NELSONVILLE, Ohio — A lawsuit against the city of Nelsonville and former city employees claims that Nelsonville’s former city manager, former police chief and two former police officers violated the civil rights of a Black resident and his family.
The lawsuit, filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, seeks $500,000 in compensatory and $1.5 million in punitive damages. The suit alleges former Nelsonville Police Department Chief Scott Fitch sought to cause then-Nelsonville resident Bobby Hunt to fear for his life, both through verbal comments and by grabbing Hunt in a “choking position.”
Fitch and then-NPD officers Benjamin Adams and K.J. Tracy unlawfully subjected Hunt and his white co-parent, Ashley Klinedinst, to unlawful search, seizure and arrest, the lawsuit argues.
The NPD charged both Hunt and Klinedinst with disorderly conduct after their arrests; Hunt was also charged with driving a motorcycle without a license. All charges were eventually dropped.
Fitch now serves as Meigs County sheriff, and Adams and Tracy now work for the Meigs County Sheriff’s Office. Before taking the position in Meigs County, Tracy briefly served as Nelsonville police chief and interim city manager.
Fitch and Adams have both faced prior, separate allegations of racist conduct.
This is the latest in a series of many lawsuits against the city of Nelsonville.
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Tension between the family and the city allegedly began when then-City Manager Scott Frank accosted Klinedinst and Hunt’s children while the children were in the family’s yard in May 2022.
The suit states that Klinedinst asked Frank “why he was not yelling at the other white kids the way he was with her black children and told him that he ‘was not going to put his hands on my kids’ and ‘not going to arrest my seven-year old son.’”
Frank allegedly responded by saying, “I have a badge and am going to take them to jail,” “I am the City Manager and can have your kids taken into custody,” “you can tell whoever you want b—ch” and “This will not be the last time you hear from me.”
The lawsuit says “Frank conspired with Defendants Fitch, Tracy and Adams to make good on his threats” against the family because of Hunt’s race.
Frank told the Independent in an email that the lawsuit has “a ton of backstory missing.”
He said knew the family and had previously talked to Klinedinst “multiple times about her dog being tethered to her front porch and the lead was so long the dog would sleep in the middle of the road.”
The May 2022 incident occurred when he was driving and “nearly hit two young (had to be under 10) children on a gasoline powered ATV,” he said. He reiterated that the children were only wearing shorts — “no helmet, shirt or gloves.”
When he approached Klinedinst about what had happened, “she immediately got belligerent and threatened me with physical harm from her partner, so I called the police and left.”
Frank added, “There’s plenty more,” but said he “should wait” to talk with City Attorney Bob Toy. Toy did not return the Independent’s request for comment by press time.
Days after that incident, according to the complaint, Frank approached Klinedinst and Hunt while they were stopped in their car near Frank’s daughter’s house. Frank demanded to see Hunt’s license, which Hunt refused. Frank then allegedly said the couple’s “civil rights were being canceled” and they were being “thrown out of Nelsonville.” He also threatened to have their motorcycle towed.
Two days after that, then-NPD officer Adams wrote a police report stating that Hunt had been seen driving a motorcycle that he legally owned, but did not have a permit to operate. Hunt alleges the report was false and that he had not driven the motorcycle during the time period claimed by Adams.
Within an hour of the report, the suit claims, Fitch ordered the motorcycle impounded.
Hunt’s citation triggered a series of events that culminated in both Hunt’s and Klinedinst’s arrest. In Adams’ bodycam video from the incident, obtained by the Independent, Hunt can be heard telling Fitch that the officers should have given him a warning.
“I’m not asking you why you enforce [laws around motorcycle endorsement], I’m asking you why didn’t you just come tell me,” Hunt said. “You just wanna wait to catch me … This is a bad way to do it, cuz you could’ve just came and said, ‘Bro, stop riding that bike.’”
Klinedinst and Hunt suggested at multiple points during the police encounter that the police only responded in the way they did because of the family’s trouble with Scott Frank, to which Fitch replies, “You can think whatever you want.”
Hunt and Fitch debated the merits of the citation for several minutes. At one point, Fitch referenced Hunt’s “gold teeth,” which Hunt suggested was racially charged: “You talk about my gold teeth, that shit went right over you. You might want to go home before you get hot and steaming, fucking tasering me and shooting me.”
Fitch then claimed he never made the comment about Hunt’s gold teeth — which was recorded on Adams’ bodycam video — and that Hunt was “making stuff up.”
According to the lawsuit, and confirmed by the bodycam footage, Hunt then told Fitch not to shoot him, because he was wearing a hoodie — likely a reference to the 2012 fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black teen killed by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman who thought Martin looked suspicious due to his hoodie.
Fitch responded, “You wouldn’t be the first one I have.” It’s not clear if he was joking, and the Independent has not been able to verify whether he has been involved in any police shootings.
Fitch then told Hunt, “Hey Bobby, you know what, I only work a few hours a day, I’ll be around any time you want.”
Hunt and Fitch briefly argued back and forth, before Fitch told Hunt, “One more word is all you get,” and then arrested Hunt for “disorderly conduct.”
The lawsuit argues Hunt was responding to Fitch in a “verbally defensive fashion while walking away from Fitch,” and that Fitch’s comments that he “had previously shot persons wearing hoodies … were deliberately made to provoke and goad Plaintiff Hunt into trading comments with Defendant Fitch.”
