At some point during an otherwise quiet spring weekend three years ago, Lavelle Sullins' phone started ringing, proffering strange news.
"Hey, Lavelle, you'd better watch out. I just saw you on TV. The cops are looking for you."
Sullins broaches the subject casually on a recent afternoon, but a hint of shock still runs through his words. The course of events, running wildly among the routine of his day-to-day life, has yet to be left in his past.
"I did everything I was supposed to, as far as the case goes," the 27-year-old man says, looking out the window and reflecting on his trip through the criminal justice system, a journey buoyed by the conviction of passing bad checks.
He got the money and took care of loose ends, he says. He wrapped up his probationary period eight months ahead of time, but such pleas don't matter much at this point.
Upon finishing his sentence, he walked back into his life as a free man once again.
For a while.
Sullins' adult life is pockmarked with legal infractions, if you want to be technical. But the violations, which include driving with expired plates, missing a court date on a tinted windows charge, failing to pay traffic fines and being cited for playing music too loudly, are minor.
Hardly blemishes at all, really, and hardly the sort of action that lands a man on TV as one of the city's most wanted or a man on the run. Those snafus play out in local court systems every day for guys like Sullins or moms from Rocky River with little fanfare or attention. But somehow Sullins' record rose from courtroom minutiae to local airwaves.
He leans back in the chair and begins to rattle off one of the many stories that weave through his memory. This particular story, however, isn't over yet.
In mid-2006, Sullins signed off on the purchase of a 2004 GMC Yukon Denali for about $18,000 and change from Quality General Auto Sales. After financing the vehicle through his bank, he owed $1,536 for the tax and title of the car. But then came the last-minute insurance acquisition, which levelled his checking account for the day. He attempted to work out a deal with the used car company - to no avail. The police were contacted.
"I tried to make other arrangements, but they didn't accept that," Sullins says, referring to the check.
Nonetheless, he was able to take off in the car, thinking that everything would be attended to in due time. The vehicle was financed and the sale was made, but the car company was not entirely satisfied.
Within the year, Sullins was tossed in jail on a $1,000 bond.
He posted the requisite cash that same day, but the process worked itself ragged for another two years. He pleaded guilty to one count of passing bad checks - a felony of the fifth degree - in 2009. Ordered to pay restitution and a fine, as well as serve a year on probation, Sullins wrapped up his sentence Oct. 15, 2009, within four months of leaving the courthouse and six months before a local company made him a wanted man.
"I was done with it," Sullins says. "Or so I thought. I wanted to get that done and over with so I could look forward to just making that a thing of the past."
And for a while, he accomplished just that. Sullins was building electric industrial control panels for Industrial Control Design that winter, letting his mid-20s wash over him.
As Sullins was working his way through the court system in Cleveland, a longtime local crime-fighting task force was entering its own stage of evolution.
Crime Stoppers of Cuyahoga County took shape over the years as a collaborative tool to combat crime in the area. The organization has come to boast a much-touted estimated "capture rate" of around 80 percent, as noted by several stakeholders, including County Executive Ed FitzGerald. (Crime Stoppers was brought under the umbrella of county oversight last month.)
"Crime Stoppers gets a huge punch from television coverage," budding filmmaker and Pinpoint Media owner Shawn Rech says. The organization worked in tandem with local news outfits for years, preparing two- to three-minute news packages for television. As such a piecemeal route became unwieldy, Rech stepped up to offer a broader approach to media coverage, helping to put together a half-hour news program.
Dramatic in style and detailed in its narrative format, the formerly titled Warrant Unit typically features two unsolved and reenacted homicide cases. Interviews with detectives and family members form the backbone of the reportage. The program was broadcast on WOIO/WUAB - channels 19 and 43 - for the first half of its life. It is now shown at 7 p.m. Saturdays on WKYC - Channel 3.
In all, Cleveland viewers have helped solve four murders in the time the program has been airing, according to Rech.
The show, which now goes by the name Crime Stoppers Case Files, at one point featured a brief segment on its back end called "Fugitive File." This part of the show highlighted 25 wanted criminals from around town. Or the perception thereof, as it were.
"It was very effective," Rech says. "A lot of people were caught."
Mug shots were featured with a brief description of the man or woman and the crime in question, along with a vocal warning not to try to apprehend these people on your own. Their crimes ran the gamut from robbery and assault to theft and passing bad checks. Leave the arrests to the professionals, the voice warned. Information and tips will be rewarded, but leave the arrests to the professionals.
These people were, after all, fugitives on the lam.
An image of Sullins appeared during the March 27, 2010, episode, alongside the phrase "passing bad checks" and a brief description of him.
"I started getting phone calls," Sullins says.
The cops are looking for you.
Sullins' friends, family and co-workers did see him on TV during an otherwise quiet spring morning three years ago. But the cops weren't actually looking for him -- nor almost a dozen other people featured that night, according to records. While a "warrant" had been issued for his arrest about a year prior, it was for missing a court date -- "capias warrant" in legalese -- and had been rescinded just four days after being issued.
