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City apologizes to dentist’s family for arrest

[04/02/01] Karen Ruggles, whose husband said he was was falsely arrested by City of Vicksburg Police officers more than a year before he died on Thanksgiving, hopes the long-awaited city apology made public Friday brings closure for her and her family.

“I feel it basically says what needs to be said,” Ruggles said Friday, more than a week after the city agreed to pay $350,000 to Dr. James Ruggles’ estate and issue the public apology for the arrest. “I am sure it is without meaning, but I don’t think we would ever get that.”

Dr. Ruggles first asked the city for an apology more than two years ago, a month after police arrested him on a busy street on a Friday afternoon in February 1999. His suit in U.S. District Court charged that Vicksburg narcotics officers purposely arrested him after being told by others, including District Attorney Gil Martin, that the facts on which they planned to charge him did not constitute a crime.

After failing to get an apology, Ruggles, who died Nov. 23, filed suit against the city.

“I am sure he would be glad this was over with,” Karen Ruggles said. “If they had done this from the beginning, it wouldn’t have come this.”

Two weeks ago, a federal judge approved the settlement that ordered the city to pay damages and issue the apology. The money was paid from a city insurance policy.

The apology was given to the Ruggles family, but city officials would not comment on it at the time of the settlement.

Mayor Robert Walker said Friday afternoon that he regretted not being able to speak about the lawsuit until now.

“I personally deeply regret what happened but there were things we had to take care of before I could talk about it publicly,” Walker said. “I think the statement speaks for itself and reflects our collective thinking and position on this matter.”

South Ward Alderman Sam Habeeb, who said in a guest column in The Vicksburg Post on March 11 that the city should admit its mistakes and settle the case, said he wouldn’t discuss the case until it was closed in Warren County Chancery Court, which played a role since the settlement is with Ruggles’ estate.

Chancery Court approved the settlement Friday morning, but Habeeb declined comment Friday afternoon.

Karen Ruggles said she thinks her husband, who died at age 54, would have approved of the settlement.

“The city never thought about what the arrest did to him as a person and how it affected him,” she said. “He didn’t want them to be able to do this to anyone else.”

The trial was originally set to start Aug. 28, but the three Jackson attorneys representing Vicksburg filed an appeal to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals asking that a pretrial ruling be reversed.

The motion essentially said the officers who arrested Ruggles should have qualified immunity for their actions because they were public officials acting in good faith.

In January, the appeals court said that was an issue that would be decided at trial. The case then was scheduled for trial April 26 before U.S. District Judge David C. Bramlette.

The city’s attorneys also lost on motions to close the records in the case to the public.

The file says that after the charges were not prosecuted, Dr. Ruggles sought an apology from City Hall and filed suit only when there was no response.

Vicksburg attorney Landman Teller Jr., who represented Ruggles and his family, said the lawsuit was never about the money. More than $5 million in damages was originally requested in the suit.

“Jim felt if he were to pursue this claim it would force the mayor to take responsibility for the police department and their actions,” Teller said.

Dr. Ruggles wanted the city administration to be accountable for its actions and help others along the way, Teller said.

“I know that there are a lot of good policeman in this city, and they are suffering because of some other people’s actions,” Teller said.

A report issued by the plaintiffs’ expert witness in the case cites a poisonous atmosphere in the police department, alleging incompetence, indifference and open falsification of sworn statements. Officers named in the case, with the exception of former Chief Charles Chisley who has retired, remain on the force.

Walker, who is police commissioner, has refused to comment on any disciplinary action that has or could be taken against Sgt. Tom Wilson and Lt. Walter Beamon, who were both moved from the Narcotics Unit last year.

The case against Ruggles began with a traffic stop involving Sherry Balthrup, an employee of Ruggles’ clinic. Police found a few Valium tablets loose in her purse. She said Ruggles had given them to her before a mission trip because she was nervous about flying.

Before his arrest, Ruggles confirmed the story to officers, but he was later pulled over and arrested. The expert said this was a tactic often used by rogue officers to humiliate a person, and by timing an arrest for Friday afternoon they can make it difficult for a suspect to find a judge or post bail.

The settlement with Ruggles’ family was the second of a police-related lawsuit in a month.

Without admitting liability, Vicksburg paid $10,000 to a woman who had been raped and robbed in July 1999. Her lawsuit was based on graphic racial and sexual remarks alleged to have been made by a police sergeant not assigned to the case. That officer, Sgt. Carl Houston, who left the department months later, was not disciplined in any way made public. Last fall, his name was added to a list of people eligible for rehiring.

Still pending is a lawsuit against the city brought by Balthrup who is also claiming false arrest.