City spends $500K to settle lawsuit after questionable arrest on child rape allegations

Updated: Jun. 10, 2019 at 1:59 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The City of Wilmington just spent a half million dollars to settle a lawsuit with a man who was arrested under questionable circumstances by a Wilmington Police detective and charged with raping a child.

The criminal charges against James Bader were leveled in the midst of a bitter child custody battle, and were later dismissed due to lack of evidence to warrant prosecution.

Little evidence was needed to arrest Bader and charge him with a heinous crime, court records reviewed by WECT show. In the days after Bader’s arrest in March of 2015, he lost a good job, custody of his adopted and biological children, and his reputation. Bader’s mugshot on child rape charges and his $1 million bond made headlines with every news outlet in Wilmington.

“This could happen to anyone. I was a white-collar guy who did not even have a speeding ticket in 25 years. I have never done anything. And still, this cascaded into a nightmare,” Bader said of his experience.

Bader’s lawsuit, which was still pending when WECT first learned of it through our Sunshine Week report in February, claimed police “intentionally and recklessly” provided false and misleading information to a magistrate to secure his arrest. That’s because he was arrested after a judge had already considered and dismissed the sexual assault accusations against him during a custody hearing initiated by the Department of Social Services (DSS).

“[The judge] listened to the accuser testify and he listened to me testify, and after four days of hearing he dismissed the charges. He dismissed the case. He said it was not credible testimony by the accuser,” Bader recalled of the decision that at the time he assumed would end the matter. Judge Jeff Noecker was so convinced Bader was not a threat, he was awarded joint custody of his daughters, including primary custody of his youngest daughter.

While you might think Wilmington Police Detective Peter Oehl didn’t know about the 2014 DSS case or the judge’s decision before seeking to have Bader arrested, WECT learned Oehl actually testified at the DSS hearing. An expert witness on law enforcement practices hired by Bader’s legal team said “Oehl knew or should have known” that a judge dismissed the case.

In her deposition in Bader’s lawsuit, the New Hanover County magistrate who issued the arrest warrants at Oehl’s request said she likely would not have if the detective had been more forthcoming about the history of the case.

“When determining probable cause, I relied on the officer to provide accurate and complete information from his or her investigation,” former Magistrate Brittany Parrish testified. “I do not believe that I would have found probable cause to issue the Warrants for Arrest if Detective Oehl had informed me that Judge Noecker dismissed the DSS Petition for Abuse/Neglect after a trial.” Parrish added that Noecker is a “well-respected judge who is fastidious, fair and impartial” and that he knew more about the facts of this case and correctly applies the law.

In addition to his findings that the accusers allegations against Bader were not credible, Judge Noecker noted in his ruling that a social worker assigned to the case had testified the mother had been “severely alienating the minor children” against the father and that “an unholy alliance” had formed between the accuser and her mother.

The back story

WECT typically does not identify alleged or confirmed victims of sexual assault. In this case, the sexual assault allegations have been dismissed. But due to the sensitive nature of the case, and the fact that the accuser was a minor when Bader was arrested, we are still not naming Bader’s accuser in this story.

The accusations against Bader came in the wake of a bitter divorce from his ex-wife. He’d adopted her two children from a previous marriage, and they had a third child together. Bader believes his ex-wife coerced his then-17-year-old adopted daughter into making the sexual assault allegations against him in order to gain an upper hand in their ongoing custody dispute, and to get him out of the picture by any means necessary.

Search warrants used to secure Bader’s arrest detail the allegations his daughter made about being sexually assaulted by him when she was in 3rd and 6th grade, but there was no forensic evidence then or now to support those allegations.

“I think [my ex-wife] has lied her entire life. And she’s never had any repercussions from it. She just drops people that she lies about or lies to and moves on,” Bader said. He said she could be very convincing, and thinks she convinced Detective Oehl that her daughter was being abused. “There’s people that are very good at playing the victim. And maybe they did that and [the detective] bought into the story.”

Bader’s ex-wife and their daughter, who is now 21, declined to comment for this story.

