Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd delivered a scathing rebuke of the Frankfort Police Department for what he called a pattern of unethical behavior, sexual misconduct and lack of supervision in a 2015 homicide investigation.
Shepherd’s comments came in an order Thursday unsealing documents containing allegations made by Meisha Nichols, who was indicted in the 2015 stabbing death of 66-year-old Thomas Ellison on Deepwood Drive.
Nichols alleged that she had a sexual relationship with Frankfort Detective Bobby Courtney and that the department knew of the relationship, paid and arranged for Nichols to stay at Ellison’s apartment and withheld the information from the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. The alleged relationship, and what Shepherd called “gross police misconduct,” resulted in prosecutors offering Nichols a plea deal to a lesser charge than murder because they believed their case would be compromised at trial.
Courtney, in an affidavit filed Friday by Louisville attorney Thomas Clay, flatly denied the allegations. The Frankfort Police Department also issued a statement Saturday refuting the allegations.
On Nov. 7, the documents were sealed containing nude pictures Nichols sent to Courtney, text messages between her and the detective, and, according to Shepherd’s order, inappropriate Facebook postings.
Given the severity of the allegations of police misconduct and “that they could destroy the reputation” of the police officer and department, Shepherd said he sealed the documents so the prosecution could investigate the claims, given how they would impact jury selection for Nichols’ upcoming trial.
In his order unsealing the documents, Shepherd stated, “A review of the records in this case discloses a disturbing pattern of unethical behavior, sexual misconduct, bad judgment and lack of supervision by the FPD.”
Shepherd charged that the Frankfort Police Department “clearly failed to disclose” evidence, “even though the FPD and its officers had knowledge of the facts that obviously and directly affected the credibility of its investigation.”
Given seven days to respond to Nichols’ allegations and evidence by a court order, the department provided no explanation. Prosecutors and the judge “were kept in the dark about the gross police misconduct in this case until the filing of the defendant’s motion less than one month before trial,” Shepherd wrote.
According to Detective Courtney’s affidavit, Nichols worked as a confidential informant two to three years ago for the Paris Police Department. Paris police then transported her to Frankfort, arranged for Frankfort police to employ her as an informant and paid for her to stay two nights in a local hotel.
Courtney introduced her to Ellison, and the Frankfort Police Department paid for her to stay with Ellison knowing he “had a long criminal history,” including “a history of violence against women,” Shepherd stated in his order.
The Frankfort Police Department “dropped its plan to use” Nichols “as an informant after Detective Courtney had sexual relations with her,” Shepherd asserted, and the department referred her to Kentucky State Police to work as an informant.
Frankfort police arrested Nichols, 28, and her ex-boyfriend Cameron Wright, 32, two days after Ellison was found dead at his apartment as a result of stab wounds.
The grand jury charged Nichols for allegedly murdering Ellison and stealing his vehicle with Cameron’s assistance. Cameron was charged with theft. Both allegedly tampered with physical evidence at the scene.
Hannah Autry, Nichols’ attorney, said the Frankfort Police Department has stonewalled her motions for the department to release evidence related to the case.
“We filed a motion for exculpatory evidence a few weeks ago, and our interest at the time was the police department knew about Mr. Ellison’s history of violence and that they had personal knowledge that he had victimized our client,” Autry said. “They (police) denied that and they went further and denied they had any kind of relationship or communications with our client, and we knew that wasn’t true.”
“It wasn’t our interest to expose anybody. It was really to protect our client’s constitutional rights, her rights to a fair trial, her right to have all the information available to her to put forward a defense. We felt they stonewalled us and, frankly, they stonewalled the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.”
Autry said it comes down to police not providing information that would’ve benefited Nichols’ defense, which “highlighted some of the unethical things that were going on in this investigation.”