He was left wondering why, precisely, his mug shot was being broadcast on TV 11 months after his guilty plea and six months after his full debt to society had been paid.
Sullins first placed a call to the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department. No charges pending, a representative told him. And no, the police are not looking for you.
Next, he called Crime Stoppers' tip line, which is the entry point for deputized viewers of Crime Stoppers Case Files to report any and all relevant information. The organization countered the county's take on the matter and told Sullins there was a warrant out for his arrest. At the time, they went along with the paperwork on hand and bluntly told Sullins that the outstanding warrant remained.
Crime Stoppers Case Files producer Pinpoint Media gave Sullins a copy of the episode upon request. And once he got back home to his TV, Sullins finally saw what the others had seen.
"The whole idea is to share the facts," Rech says of the crux of his show. It's crime reportage in the vein of drama - the heroin of televised media. With partnerships coming full circle - government, media, citizenry - the program leans heavily in favor of transparency. Bring the victim's family to the forefront. Ensure that detectives have a hand in the narrative's accuracy. Get the information to the people and solve these cold cases.
A recent "borderline-documentary episode," as Rech describes it, featured Amy Mihaljevic, the 10-year-old Bay Village girl whose 1989 kidnapping and murder still remain unsolved.
That episode elicited at least 50 new leads in the ensuing days, Rech says.
Couple that with the hundreds of criminal leads he's seen come in following other episodes over the years and the alchemy of turning info into results becomes clear. Get the information to the people. But who ensures that the information is accurate?
One entry point for the reporting of crimes and the status of local criminals is the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court's online docket. The database details where along the stream of justice a particular defendant is. Fine print qualifies the web presence as unofficial, noting: "Only the official court records available from the Cuyahoga County Clerk of Courts, available in person, should be relied upon as accurate and current."
But the understanding at the court is that the online docket gets an hourly update, providing nearly real-time access to the plodding march of the local court system. The docket maintains a civil and criminal database.
And when it comes to the former "Fugitive File" segment, which gives a visual element to the court's archive of names and numbers, that docket is the primary check in assembling an episode.
The rolodex of personalities that comprised that segment was culled from a list obtained through the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office.
According to court proceedings, a representative from that office presents a stack of suspect files to Crime Stoppers of Cuyahoga County. That list, however, comes with a specific directive: Check these names out before the broadcast. Often enough, such a background check is simply accomplished by way of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas' online court docket.
Sullins wasn't alone that night. A review of records shows that 11 of the 25 featured "fugitives" on that one episode were no longer wanted for anything at all, some of the cases cleared and put to bed for weeks or months. Almost half of the people called out on the show that night were not wanted by the police. (Calls to those people seeking comment were not returned.)
Their convictions included burglary, sexual conduct with a minor, carrying concealed weapons felonious assault and more. Sullins' case stood out as having been closed the longest before the episode's airing.
Via signed affidavit, Rech confirmed that Pinpoint Media had received the information pertaining to Sullins "shortly before" the episode's airing in March 2010. At the time of the airing, Rech says, he had no reason to doubt the validity of the information, despite the Sheriff's Office explicit instruction to double check the information.
Sullins' attorneys noted that Crime Stoppers Case Files producers either ignored the docket altogether or gave it some sort of once-over in a "comatose state." Either way, bad information ended up on air.
Rech says that, following a later check of the docket, it turned out that Sullins' case had indeed been filed through the courts and closed. Citing a possible glitch in the system, he reiterates having no intention to highlight anyone who wasn't actively wanted by police.
The process of getting a name like Sullins' on the air started with a package of materials from the county.
On a monthly basis, Sgt. David Rutt of Crime Stoppers would get a call from the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department, letting him know that a fresh round of files was ready for him. He'd travel to the department, pick up the paperwork - jacket fronts of files for wanted fugitives - and take the materials across town to Pinpoint Media.
Erin Acklin, a dispatcher at the sheriff's department, said that she had prepared the collection of jacket fronts that included Sullins' name. None of the paperwork handed over to Crime Stoppers and Pinpoint Media included information about a specific outstanding warrant. But Acklin later acknowledged that, after the inaccuracies came to light, the department's I-Max internal warrant system did indeed show that a warrant was out for Sullins' arrest. That conflict was cleared "sometime thereafter," she said.
Beyond assisting in that work, Crime Stoppers' additional role involved the payment of rewards for tips or busts. The organization acts as an intermediary between a local government agency and a local media outfit.
Somewhere in the middle lie hundreds of names. Some get remembered, some get tossed behind bars and into the public records of the county. Sullins' name was remembered - most especially by friends who confoundedly watched his mug splash across their TVs during an otherwise quiet spring weekend.
"I had to walk around wondering," Sullins says. "I don't know who saw me. That put me in a paranoid state."
Nearly a year had passed since Sullins walked out of the courtroom with a guilty plea. Probation. Fines. Work. Sleep. A future, somewhere. Then, the phone calls.
