Missoula man says wrongful arrest hurt relationships, business

2013-02-11T06:45:00Z 2013-02-18T16:35:20Z Missoula man says wrongful arrest hurt relationships, business missoulian.com

Things haven’t gone well for Jack Palmer since he got thrown in jail last August for crimes someone else committed.

Palmer, 52, says he still can’t feel his thumbs because the handcuffs were so tight.

The owner of Car Werks has had customers say they never would have bought a car from him had they known he was a drug dealer. Palmer insists he is no such thing; a letter from the city attorney confirms he’s never been cited in Missoula, and a Missoula County Sheriff’s Office search confirmed his record is clean.

Worst of all, though, he lost a longtime girlfriend, and he’s fairly certain the fiasco of Aug. 9, 2012, had everything to do with the split.

In this case of mistaken identity, the missteps mounted. And the Missoula businessman decided it was time to share his story.

***

On the night of Aug. 9, after the rodeo at the Western Montana Fair, Palmer and a friend were going through the McDonald’s drive-thru on Brooks Street.

According to city officials, Palmer and the driver were drunk and had caused a disturbance, and police were dispatched to the scene.

Palmer wonders how anyone could know he was drunk since he never took a breath test. He said he was surprised to see two or three police cars roll into the parking lot.

An officer asked the driver if he had been drinking, and Palmer said he and his friend weren’t going to try to weasel out of it: “We made no claims that we weren’t drinking. We’re old farts.”

His friend stepped out of the car for a sobriety test, and pretty soon, another officer asked Palmer for his driver’s license, he said. He obliged, and more patrol cars showed up.

He asked police permission to use his phone so he could call his friend’s wife and let her know he was probably getting a DUI, and an officer agreed. Then, police turned their attention to Palmer himself.

“They asked me to step out of the car, and they put me on the ground and arrested me,” he said.

He asked why.

“The one guy said, ‘You know why you’re going to jail.’ ”

“I said, ‘I don’t. Maybe you could fill me in a little bit.’ ”

The answer? Drug dealing and bail jumping.

***

When the officer mentioned drugs, a light went on in Palmer’s head.

His son had been in trouble with drugs, and his son’s name is similar: Jackson David Palmer. At the time, the younger Palmer was in a prerelease center in Butte, and the elder Palmer suspected he might be taking some heat for the misbehavior of his child.

“So I wasn’t going to raise hell over it,” he said.

Palmer sells cars for a living, and he had closed a cash deal earlier that afternoon. He said he had a wad of bills in his pocket, and police confiscated it as evidence of drug dealing.

“They kept referring to it. This is from one of your deals huh?”

They took him to jail. According to Palmer, he was told at first that he couldn’t bail out because he was a flight risk. Then, he says, the jailers told him the confiscated cash could serve as bail money.

When he tried to leave, though, he ran into more trouble. He tried to get his credit cards returned, but one jailer told him he had no credit cards. Another one remembered he did have plastic. Then, the officials realized the personal items had gone out the door with the previous man who had been let out.

The authorities made a dash for the other man, and lucky for Palmer, the man happened to be his friend, who was booked on the DUI and bailed out.

So Palmer got his credit cards back, but the mishaps weren’t nearly over for him.

***

The next morning in Municipal Court, Palmer said, a staff person pulled him aside.

“I’ve got to tell you, I think we might have made a mistake.”

“Did you guys just figure this out?”

Palmer asked to see the record, and the employee told him the record wasn’t his, it was his son’s. When Palmer looked at the dates the theft and bail jumping took place, though, he saw the incidents happened when his son couldn’t have been the culprit because he was in prison at the time.

“So now, you’re charging my son with something he did while he’s in Deer Lodge?”

A record comparison showed the offender was 21 – a generation younger than Palmer and two years younger than his son – and had addresses that didn’t match Palmer’s or his son’s. The offender was a third party.

Nonplussed, Palmer asked to see Judge Kathleen Jenks. In the courtroom, the judge told him a serious mistake had been made, and she apologized. Palmer requested his money and his truck be returned; the truck came back, and so did the money – minus $1,000, he said.

It wasn’t the only thread still loose.

***

When Palmer next walked into work, his employees told him that his name was still on the jail roster connected to the crimes he didn’t commit.

The following week, he says, a state official called him about his dealer’s license and warned if he was convicted of a felony, his license would be pulled.

Then, customers he’d commiserated with about having children with drug problems called to tell him they would never have bought cars from him had they known he was a drug dealer.

When Palmer looked online days later, his name was still on the jail roster, still connected to someone else’s drug charges and bail jumping.

He tried to talk to Mayor John Engen, he said, but couldn’t get an appointment. Palmer went back to the Missoula Police Department, but he said they didn’t have a record of his mistaken arrest.

“The police said you were never incarcerated. I said, I spent the night in jail. You are idiots,” Palmer said.

Finally, he talked with Missoula County Sheriff Carl Ibsen, who wrote a letter to the jail. It referenced an email from the police noting that Palmer’s arrest was made on warrants that were entered into the computer in error.

“Please take the correct legal action with our detention records on this gentleman to make certain that he is no longer listed as an arrestee or as having been booked for these issues,” Ibsen wrote.

The matter again appeared close to resolution, but it wasn’t over yet.

***

Another week went by, and Palmer received a voicemail from the police. In the message, he was told to stop harassing another man.

As it turns out, police were on the hunt for the other Jack Palmer, the 21-year-old with a different address. The older Palmer, incredulous, told police they should go out and arrest the younger Palmer.

Since the series of unfortunate events, Palmer has obtained a signed letter from the city attorney saying his arrest was the result of a “clerical error inserting the wrong birthdate on the bench warrants.” He has filled out identity theft information to be reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and he even has a code name he has to use to confirm he’s the real 52-year-old Jack Palmer if he calls police.

He believes he’s still missing $1,000 confiscated by police. The jail accounting system has no record of any money taken or returned, according to the sheriff’s office, and the file on Palmer’s arrest was deleted because of his request to correct the record.

Palmer still hasn’t met with Mayor Engen, although the mayor said he is more than willing to visit with the man.

“I’m generally going to see just about anyone who wants to see me, but typically, if we can fix their deal, that’s kind of where we go first,” Engen said.

So the city went about fixing things, the mayor said: One of the mayor’s assistants had a police officer visit with Palmer, which started the process to clear the jail roster; the city attorney issued the letter clearing his name; and the city refunded Palmer’s bail money and his towing charge, and apologized to him.

“I was unaware that he had any heartburn and wanted to come see me,” Engen said.

***

Palmer does still have heartburn because the errors added up, and if you Google his name and Missoula, the words “jail roster” still come up. He’s seen the effects ripple into his personal life and his business life.

Since the wrongful arrest, Car Werks has seen sales fall off an estimated 25 percent, Palmer said. It’s difficult to determine how much of the slip is due to the economy and how much is because of his soiled reputation, he said, but he knows what started as a clerical error affects the paychecks of the 17 people who work for him.

“It’s not like it’s only destroyed me, but it’s destroyed relationships,” Palmer said. “It’s destroyed the income of my employees. It’s not just me. If it was just me, I wouldn’t care. My family has suffered.”

He isn’t sure if he’ll sue, but he feels certain more prominent local car dealers would get better treatment. He believes they at least could leverage better treatment.

“They would bring a steamroller down to City Hall. A mistake is a mistake,” Palmer said. “I appreciate that you maybe arrested the wrong guy. But when you want to destroy him for something he didn’t do?”

Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

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