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State police liable in Lebanon teen's death

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By Stephen Lega

More than 13 years after LeBron Gaither's murder, the Kentucky Board of Claims has found the Kentucky State Police liable in his death. The Board of Claims issued a final order Dec. 8 in which the board ruled that the police were liable for $168,729.90 in damages. LeBron Gaither had turned 18 years old just days before he was killed July 17, 1996, in Casey County near the Casey-Taylor County line.  Gaither had been working as a drug informant for the state police, and his death was the result of a meeting he had with a drug dealer he had testified against before a grand jury the preceding day. "It is the opinion of the members of the Board of Claims that the detectives failed to use any significant judgment; their conduct constituted the negligent performance of a series of ministerial duties," reads the final order issued Nov. 19. For Gaither's family, the Board of Claims decision offered some final justice for him. "The family is pleased with the decision, but it doesn't replace him by any means," said Shawn Gaither, LeBron's brother. Dan Taylor, the attorney from Louisville who has represented the Gaither family for 13 years, said the Board of Claims should be commended for its decision. He added that there needs to be accountability for law enforcement, and he encouraged the legislature to pass laws regulating the use of confidential informants. Lt. David Jude, the spokesperson for the state police, said they would seek to appeal the Board of Claims decision. Before the state police can seek an appeal, however, they must first seek permission from the Attorney General's office (under KRS 44.140).   Unfortunate events Gaither was a student at Marion County High School when he was charged with assaulting Charles Lampley, then-assistant principal at the high school, according to the July 24, 1996 edition of the Enterprise. After that arrest, Kentucky State Police spoke to Gaither about becoming a confidential informant. According to the final order, Gaither was paid $3,150 for participating in drug buys for the state police. Although he was supposed to be a confidential informant, Gaither was escorted through the Marion County Courthouse July 15, 1996, and through the Taylor County Courthouse July 16, 1996, by Danny Burton, a state police narcotics detective. These courthouses were "full of criminal defendants who were well-versed and sophisticated in the criminal on-goings in those two small counties, which would clearly compromise his identity as an informant," the final order reads. Additionally, the Board of Claims found that Gaither was "a physically robust figure who could not be walked through a courthouse inconspicuously." The final order continues to read that prosecutors normally do not have confidential informants testify before grand juries and that Gaither had not been subpoenaed to testify in either Marion or Taylor counties. Gaither was allowed to testify, however, in part because of concerns about his age and maturity, creating a concern that he may fabricate his testimony or recant at trial. Regardless, it was evident to Burton and the prosecutors that testifying could put Gaither in danger. One prosecutor had advised Gaither to leave town after his testimony, the final order reads. On July 16, 1996, Gaither testified in Taylor County in a case involving Jason Noel of Campbellsville. Noel was subsequently indicted for drug trafficking. A member of the Taylor County grand jury, Mary Ann Esarey, admitted to disclosing Gaither's identity to Noel. "The day after the identity of the confidential informant was twice compromised by appearing to testify in person at two grand jury proceedings, the KSP narcotics detectives set up a buy/bust between LeBron Gaither and Jason Noel at a local grocery in Taylor County," the Board of Claims wrote. Gaither was wearing monitoring equipment and had been advised not to get in Noel's car, for Gaither's protection. Despite that, Gaither did enter Noel's car, and rather than stopping the buy/bust, the detectives allowed the transaction to continue. Noel then drove off with Gaither in the car, the final order reads. The communications equipment being used by the state police only had a range of a half-mile. The detectives followed the Noel vehicle to a residence and stopped at a distance within that range. Upon hearing Noel's car start again, the detectives approached that location to learn they had lost the vehicle. The detectives did not report this to the state police post or local police initially. By the time it was reported, law enforcement was able to locate Noel based on the detectives' description of his vehicle. After Noel and his associates were interviewed, Gaither's body was found in Casey County with signs that he had been beaten, stabbed, shot and dragged. "Detective Tim Simpson testified the KSP's responsibility to a confidential informant is 'to the highest degree' and Detective Burton testified that he believed he was personally responsible for Gaither's death," the Board of Claims wrote. The board concluded that the detectives could have prevented what happened to Gaither. Noel and four other men - William V. "Doodle" Spalding of Lebanon and Lamont L. Battee, Cornelius T. Henry and Gregory S. Lyons all of Campbellsville - were indicted for their involvement with Gaither's death. Noel was convicted of murder and first-degree robbery in March of 1999 in Casey County. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Henry and Spalding pled guilty to facilitation to commit murder and first-degree robbery and received five-year sentences.  Battee pled guilty to second-degree robbery in May 1999 and was sentenced to eight years in prison.  The charges against Lyons were dismissed. Esarey, the grand juror who shared Gaither's identify with Noel, was found guilty of wanton endangerment, complicity to retaliate against a witness and perjury by a Pulaski County jury in March of 2001. The jury recommended a 15-year sentence.   Assigning responsibility In determining the financial liability for the state police, the Board of Claims first assessed the percent of responsibility of various parties in LeBron Gaither's death. The Board of Claims concluded that Noel was 50 percent at fault, the state police were 30 percent at fault, Esarey was 15 percent at fault and Gaither was 5 percent at fault. Based on Gaither's age at the time of his death, the Board of Claims estimated Gaither's earnings would have been $562,433. Since the funeral expenses were $5,573.08, the total damages as a result of Gaither's death were estimated to be $568,006.08. Based on the state police being found 30 percent at fault, their liability was set at 30 percent of the total damages, or $168,729.90.   Reaching the Board of Claims The Gaither family and their attorney, Dan Taylor, had to fight a legal battle just to have their hearing before the Board of Claims. LeBron Gaither died July 17, 1996, and his grandmother, Virginia Gaither, filed a wrongful death action with the board Feb. 12, 1998. Initially, the board barred the wrongful death action, citing a one-year statute of limitations. However, in a decision handed down Oct. 1, 2004, the Court of Appeals noted that Virginia Gaither was not named the administratrix of LeBron Gaither's estate until Feb. 14, 1997.  The Court of Appeals established a new precedent in Kentucky. In its decision, the court determined that wrongful death actions against the Commonwealth could be pursued before the Board of Claims up to one year from the date of qualification of the personal representative, but no more than two years from the time of the death itself. Since Virginia Gaither was not named the administratrix of LeBron Gaither's estate until Feb. 14, 1997, the court concluded that her claim had been filed within the allowable time limit. "It's been quite a legal struggle," Taylor said. He added that he's not surprised the state police will seek permission to appeal the Board of Claims decision. He continued to say that he would continue to represent the Gaither family if an appeal is allowed. Shawn Gaither said Taylor has become like a member of the family himself, and he praised Taylor's work on their behalf over the past 13 years. "He performed tremendously well under pressure," Shawn Gaither said. The money will help reimburse Virginia Gaither for some of the expenses she has incurred over the years, including the funeral expenses, a headstone and a burial plot, but according to Shawn Gaither, no amount of money can take away the pain of losing his younger brother.  But he said the family is pleased with the Board of Claims' decision. "We took it as some final justice for him," Shawn Gaither said.