After being arrested, Bader said he was taken to jail, strip searched, and put in the wing with the worst offenders. He said fellow inmates, who likely knew the nature of his charges, persistently harassed him and he worried for his safety. Within days, Bader was fired from his job in Information Systems with New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

And then, Bader caught a break. During his first court appearance, he got the same judge who’d presided over his four-day custody hearing, where the same allegations of sexual abuse were leveled, and ultimately dismissed. Due to the lack of new evidence against him, Judge Noecker reduced Bader’s bond from $1 million, to $100,000, which Bader was able to post after spending two nights in jail.

Fifteen months later, lack of evidence in the case prompted the District Attorney’s Office to dismiss Bader’s charges. But by that point, Bader said he’d suffered public humiliation, lost all contact with his children for over a year, and significant financial harm. He’s spent about $200,000 on attorney’s fees, lost wages, and the hospital has declined to rehire him, even for a lower paying job than what he had before.

Wilmington Attorney Jim Lea represented Bader in the civil custody case. Lea said the win in the custody case gave Bader the basis to sue the city. Bader hired Carlos Mahoney and Daniel Mullins out of Durham for that suit, and in April, the city’s insurance carrier settled out of court with Bader for half a million dollars.

Authorities Respond

With the exception of a $7 million settlement paid to Johnny Small, the man who spent 28 years in prison after a botched murder investigation by Wilmington Police, Bader’s settlement is by far the most costly for the City in the last five years.

But law enforcement officials dismiss the significance of the hefty settlement, and are standing by Detective Oehl’s handling of this case.

“Despite a business decision by the City’s insurance carrier to enter into a settlement with Mr. Bader,” Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous said in a prepared statement emailed to WECT. “The WPD is confident that probable cause existed, and therefore no adverse personnel action was taken against Det. Oehl as a result of his decision to take out warrants in this case.”

The WPD tells us that they have not changed any of their policies or guidelines to avoid similar issues and liability following future arrests. The District Attorney’s Office also stood by the officer’s handling of the case, saying it’s a balancing act to protect the rights of the accused with the safety of a potential victim.

“Officers have a duty to protect and serve. If there are allegations out there that they believe are true, that is, there is probable cause to believe that they are true. They have a duty to protect the public, especially a child maybe living under the roof of the alleged perpetrator. They don’t have the same luxury of time that we do,” District Attorney Ben David explained.

But Bader said in his case, that reasoning is hard to follow, because police took their time before arresting him. Detective Oehl was first notified of the sexual assault allegations in January of 2014, executing a search warrant of Bader’s house the next month. It wasn’t until year later, and after the DSS hearing, that Oehl put Bader behind bars.

“We did not believe that based upon the evidence that we had it was likely that a jury would convict and so we decided not to indict. Because that’s our standard. Not just probable cause but in a case of this magnitude, where again we know that the allegations are deeply damaging to anyone who faces them. We were not going to assign that indictment if we didn’t believe there was a likelihood of conviction in this case. And for that reason we decided to dismiss it after watching this case exhaustively over a 15 month period,” David said.

Moving on

Bader says being arrested for allegedly raping his daughter is by far the worst thing that’s ever happened to him.

“I was guilty until proven innocent…. That’s what I call the poison. The people that are poisoned by the arrest and will always see me as that person and believe those charges. And they can’t look beyond that,” Bader said of his experience with his former employer and even former friends.

WECT updated the story about Bader’s arrest to reflect the charges against him were dropped, but the original stories remain on several other local news websites.

“Allegations are ruinous especially with something like this,” District Attorney Ben David acknowledged. “And that is why they should only be lodged in cases where we believe a probable cause exists. The WPD did believe that in taking out these warrants.”

“Mr. Bader would be eligible for expunging this because the case was dismissed and we have a duty to do that. Because if we cannot back up an allegation that should not be something a person has to answer for. Because people are presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

In addition to clearing his name, Bader still holds out hope he can one day reconcile with his accuser.

“I do not have any bad feelings towards my older daughter,” Bader explained. “I feel like she was the ultimate victim. I forgive her. I have unconditional love for her. She was a child who was coerced. So I don’t see any malice on her part. She was a child. She is still my daughter.”

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