Three Indiana teen girls sue city over strip search

MADISON, Ind. — The high school girlfriends weren’t known as troublemakers. One was a cheerleader, another a soccer player and the third grew up working on her family’s farm.

But the Madison Consolidated High School seniors found themselves shivering on a winter night three years ago in a deserted church parking lot, surrounded by police, being questioned about drugs — and then strip searched.

“We were all so scared,” one of them, Kristy Lessley, said in the first interview the women have granted since the incident Jan. 19, 2007. “We just froze.”

The fear and embarrassment, however, soon turned to anger for Lessley and her friends, Kara Rhodehamel and Kayla Messer, who sued the city of Madison, former Mayor Albert Huntington, former City Attorney Robert Barlow, former Police Chief Robert Wolf, City Councilman James Lee and four police officers, claiming they were illegally strip-searched and confined.

The Madison Police Department has publicly denied any wrongdoing, but the individual defendants declined to comment except for Wolf, who has an unlisted phone number and could not be reached.

Current City Attorney Jason Pattison referred questions about the case to Timothy Born of Evansville, the lead counsel enlisted by the city’s insurance company. Born did not respond to several e-mail and phone messages.

The case, pending in U.S. District Court in New Albany, was later expanded to include accusations that Wolf and others knowingly withheld key documents, destroyed evidence of police misconduct and generally stonewalled to protect themselves and officers.

Those claims prompted a federal judge to twice sanction and fine the defendant city and police representatives for interfering with discovery — penalties that Indiana University law professor J. Alexander Tanford said are uncommon in such cases.

“Things have to be pretty bad” for a judge to impose sanctions and fines in the middle of a lawsuit, said Tanford, who was provided information about the case for an interview.

No trial date is currently set; a date set previously was postponed. The women are seeking unspecified damages and a jury trial.

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