“All the public had heard about this case was the number of stab wounds, but what the public doesn’t know is this man (Ellison) had a history of violence, a history of violence against our client and other women, gave them drugs and they never heard that our client has a metal plate in her face from reconstructive surgery from another boyfriend who had beat her so badly,” Autry said. “You have to take her and her position and really think about why this happened. She admitted in her statement that she stabbed him out of defense.”
Shepherd said prosecutors were left with little alternative but to enter plea negotiations with Nichols given the police’s handling of the case. Nichols agreed to plead guilty to a reduced charge of reckless homicide, a Class D felony, instead of murder, a Class A felony.
“For the appearance of an improper relationship between this defendant and a member of the police department — that was going to affect the integrity of the investigation,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Larry Cleveland. “All a defense attorney needs at trial is a reasonable doubt, and anything affecting the credibility and integrity of the police department’s investigation can result in reasonable doubt.
“We decided we would exercise caution, settle the case and make sure we got a conviction out of it.”
The trial was going to be a “she said” versus “nobody saying anything contrary,” Cleveland said, which may have led a jury to believe she acted in self-defense. The chances were good, according to Cleveland, that Nichols would have been convicted on a lesser charge than murder.
Nichols’ formal sentencing is scheduled for January.
Courtney and the Frankfort Police Department were swift to react after Shepherd’s order became public record.
Clay, who has a long track record of defending high-profile clients, electronically filed an affidavit Friday on Courtney’s behalf denying the allegations. Clay has requested a hearing for Courtney to testify under oath and clear his name.
“The details that are in the court’s order are pretty salacious and scandalous. It’s unfortunate that detective Courtney did not have the opportunity to address those allegations under oath at a hearing,” Clay said. “With over 40 years experience practicing criminal law, these allegations are not unusual given what narcotics detectives have to do to develop the intelligence necessary to do their job.”
Clay said his motion requesting an evidentiary hearing will go before Shepherd in December.
“I hope we have an opportunity for Detective Courtney to present his side of this whole scenario under oath at hearing,” Clay said. “I’ve never seen anything like this before (Shepherd’s rebuke). Given the fact that the judge afforded the commonwealth an opportunity to rebut the allegations made by the defendant and there was no rebuttal, I think Judge Shepherd took the allegation as being true. It’s unfortunate that things weren’t done in a more timely manner.”
Both Courtney’s affidavit and a statement by Frankfort City Solicitor Rob Moore on behalf of the Frankfort Police Department state that the Paris Police Department transported Nichols to Frankfort and recommended her as a confidential informant.
Telling Paris police she wouldn’t be deemed a confidential informant until she produced evidence of value, Courtney swore in his affidavit he was advised by a Paris Police Department representative they would “put her up for a week.”
Courtney learned the Paris Police Department had only paid for her to stay for two days and, with no place for her to stay, called Ellison and arranged for Nichols’ temporary stay.
Having no knowledge of Ellison’s abusive past, the affidavit states, Courtney and another detective paid $300 for Ellison’s cooperation and $100 for Nichols’ expenses.
Courtney’s and Frankfort Police’s responses indicate that once Nichols sent him inappropriate pictures, they decided against her employment. According to the affidavit, Courtney told both Capt. Walter Martin of FPD and Kentucky State Police narcotics detective Elijah Morris that “she has sent me naked pictures.”
Courtney denies any sexual relationship with Nichols, and in Moore’s response, Frankfort Police stated the department is unaware of any sexual relationship involving Nichols and “does not agree with the court’s characterization of its actions in this matter or the actions of its officers.”
Regarding his involvement in the homicide investigation, Courtney stated in the affidavit he was confined to securing a search warrant to search Ellison’s apartment, took photographs “of the scene,” and secured a search warrant for Nichols’ phone.
FPD stated it doesn’t object to the records being unsealed for public scrutiny.
In his affidavit, Courtney states that he regrets “there was never any response filed with the court“ within the seven-day period but that he met with the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, disclosed the pictures and answered questions regarding the case.
The Frankfort Police Department confirmed it hasn’t placed Courtney on any form of leave and is still reviewing the case.