Boone County’s prosecutor wants a thumb drive back.
And it’s not just any thumb drive. What’s on the digital storage device could free a convicted murderer in a high-profile Northern Kentucky case, one featured on the national TV show “Dateline.”
There’s a lawsuit with accusations of extortion, one filed in part by a sitting judge.
Oh, and the Kentucky attorney general is reviewing the information.
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How did one thumb drive lead to this maelstrom?
A mother slain
It started on an early morning four years ago in an industrial park in unincorporated Boone County.
The badly beaten body of Michelle Mockbee, 42, was found outside her office at Thermo Fisher Scientific. Mockbee, a mother of two, worked for 16 years at the biotech company as a logistics representative.
Police arrested David Dooley, a self-employed janitor hired to clean the office. Dooley maintained his innocence after a jury convicted him of murder in 2014.
The Dooley trial garnered national attention. The story of a mother brutally beaten at work caught the attention of producers at “Dateline.” Dooley’s lawyers claimed that little evidence linked him to the crime. Dooley’s attorney, Eric Deters, said in 2013 that crime-scene photographs show “blood spatter throughout.” But no blood or trace evidence was found in Dooley’s truck, he said.
“I’ve been railroaded,” Dooley said at his sentencing. “It’s totally unfair how I’ve been treated. I wasn’t afforded the time to defend myself properly. I feel cheated out of that as well.”
“I did not kill Michelle Mockbee,” Dooley said, looking over his shoulder at Mockbee’s family. Boone Circuit Judge J.R. Schrand warned him to address the court. Shrand followed the jury’s recommendation and sentenced him to life in prison.
Dooley closed his statement by saying, “All I know is I did not kill Michelle Mockbee. I stand by that.”
Sentenced to life in prison, Dooley is waiting as an appeal works through the system.
An argument in the prosecutor’s office
In September, Boone County prosecutor Linda Tally Smith called one of her law clerks, Nicholas Ramler into her office. According to Tally Smith’s version of events in court documents, she wanted to talk about what she thought to be his poor job performance.
She told him he needed to improve his “work product” and that she planned to reduce his hours to part-time because of budget cuts and Ramler’s schedule at law school, court documents revealed.
When Ramler “became incensed, belligerent and argumentative,” according to court documents, Tally Smith fired him.
That’s when Ramler did something unexpected. He brought up the files he’d seen on the servers at the Commonwealth’s attorney’s office. Tally Smith, in court documents, said Ramler told her he shared it with “other persons.”
Ramler “told Linda nothing was going to change with his employment.”
What did Ramler mean by that?
Tally Smith took that as a threat.
Tally Smith’s lawyer in the suit described it as “a blatant attempt to blackmail and/or extort and/or threaten to further disseminate the information he had learned from her personal records if Linda took any personnel action against him.”
Ramler left the office and gave a thumb drive with the information to his attorney, Steve Wolnitzek. Wolnitzek handed the information over to the attorney general’s office.
Wolnitzek said his client didn’t steal the information.
“The documents were taken from a server that was owned by the public,” Wolnitzek said. “She posted these things on the office server. If you put stuff on your office server, I would not think there’s an expectation of privacy.”
Tally Smith’s attorney, Luke Morgan, had harsh words for what Ramler did.
“This is an effort by a disgruntled employee to extort Linda and to keep his job,” Morgan said. “This is what blackmail looks like.”
What’s on the thumb drive?
According to Wolnitzek, there is evidence on the thumb drive that a detective might have lied in the Dooley case.
The Kentucky Attorney General’s Office filed a motion to halt Dooley’s appeal while it looks into this allegation.
Specifically, there were screen shots of text messages from Tally Smith to the lead detective on the Dooley case referring to the lead detective as a liar, Wolnitzek said.
In the text message, according to Wolnitzek, Tally Smith says a detective “allowed me to go through a murder trial without telling me the truth about that video,” Wolnitzek told The Enquirer. Wolnitzek said he thinks the video refers to surveillance videos at the workplace where Mockbee was killed. Wolnitzek said he doesn’t know what the video showed nor exactly what the detective lied about. “And it appeared to my client that the trial she was talking about was the Dooley trial.”
Morgan, Tally Smith’s attorney, also said the information on the thumb drive won’t overturn the Dooley case. “Dooley was properly convicted,” Morgan said.
“I’m confident that will be affirmed by all courts that look at this,” he said.
The state intervenes
Mockbee’s mother, Pat Whalen, told The Enquirer that the family didn’t want to comment on this right now.
The attorney general has assumed control of the prosecution of the case. The Office of the Attorney General declined to comment on whether the new evidence could overturn the Dooley case.
“Justice requires that this possibility (that the detective lied) be investigated,” Assistant Attorney General Leilani K.M. Martin wrote in a motion filed with the Supreme Court.
The lead Boone County Sheriff’s detective on the case, Bruce McVay, referred all questions to his attorney, Ben Dusing. McVay is now retired. Dusing said McVay didn’t lie.
“Once the dust settles here, which may take some time, people will see the substance of the allegations are false,” Dusing said.
He said he was not aware of the text messages referred to by Wolnitzek.
This is a personal matter between Tally Smith and McVay, Dusing said. Tally Smith and McVay were in a relationship, and the messages on the thumb drive recorded quarrels between the two, he said.
“Linda knew (McVay) didn’t do things wrong,” Dusing said. “These are not serious allegations.”
Tally Smith told The Enquirer she can’t comment on the allegations or the lawsuit because of the involvement of the attorney general. Tally Smith wouldn’t confirm or deny whether McVay and Tally Smith were in a relationship, saying only that it is a “very personal and private matter.”
A judge sues
In the meantime, Tally Smith and her husband have sued Ramler. That adds another interesting twist, because her husband is District Judge Jeffrey Smith. Both are elected. In 2000, Tally Smith became the youngest prosecutor in Kentucky at age 31. She has been re-elected twice.
They want the thumb drive back and anyone else who has the computer data to give it to the court “for its safekeeping” until further notice.
“There’s a personal relationship here that’s being played out in a professional setting,” Dusing said. “There were communications that lend themselves to being misconstrued in a professional way.”
Tally Smith’s attorney in the lawsuit said the concerns extend beyond the Dooley case. The thumb drive contained 13 gigabytes of information, equal to 842,000 Microsoft Word pages or 201,000 pictures. She accuses Ramler in the lawsuit of accessing records of co-workers without authorization.
“This information includes protected personal health information of the plaintiffs and others, family financial and account information, family photographs, personal correspondence between the plaintiffs and between the plaintiffs and others, as well as election information relative to both plaintiffs,” the lawsuit stated.
A status hearing in Boone County Circuit Court in the Dooley appeal is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Nov. 15.