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Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Feds Cleared on Sergeant Who Slayed His Family

(CN) - An Air Force sergeant who murdered his former lover and their infant son did not leave the United States open to negligence claims, a federal judge ruled.

Ralph Daniel Wright Jr., a U.S. Air Force reserve sergeant and law enforcement officer at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., murdered his ex-girlfriend, Paula O'Conner, and their 14-month old son in July 2007.

O'Conner's family filed a notice of claim against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act in August 2011, but the government denied their claims. The family then sued for negligence, negligent hiring and supervision, and intentional infliction of emotional distress in September 2012.

Five months later, a Pinellas County jury convicted Wright for the O'Conner murders.

As described in the complaint, Wright and O'Conner had a brief sexual relationship after meeting on the Internet in early 2006. Their son, Alijah O'Conner, was born with various medical disabilities and deformities, requiring extensive medical care.

O'Conner's family claimed that Wright had lied about his marital status and his intentions toward O'Conner and her son. They also said he had refused to support Alijah financially, ultimately cutting off all communication with O'Conner and denying paternity.

After O'Conner sued Wright for paternity, she placed a sign on his lawn and created a website called militarydeadbeatdads.com, which publicized her relationship with Wright and the alleged lack of assistance from the military. She also hired a private investigator to find Wright, and reached out to the Air Force for assistance with the paternity action, according to the family's complaint.

O'Conner's estate claimed that the Air Force had failed to respond to O'Conner's requests for help, had helped Wright deceive her, and had failed to protect her and her son from Wright, despite allegedly knowing about his deception and his "dangerous propensities."

Though U.S. District Judge James Whittemore refused to dismiss the claims earlier this year, the court found last week that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction because the 2011 administrative claim that the O'Conners filed had not been timely.

In the earlier ruling, Whittemore said that the claims did not appear to be time-barred because the complaint did not reveal when their claims had accrued.

The government has since proved, however, that the plaintiffs' injury accrued at the time of the murders, or, at the latest, in June 2009, when O'Conner's estate filed a motion for final judgment in the paternity case against Wright, the ruling states.

Whittemore disagreed that the claims did not accrue until the O'Conners learned of the direct connection between the government and Wright's murders.

Noting the publicity surrounding O'Conner's website and the extensive coverage of the homicides and of Wright's arrest in the local press, Whittemore said the plaintiffs were aware of the facts earlier.

He also found it unsupported and contrary to precedent to argue that the claims did not accrue until Wright's convicton.

O'Conner's family could have filed a timely claim and could have asked the government to hold the claim pending the outcome of the criminal investigation, the 18-page decision states.

A plaintiff need not be certain that the government was negligent to file a wrongful death claim under the FTCA. The statute requires only knowledge of an injury and its probable cause, the ruling adds.

Whittemore agreed that the plaintiffs should have known of the alleged causal connection between the homicides and the government at least as early as December 2008, when Wright was indicted for the murders.

What's more, the testimony of Paula O'Conner's daughter and stepfather during the criminal trial suggests that, at the time of the murders, both suspected that Wright was responsible. There was enough information to reveal a connection between the Air Force and the deaths of Paula and Alijah O'Conner, and plaintiffs had access to it more than two years before they filed their administrative claim, the ruling concludes.

The judge also found that O'Conner's family failed to prove that the government had misled them and had hindered their investigation.

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