Former deputy sheriff sues county, 2 officials over alleged forced retirement

June 12, 1994|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Sun Staff Writer

A former high-ranking deputy sheriff is suing Harford County, its top executive and its chief attorney, contending that he was forced to retire last year in the wake of an inmate's death in the county detention center.

Maj. E. Dale Zepp, 56, of Bel Air was a bureau commander in charge of the jail and court services until he was coerced into retirement, according to the civil suit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Mr. Zepp had supervised the detention center since it opened in 1973, the suit said.

Stuart Jay Robinson, Mr. Zepp's attorney at the time, said then XTC that his client was not retiring because of the controversy over the handling of the March 1, 1992, death of inmate William Martin Ford.

Mr. Zepp's lawsuit, filed by attorney Michael D. Smigiel Sr. of Elkton, states that Mr. Zepp was forced to retire or risk losing his pension and having to pay up to $60,000 for a private attorney to defend him in possible lawsuits involving the inmate's death.

A declaration filed with the suit and signed by Sheriff Robert E. Comes says county officials had told the sheriff that Mr. Zepp would have to resign or retire before the county could reach a settlement with the Ford family.

The court documents say Mr. Zepp and Sheriff Comes believed the county would not represent them in any pending lawsuit or against any other claim filed in connection with Mr. Ford's death.

The inmate, a 28-year-old Delaware laborer who was serving 30 days for drunken driving, was found in an isolation cell with a pillowcase knotted around his neck. A Harford grand jury later decided that "no Harford County Detention Center personnel were responsible for or involved in the death of William Ford."

The grand jury's final report, issued in February, said Mr. Ford's death was a suicide or an accident that occurred while he attempted to fake his own death.

Mr. Zepp's suit alleges that County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann and County Attorney Ernest Crofoot rushed into a $400,000 settlement with Mr. Ford's family before various investigations into the inmate's death had been completed.

The lawsuit contends that Mrs. Rehrmann and Mr. Crofoot, by forcing Mr. Zepp to retire, violated his constitutional right to due process, the Maryland Declaration of Rights, the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, and the Personnel Policy and Procedures of the Harford County Sheriff's Office.

The 15-count suit also alleges breach of contract, legal malpractice by Mr. Crofoot, conspiracy and gross negligence. Among other things, the suit claims that Mr. Zepp was not given an administrative hearing regarding his forced retirement and that Mrs. Rehrmann violated an agreement with him by saying on television that he was forced to retire because of management problems at the detention center, highlighted by the Ford case.

Mr. Zepp is seeking reinstatement, lost wages with interest and unspecified punitive damages.

"The lawsuit speaks for itself," said Mr. Smigiel. "How can you place an accurate figure on a man's reputation after 33 years of service is wiped out?"

Jefferson L. Blomquist, the deputy county attorney, said Thursday that neither Mrs. Rehrmann nor Mr. Crofoot would comment on the suit.

Mr. Blomquist also said the lawsuit was "unfounded" and the allegations "untrue."

He said he met with Mr. Zepp several times and told him that the Ford family's attorney, William F. Gately Jr., was going to allege that Mr. Ford had been murdered and that there had been a cover-up by jail personnel.

"I never said I believed that, but that Mr. Gately was making those allegations," Mr. Blomquist said.

A settlement with Mr. Ford's family was being negotiated at that time, and Mr. Zepp was told that Mr. Gately was talking more than money, that the inmate's family wanted changes at the detention center, Mr. Blomquist said.

"We laid out all the options and told Sheriff Comes, Lt. Col. Thomas Broumel [the deputy sheriff] and Mr. Zepp that if they wanted to settle and be protected from any further liability, then changes would have to be made.

"It was explained to Mr. Zepp that Mr. Gately and the Ford family wanted Mr. Zepp exposed [to possible future liability].

"Mr. Zepp's attorney . . . understood what was happening," Mr. Blomquist said. "In the original draft, Mr. Zepp was not protected [from further liability]. In the final agreement, he was. Mr. Zepp knew or should have known that long before he submitted his resignation."

Mr. Blomquist also said he does "not recall any public statement made by Mrs. Rehrmann in which she mentioned Mr. Zepp."

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