandated cap of $350,000 for damages in such cases. He said his client also was considering an appeal.

Mr. Thatcher's lawsuit against his two colleagues stemmed from his Dec. 5, 1988, arrest on felony theft charges. Mr. Thatcher was arrested at his Princess Anne office and accused of stealing 36 computer tapes from the Baltimore clinic and destroying computer data there, according to his attorney, Marvin Ellin.

A year later, prosecutors dropped the charges, Mr. Ellin said.

Mr. Thatcher, 48, of Severna Park said the tapes were part of his research data, which he routinely took with him as he moved between his Eastern Shore and Baltimore offices. He contended that the arrest sullied his reputation. He said he had been unable to get a job since his contract with the University of Maryland ended in the summer of 1989.

During the trial, Mr. Sestokis and Mr. Krause contended that Mr. Thatcher was not authorized to remove the tapes from the Baltimore laboratory, according to attorneys for the two men. They came to work on Dec. 5, 1988, to find dozens of computer tapes missing -- and dummy tapes put in their place, said William F. Howard, an assistant Maryland attorney general who represented Mr. Krause.

The sophisticated computer equipment also would not work, and the staff could not locate the backup systems, Mr. Howard said.

Mr. Thatcher, who has done extensive research on the effects of lead poisoning on urban and rural children, was recruited to the University of Maryland in 1979. He brought with him a special technology that he developed -- computerizing the results of brain wave testing.

The technology was of interest to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center,said Mr. Ellin.

In 1981, Mr. Thatcher became director of the University of Maryland's Neurometric Clinical Service, a position he held until 1985, when the service became an independently-run lab serving shock trauma patients. Mr. Sestokis of Woodlawn was the clinical coordinator of the neurometric laboratory, and Mr. Krause of Glen Burnie ran the clinic's computer operation, attorneys in the case said.

Mr. Sestokis and Mr. Krause were together found liable for $700,000 for causing a false arrest. Mr. Krause was also found liable for $300,000 for slander.

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