WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A man who received a half million dollar settlement against the City of Wilmington is renewing his quest for justice, imploring the city’s new police chief to investigate the track record of one of his detectives. Jim Bader was arrested under questionable circumstance in 2015 and charged with child rape. The charges were later dropped for lack of evidence, and Bader filed suit documenting the flimsy basis on which he was arrested. After WECT aired a story about what went wrong in Bader’s case, another man came forward to say the same thing had happened to him at the hands of the same detective.
Ronnie Smith was arrested three months after Bader in 2015 by Detective Peter Oehl. Both Bader and Smith had been involved in bitter child custody battles prior to their arrests, accused of sexual abuse against children living in their households. The sexual abuse charges against both men were later dropped for lack of evidence, but the damage to their reputations was one. While Bader bonded out after two days behind bars, Smith had spent nearly eight months in jail while the charges were pending.
Bader received a $500,000 settlement after the City’s insurance company reviewed Oehl’s questionable handling of the case. Smith has yet to receive any compensation for what he lost. He is seeking legal representation to help him with a claim against the City.
“I can’t get my name cleared, which I’ve tried to do that. But you’ve ruined my record,” Smith explained of the ordeal which effectively left him homeless. “I can’t get a home. I can’t get an apartment. I can’t get a job, because they run your record.”
Smith said he happened to be watching TV the night WECT aired a story about Bader’s settlement agreement with the city. Smith contacted the station to explain the similarities to his story, and asked to be put in touch with Bader. Bader, an information technology professional who also sings in a barbershop quartet, and Smith, a painter and former member of a motorcycle club, don’t have much in common on the surface. But they have bonded over their shared outrage over Detective Oehl, saying he needlessly derailed their lives.
“Detective Oehl, whether out of incompetence or ignorance, has not looked into things enough. And I think out of malice sometimes - my case - he just goes ahead and arrests,” Bader said. “I don’t discount that this detective may have done some good work in some other cases, but...like President Nixon...you might do a lot of good stuff, and you do the wrong stuff. You just need to not be in that position of authority anymore.”
Both men claim that Oehl ignored or even hid exculpatory evidence from court officials in order to pursue an arrest. In Bader’s case, court records show that Oehl failed to inform the magistrate who signed off on Bader’s arrest warrant that the courts had dismissed claims he’d molested his teenage step-daughter during a recent custody battle. In that case, a social worker told the judge the step-daughter was involved in an “unholy alliance” with her mother against Bader in a case of severe parental alienation.
In Smith’s case, he says his fiancée‘s jealous ex concocted a plan to get Smith out of the picture by having his daughter accuse Smith of molesting her and her sister. Those allegations were taken to police, and Smith was arrested by Detective Oehl in 2015. Later, one of the girls recanted her testimony, and told police she and her sister had fabricated the allegations of abuse.
The accuser who recanted spoke to WECT about the situation, but asked not to be identified. She said Oehl spent two hours interrogating her after she recanted, trying to convince her to stick to her original story, which she refused to do. She said Oehl would not allow her foster parents or her guardian ad litem in the interrogation room, even though she was 16 years old at the time. She said—then and now—that Smith did not molest her, but remembered Oehl adamantly wanted her to say otherwise. She said Oehl didn’t seem interested even though she was telling the truth.
“Somebody who is supposed to protect us and someone who we are supposed to trust, I felt he should be more on my side no matter what I was doing,” the former accuser told WECT. She is now a legal adult, and regrets ever going along with the story that Smith molested her.
Several months later, Smith’s younger brother died. He said his step-sister—who was aware of his recent legal troubles involving claims of sexual abuse—accused Smith of molesting her more than 20 years ago, in 1992. Her motivation, according to Smith, was to push him out of the picture so she could get their brother’s death benefits.
Despite knowing that the original accuser had since recanted, Smith said Oehl went to the courts and claimed three victims were now accusing Smith of molesting them, pushing for a new arrest warrant. That landed Smith back in jail, this time under a $500,000 bond, which he was unable to post.
“When I started off, [they told me] you’re going to be in [prison] for 25 years to life….that messed me up mentally and everything. Knowing that I was there for false charges and could be facing a lot of time, over something I didn’t do,” Smith recalled.
Smith said authorities left him in jail, trying to convince him to plead guilty and register as a sex offender, which would mean he would not have been allowed to see his newborn son for ten years. Smith refused. During a subsequent bond reduction hearing, Smith said a judge reviewed the case and saw how limited the evidence was against him. The judge released him from jail in December 2016. Smith said he was required to wear an ankle monitor until all charges against him were dismissed in the fall of 2018. He’s working to get his record expunged.
When asked about Detective Oehl’s handling of Bader’s case when we aired his story last year, Wilmington Police dismissed the significance of the half million dollar settlement.
“Despite a business decision by the City’s insurance carrier to enter into a settlement with Mr. Bader, 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,” former Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous said.
“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 added when asked about the questionable basis for the arrest.
After the Bader story aired, and WECT was contacted by Ronnie Smith with similar concerns involving Det. Oehl’s handling of his case, we reached back out to the DA’s office.
“It is not uncommon for sexual assault victims to recant their report of abuse, then recant the recantation,” an office spokesperson explained. “There are several reasons why this happens, particularly with child victims. When this happens, prosecutors will frequently give the victim time to regroup and meet with them at a later date to determine if they are truly recanting or if there are other external factors that led to the recantation. In this case, the victim stuck to the recantation when the prosecutor questioned her about it.”
“In any case, the threshold for an officer to arrest and a grand jury to indict is a much different burden of proof (probable cause) than for a jury to convict (proof beyond a reasonable doubt). Our office relies upon the testimony and credibility of witnesses to meet the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. If there is an element that, in the prosecutor’s assessment of the case, leads them to believe that the burden may not be met, they will reduce charges or dismiss cases as appropriate,” the DA’s spokesperson added.
For Bader and Smith, that explanation is little solace for the toll these arrests have taken on their reputations, their families, and their livelihoods. They are pleading with the new police chief, Donny Williams, to take a fresh look at Detective Oehl’s past cases to see if there are other cases like theirs. Bader recently sent him a letter to that effect.
“It seems very apparent by recent actions that Chief Williams is determined to maintain an ethical police force. And so all I’m hoping with my letter to him is he will recognize this is something he should look into,” Bader told WECT.
“I fear and I suspect there are other cases. And my hope is with more media coverage, and my hope would be with more media coverage, other people find out, like Ronnie saw my case. Other people will see, that’s the same detective,” Bader said.
Wilmington Police Spokesperson Linda Thompson said their office was unaware of Smith’s concerns about Detective Oehl until we contacted them. They provided a professional standards complaint form for him to fill out, and said that would be the the first step. Smith is considering filing the complaint just to formally document his concerns, but fears it will be pointless.
“Mr. Bader’s case was settled 18 months ago, and the investigation into that matter is over, so neither Chief Williams, nor Officer Oehl, intend to make any statement regarding that closed case,” Thompson said when asked to comment on Bader’s letter and Smith’s concerns. “As of this date, we have not received any new complaints, but if we do, we will receive those and investigate them accordingly.”
While the police department has consistently maintained Oehl was not fired or demoted as a result of the Bader case and subsequent legal settlement, WECT learned Oehl is no longer working as a detective. He is classified as a “police officer” in the city’s online directory, and he was transferred from the Investigative Bureau to the Uniform Patrol in October 2019, several months after the legal settlement with Bader. Oehl is now handling traffic matters. Thompson added that it is not unusual for officers to transfer departments.