"The cops are looking for you."
At the center of a defamation lawsuit is that very portrayal of Sullins. Several seconds of screentime make up the fulcrum of a civil case working its way through the appeals process now. The impact of the broadcast on Sullins' personal life, he says, was far-reaching.
He arrived to murky conversation at work the following Monday. News of his supposed fugitive status was making the rounds in his life and and on the job at Industrial Control Design. Co-workers were eager to bust his chops and discuss the benefits of turning him in for the reward money on the table.
Sullins says this image of him began to eclipse his actual personality in the eyes of nearly everyone around him. The charge of passing bad checks -- something he had readily admitted doing and long since paid his debt for -- carries a heavy perception of distrust that began leaking into various circles of his life. He says he thought he had done his time, but the shadow of his past crime was creeping into his present-day life.
His boss let him go from his job within a few weeks of the airing. His honesty was once again compromised, he says. In 2010, that crime's residue came back full force. No one was interested in hearing about the probationary period he completed. The restitution, the fines.
Around the same time, the mother of his two children began barring him from seeing the kids. She feared intrusion from the police, a seeming eventuality that she had no desire to witness.
"No one wants their kids exposed to something like that," Sullins says, adding that he couldn't blame her for wanting to shield their children from police involvement or worse. They have since resolved that matter. Most of Sullins' interactions with the law take place in quiet courtrooms or over the counter at a local police departments, where he hands over requisite payments for traffic violations and misdemeanors.
Appellate briefs are being filed this month, following Judge Robert McClellend's Nov. 26 summary judgment in favor of the television program and Crime Stoppers. The defamation case is set to continue via oral arguments this year. And the crux of Sullins' urge to move forward is whether the fair report privilege applies.
The fair report privilege is a shield couched in media law. The idea regards protection from liability if the published information relies on an official public document or statement made by a public official. That holds true even in cases of alleged defamation. The necessity of clarity falls to the media organization, which must clearly state the information's source and use the same accurately.
"The defense allows you to report on government activity without bearing the overwhelming burden of first proving the truth of everything said in government documents and proceedings," in a nutshell, according to the Citizen Media Law Project. Such privilege is observed in Ohio, which is where Sullins' legal representation at Cohen Rosenthal & Kramer comes in. (Attorney Peter Pattakos is an occasional contributor to Scene.)
According to Ohio Revised Code 2317.05, the fair report privilege "provides a privilege to accurate reports of ... the issuance of a warrant ... as well as fair an[d] impartial reports of the contents of these documents. A plaintiff can defeat this privilege by showing that the defendant (1) acted with actual malice, (2) failed to publish a reasonable written explanation or contradiction offered by the plaintiff, or (3) failed to publish, upon request of the plaintiff, the subsequent determination the lawsuit or case."
The burden of proving defamation falls to the accuser.
McClellend's ruling centered around an opinion that Sullins' "fugitive" status was, in several ways, essentially true at the time the episode aired.
Sullins had five outstanding warrants for his arrest issued at the time in March 2010. None of them had to do with his passing bad checks. Rather, they revolved around a series of situations in 2008 wherein Sullins failed to appear before the court or failed to pay a fine following traffic violations like having expired plates, driving without a seatbelt and driving "too slow." Hardly fodder to be labeled a dangerous fugitive on the lam. All warrants were canceled Nov. 16, 2010.
McClelland noted that the portrayal of Sullins as being wanted for the felonious crime of passing bad checks was "arguably libelous per se." But he also added that Sullins' case never painted the defendants as acting with reckless disregard or actual malice. In essence, according to the judge, Sullins was unable to point to Rech or anyone else involved with the matter as acting in any way meant to hurt his reputation or spread false information.
His case points out the thin ice of tacitly reporting government-issued information verbatim. Shield laws have built up common-law strength through decades of litigation - and plenty of it locally - but the result of information gone wrong remains palpable to anyone involved. Cuyahoga County, as a governmental entity, enjoys sovereign immunity from lawsuits stemming from tort, such as defamation.
Twenty-five of Cleveland's most wanted fugitives will not be shown on this weekend's episode of Crime Stoppers Case Files. Rech says they haven't featured the "Fugitive File" segment for a long time now.
"Unless someone's going to indemnify us, we can't do it," Rech says. The cost of the segment he ran March 27, 2010, has set him and the company back quite a bit.
"It very nearly put us out of business," he adds. He hasn't turned a profit since the project began and the run-around in the courts hasn't helped that matter. But he never got into the business for the money. The results of his show and the work of Crime Stoppers of Cuyahoga County are very real. The input of viewers and local crime-focused watchdogs has had a dramatic impact on area law enforcement - often for the better.
"The show is a proactive crime-solving tool. I think it's a responsible use of the airwaves," Rech says. "I think it's a constructive use of the airwaves."
Lavelle Sullins would probably add the caveat... "If done responsibly."