Suit against Wenner hasn’t moved toward resolution

An Oil City man whose life was turned upside down as a result of what he claims was being detained and prosecuted without probable cause by a former Oil City city police chief has filed a lawsuit charging his constitutional rights were violated.

Randy Carlson is suing former chief Robert Wenner on the grounds he was unlawfully arrested and imprisoned on the basis of several false charges and no probable cause.

Carlson filed the civil lawsuit last year in Venango County court. The complaint asks for a jury trial and an unspecified financial damages award.

While depositions have been taken and several motions filed, the lawsuit hasn’t moved toward any resolution.

Last month, the attorney for Carlson filed a request for documents and other information related to the lawsuit in the Venango County Court of Common Pleas. It is the third request to compel Wenner’s lawyer to hand over information, including insurance documents, made in the past 18 months.

“There is stalling in this case,” insists Martell Harris, a Pittsburgh attorney who is representing Carlson and his wife, Susan Emanuele Carlson. “I filed a motion more than once to compel the other side to give me information. Still, this case is advancing at a molasses-like pace.”

That’s not the sentiment of John L. Kwasneski, the attorney who is representing Wenner.

Kwasneski’s firm was appointed by the insurance company representing the City of Oil City, a move required because Wenner was then police chief for the city.

Robert Varsek, the Oil City solicitor, explained Wenner “is being sued as an individual, and the city is not being sued.”

In a telephone interview with Kwasneski, the attorney said any perceived delay in the litigation is “not unusual.”

“Any case filed in the state court system usually proceeds at the whim of the attorneys,” he said. “They can push it through quickly if they want to. … The case isn’t really moving any slower or faster than a typical case.”

Kwasneski, whose legal services are paid as part of the city’s liability insurance contract, said he has taken depositions from witnesses and exchanged other information and documents with Harris.

In the interim, Carlson has undergone extensive treatments for recurring cancer, and he and his wife have shouldered hefty medical bills because of the sporadic lack of heath insurance coverage due to his arrest and confinement.

Equally difficult, he says, has been a public humiliation stemming from accusations leveled against him as a result of an investigation into more than $115,000 missing from the Oil City VFW in 2013-14 and the aftermath.

“My reputation is gone and for no reason,” said Carlson, a 24-year Navy veteran and former commander of the Oil City VFW. “I need this case to move ahead and to get my life back. This is not about me – if someone would do this to a 24-year veteran of combat, what would he do to that poor S.O.B. standing on the corner? With my cancer right now, I’m stable and I am going to live and I am not going to give up. I think this is being delayed because they are waiting for me to die.”

How it started

In early 2014, Oil City police began an investigation into the VFW and allegations that funds were missing. Several months later, police filed criminal complaints related to the missing money against Carlson and fellow VFW member James Reisinger Jr., according to court documents.

In March 2015, seven other charges were filed against Carlson by city police. They included three felony charges associated with intimidating witnesses and four misdemeanors that included concealing evidence, simple assault and stalking, according to court reports.

All had to do with the initial VFW case in that they involved some of the parties, including a defense attorney, who were associated with that case.

Carlson was arrested and lodged in the Venango County jail in lieu of $400,000 bail. Another charge, that of carrying a concealed weapon in his car, was also filed.

At the time of his arrest, Carlson was being treated for stage 3 esophageal cancer. He had undergone chemotherapy treatments and surgery and was scheduled for post-surgery and follow-up cancer treatments the day he was arrested, said Susan Carlson, who said her husband “missed the beginning of those treatments” because of his incarceration.

Part of the delay in getting further treatments was the result of losing his health insurance coverage. Carlson said that because he was jailed, the Veterans Administration’s health coverage was interrupted.

In addition, he lost his job as a veterans outreach counselor at CareerLink.

“So then, I had no insurance and no treatments,” said Carlson, noting he was jailed for 44 days and then placed under house arrest. “There was months of delay in getting chemotherapy. My cancer returned.”

Charges are dismissed

In a period that stretched from June 2015 to November 2016, the seven charges against Carlson were dismissed, a move Carlson described as “going away because it was all fake.”

He did plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of misappropriation of property, according to court records. Carlson said he gave out “small amounts of instant prize tickets (at the VFW) to staff members as an incentive.”

In Carlson’s lawsuit, Harris argues that Wenner “detained and falsely attempted to prosecute plaintiff without probable cause.” In addition, Wenner’s actions violated the 4th Amendment, Harris said in the lawsuit.

The charges landed Carlson in jail.

“During his time in jail, Carlson did not have access to his cancer medications and he missed several cancer treatments. Carlson’s condition worsened and his disease resumed its course against Carlson,” Harris said in the lawsuit.

“The cancer came back. … That is our linchpin on the damages issue. I am obtaining that medical testimony,” said Harris.

Harris said the lawsuit was prompted, in part, by charges being dropped against his client.

“The dismissal of charges against my client, that is a required element for this civil lawsuit. It gives us the right to bring this case,” said Harris.

Attorney: Allegations aren’t true

All of Carlson’s allegations are denied by Wenner, whose attorney filed a response to the civil suit and called for a jury trial.

Wenner, who retired as police chief in Oil City and is employed now as Sugarcreek Borough’s police chief, declined to comment on this story because of the pending litigation.

“It is denied that Robert J. Wenner at any time falsely detained or attempted to prosecute plaintiff without probable cause,” notes the response.

City police had “sufficient evidence” to charge Carlson with crimes, Kwasneski said. In addition, Kwasneski argues that Carlson “is confusing the dates and times and the various charges against him” and that casts doubt on the plaintiff’s claims.

“None of the defendant’s actions were unreasonable nor in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United State Constitution,” Kwasneski said. “All of defendant’s actions were based on probable cause.”

Kwasneski wrote that his client has “immunity from liability for any actions” because of his employment with a public agency, namely the City of Oil City.

“(He), at all times, was acting in his official capacity and cannot be held individually responsible for any alleged civil rights violations,” notes the response to the lawsuit. “All actions of defendant were pursuant to his police department’s training instructions and protocols …and were reasonable and based on good faith belief that plaintiff had committed certain crimes necessitating his arrest.”

In addition, Kwasneski argues that a federal action filed by Carlson against another Oil City policeman and stemming from the same incidents was “released” and did not result in a decision favorable to Carlson.

That “release” bars Carlson from “pursuing any additional claims arising out of the same facts and circumstances,” Kwasneski said.

No date has been set for a jury trial. Both attorneys indicated that a mediated settlement remains an option.