The 7th District Court of Appeals has ruled that a former caseworker with Mahoning County Children Services Board is not immune from a civil lawsuit for negligence and wrongful death.
She gave a police detective a false statement about a 15-year-old boy who was killed and dismem- bered in 2001.
The three-judge appeals court panel unanimously upheld the decision by trial Judge Lou A. D’Apolito, of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, that former caseworker Kim Vechiarelli should not be dismissed as a defendant in the lawsuit brought by the estate of James P. Higham III in his death.
Although it kept Vechiarelli of Boardman as a defendant, the appeals court overruled Judge D’Apolito’s denial of immunity to another caseworker, Erin Davis, and to CSB director Denise Stewart.
Vechiarelli, a 17-year county employee who earned $18.41 per hour when she left, resigned as full-time group-life manager at the CSB- operated Swanston Children’s Home, effective June 3, 2009, receiving combined compensation for 916 hours of unused vacation, compensatory and personal time.
The appeals panel ruled this week that Stewart is immune because there’s no evidence she acted recklessly and that Davis is immune because there’s no evidence Davis knowingly placed the boy at risk.
The appeals court upheld Judge D’Apolito’s decision to dismiss the CSB itself from the lawsuit under the legal doctrine that offers governmental immunity from such lawsuits with limited exceptions.
The appeals court ruling leaves as civil lawsuit defendants Vechiarelli and the boy’s caregivers: David Sharpe, who pleaded guilty to reckless homicide, gross abuse of a corpse, and attempted tampering with evidence and was sentenced to 71/2 years in prison; and his former live-in girlfriend, Jennifer Snyder, who pleaded guilty to endangering a child and gross abuse of a corpse and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Higham’s whereabouts were a mystery until Snyder told police in 2007 that Sharpe had killed Higham on June 15 or 16, 2001, and that she helped him dispose of the body.
Police believe the boy drowned in a bathtub after a domestic dispute in the couple’s Manchester Avenue residence on the West Side.
Higham’s body was dismembered and disposed of in trash bins on the city’s South and West sides, and his remains were taken to the Carbon-Limestone landfill in Poland, where they were never found, prosecutors said.
In the months preceding his death, CSB had been investigating complaints about the boy’s treatment and living conditions.
Vechiarelli told a city police detective, Mark Milstead, in 2007, that she had interviewed Higham on or about Aug. 6, 2001, about eight weeks after Snyder told police Higham died.
Six weeks after giving Milstead her first statement, Vechiarelli admitted her statement about interviewing Higham in August 2001 was false, and she disclosed that she had shredded her case notes when she changed jobs within CSB, according to the appeals court decision.
“Caseworker Vechiarelli falsely reported that she had a face-to-face interview with Jennifer Snyder, David Sharpe and the child,” the appeals court said.
“She even described the home as neat, clean and well-furnished, with functioning utilities and plenty of food,” and said the boy was happy and well-treated, the court said.
When the detective showed Vechiarelli photos of Sharpe, Snyder and Higham, Vechiarelli admitted she had never seen any of them, the court reported.
“The detective opined that the inaccuracies caused substantial delay and created an impediment to the investigation,” the court said.
Capt. Milstead is now chief of detectives in the Youngs- town Police Department.
Robert Bush, who is now county Job and Family Services director and who prosecuted Sharpe and Snyder as an assistant county prosecutor, said he doesn’t recall any criminal falsification charges filed against Vechiarelli. Court records from the city and county don’t show any criminal charges having been filed against her.
If city prosecutors believed Vechiarelli lied to police, they could have charged her with a misdemeanor, but the statute of limitations for misdemeanors is only two years and likely has expired, Bush said.
A lie told under oath in court or in a pretrial deposition would be perjury, which is a felony with a six-year statute of limitations, Bush said.
“We’re happy with the decision to grant immunity to Davis and Stewart and disappointed that it wasn’t granted to Kim Vechiarelli, but we’ll deal with that situation,” when the case goes to trial, said Atty. Thomas Infante, CSB’s lawyer.
Infante said Vechiarelli left as a result of the Higham case, but was never prosecuted criminally for her false statement to Milstead.
CSB policy changed after Vechiarelli’s shredding of her notes on the Higham case became known to require permanent retention of all case records. “The records stay in house, and we monitor everything, so that the records don’t get lost” he said.
Stewart, Milstead, Vechiarelli, and Vechiarelli’s listed lawyer, Gina Bricker, who is a civil division assistant county prosecutor, could not be reached for comment.
The appeals court rulings were written by Judge Joseph J. Vukovich, with Judges Gene Donofrio and Mary DeGenaro concurring.