During the arrest, as he was attempting to force Hunt into his police car, Fitch “grabbed Plaintiff Hunt around his throat and neck with his left hand in a choking position and also forced Plaintiff Hunt backward with his right hand in the neck area,” the suit says.
Bodycam video verifies that Fitch puts his hands on Hunt’s neck multiple times: once when he grabbed the back of Hunt’s neck and once when he placed both hands around Hunt’s throat for about one second.
In the video, Hunt is not visibly resisting arrest. He at one point tells Fitch, “Don’t grab on me. You know I’m not trying to fucking resist.”
Much of the incident was also filmed by Klinedinst on her cellphone. The complaint alleges Fitch seized her phone and the NPD has not returned it. In the bodycam video, it is clear Klinedinst was filming and that her phone was taken, but it is not clear who took her phone.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Dan Klos, provided an email from Fitch stating, “I have checked with Evidence Officer Rob Deardorff and there is no phone in the Nelsonville Police Department Evidence room or any listed as evidence in any report relating to your client(s). I also spoke to Sgt. KJ Tracy and Officer Adams, and they advised me that they did not collect any cellphones from Ms. Klinedinst during their investigation.”
The complaint claims that this response is “intentionally deceptive and misleading,” because Fitch himself seized the phone, not Tracy or Adams. Klos said in an interview that he may be able to draw legal inferences from this, including that “whatever may exist as a video disfavors the position taken by the city.”
According to the video, Klinedinst repeatedly asked the officers to retrieve her car keys, which Hunt was holding during his arrest, so she could pick up their children from the Hive childcare center.
When no officer acknowledged the requests, the suit states, Klinedinst opened the cruiser’s rear door to get the keys herself. “Within 4 seconds of opening the unit’s rear door, Klinedinst was arrested and placed in handcuffs,” the complaint reads.
Hunt and Klinedinst, who was pregnant, were both taken to the Southeast Ohio Regional Jail.
After arresting Klinedinst, the complaint states, Fitch, Adams and Tracy entered the couple’s home and removed their 6-month-old child. Fitch and Tracy subsequently went to the Hive and took custody of Hunt and Klinedinst’s three other children despite the presence of their maternal grandmother, the lawsuit claims.
The children were briefly taken into the custody of Athens County Children Services, but all children were returned to the couple’s custody without incident or a case being filed against them, according to Klos.
Fitch did not respond to a request for comment. Devon Tolliver, Nelsonville’s acting police chief and interim city manager, declined to comment.
Many problems in Nelsonville
This is the latest in a string of racism and other misconduct allegations pertaining to the city’s police department.
In 2018, the city council voted amid protests to fire NPD officer Joshua Braglin, who made violent, racist comments about Hocking College Police Chief Tiffany Timms on social media. In 2020, Fitch ousted officer Tracy Varner, who posted on Facebook that the August 2020 police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin was a “#goodshooting.”
The next year, Fitch hired former Hocking College Police officer Cecil Morrison, who months previously had fatally shot Nelsonville resident Michael Whitmer, who was unarmed, while his young child was in the car.
Morrison served six months as an NPD officer before pleading no contest to a misdemeanor as a result of the incident and giving up his police certification in Ohio. That shooting is now the subject of its own civil litigation, the Independent reported in November.
In March, the Independent reported on video footage showing Adams and two other officers requiring a young Black, then-Hocking College student to prove he owned the bike he was riding, based on false accusations by a white man.
Fitch himself was the subject of a sustained misconduct investigation during the time he served as a special agent for the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Independent reported in January.
He was fired by the BCI after an investigation into, among other things, a litany of his racist and bigoted Facebook interactions and his falsification of inspection records. The termination was later overturned through the labor arbitration process, but by that time, he was already Nelsonville police chief. Frank appointed Fitch over protests from some members of city council.
Fitch was appointed Meigs County Sheriff in January, and since then has hired multiple former officers he worked with at Nelsonville PD, including Tracy, Adams and Troy Smith, who is the son of Athens County Sheriff Rodney Smith. The city also sold its sole police K-9, Attilla, to the Meigs County Sheriff’s Office. Smith was Attila’s handler.
Meigs County Commissioner Jimmy Will, who was president of the Meigs County Board of Commissioners when they decided to hire Fitch, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
During and in the aftermath of his three-year tenure as city manager, Frank has been the subject of multiple lawsuits and accusations of harassment and misconduct.
He ultimately resigned from his position as city manager amid an arrangement with the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office, in which he agreed to pay the city the same amount his daughter earned as a city pool employee.
In a recent lawsuit, Frank was accused of using his power as city manager to harass a local insurance agent by blocking his business’s parking lot with city picnic benches.
The city faces other lawsuits, many of them filed by Greg Smith, a former council member also represented by Klos. These include multiple lawsuits related to Smith’s multiple removals from city council, as well as a lawsuit claiming in part that the city and police department did not turn over records related to an alleged incident in which Frank and his father pointed guns at city residents.
Earlier this month, former city attorney Garry Hunter also filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging nonpayment for his services to the city. According to records obtained by the Independent, the city unsuccessfully attempted to settle with Hunter in April. In an April 11 email to council members, Hunter wrote in part, “Your offer of settlement through city attorney Bob Toy was less than 40% of the bills with no explanation why I should consider less than full payment.”
Nelsonville City Auditor Taylor Sappington, who is named in Hunter’s lawsuit, did not respond by press time to an inquiry related to the fiscal impact of the many lawsuits the city faces. The city has also had rapid turnover in the city manager’s office and city council over the last year.
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