Exonerated Woman Seeks Damages for Arson Conviction

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – A woman exonerated of an arson conviction claims in court that the Wisconsin sheriff’s office that handled the case and pushed for her prosecution denied her due process throughout the investigation and subsequent trial.

(Adams County Sheriff’s Office via Facebook)

According to the 21-page federal complaint filed Wednesday in Madison, Brenda Jones was wrongfully convicted of arson after her house in Quincy, Wisconsin, burned down due to what was determined by an insurance claims adjuster to be an electrical fire.

“Her house burned down, destroying all of her worldly possession[s] when she was 51 years old, suffering from cancer, legally disabled, and with disability as her sole source of income,” the complaint states. “The then middle-aged woman was forced to defend herself in a court of law, falsely accused and labeled an arsonist in the small Town of Quincy, Wisconsin, with a population of less than 1,200 people.”

Jones – represented by Lisa Goldman of the Madison-based firm Davey & Goldman – said the investigation, two-day trial and conviction surrounding the fire were negligently carried out in violation of her constitutional right to due process, resulting in her railroad conviction and nine-month jail sentence and seven years probation.

All of the charges against Jones – who is now 56 and living in Florida – were dismissed in October 2018 after she appealed and was granted a new trial. 

Jones claims in her complaint that even though the charges were dismissed, and “in the face of overwhelming evidence of her innocence … Ms. Jones, a quiet and gentle woman, must now attempt to resume her life without her beloved home and reestablish her good name.”

The arson investigation was led by Brent York, an investigator with the Adams County Sheriff’s Office at the time. York and the sheriff’s office are named as defendants in Jones’ suit.

In the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 2013, the fire department in Quincy responded to an emergency call to find Jones’ home almost completely burned to the ground.

Jones was at her sister’s home about an hour away in Reedsburg at the time of the fire. Rural Mutual Insurance’s claims adjuster concluded after his investigation that the electrical fire was “not suspect,” and other investigators specializing in arson “did not find any accelerants, burn degree, or burn patterns” to indicate criminal activity.

Less than a month after the fire, Alan Onopa, an acquaintance of Jones’, allegedly grabbed her by the neck and threatened her if she did not pay him a portion of the insurance proceeds, according to the complaint. 

Jones reported this incident to the Marshfield Police Department within 24 hours and warned the police that “Onopa may call and lie to them about the fire.”

York then investigated and had Jones make a recorded call to Onopa, at which point Onopa threatened Jones with extortion again. York claimed at trial to have “lost” the recording of this call and never turned a copy of it over to the prosecutor or Jones’ defense counsel.

York also allegedly never got copies of and denied details of the Marshfield police report, and the complaint claims he falsely testified at trial that Jones told him Onopa never attacked her.

The complaint also claims that the then-investigator falsely testified as to the veracity of an alleged confession recorded by Onopa in which he asserted a “whispering inaudible voice” was Jones admitting to committing arson for the insurance pay out.

The complaint alleges York did all this even though he should have known the timeline was not correct: Onopa had contacted the insurance claims adjuster claiming to have a recording of Jones’ confession eight days before he supposedly recorded it.

The alleged confession, according to Onopa, took place in a motel room in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Jones averred at trial that she had never been there and that the voice in the recording was not hers.

At her trial, “the only evidence offered to convict Ms. Jones was the manipulated evidence supplied by Investigator York that the fire was the result of arson and not an accident; and the hiding of exculpatory evidence by Investigator York,” the complaint states. 

Jones was convicted despite providing a verifiable description of her whereabouts and calling witnesses to corroborate her alibi.

Wednesday’s complaint includes claims of due process violations, negligent misrepresentation on the part of York, and malicious prosecution, among others. Jones is seeking compensatory and punitive damages. 

The Adams County Sheriff’s Office and Jones’ counsel did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, two days after Jones’ new trial was granted in October 2018, York was placed on administrative leave by former Sheriff Sam Wollin during the investigation of a separate 2001 incident, relating to an alleged cover up of the beating of a prisoner in the Adams County Jail. 

A civil suit brought by the prisoner was settled for $72,000, according to the registry. 

On November 7, 2018, York defeated Wollin in an election and now serves as Adams County Sheriff himself.

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