Three days before Thanksgiving in 2015, Aaron Roberts was driving home from work through Hillsboro.
It was colder than normal, with temperatures headed down to the teens, but otherwise a typical day.
And then he saw blue lights in the rearview mirror of his 1998 Ford Ranger. Nothing has been the same for Roberts and his wife Jennifer since.
He was initially stopped in downtown Hillsboro, next to the local pizza joint and just 10 minutes from his house, for a tail light issue.
But shortly thereafter, Roberts was arrested for selling heroin near a school. That led to a night in the Highland County Jail and then being forced to clean the cell floors the following morning.
“It was pure terror at that point – I had no idea what to do or what to say,” Roberts said when recalling the arrest. “I spent the night in the cell with six, seven other men … I don’t remember sleeping much.”
But the Hillsboro city police officer arrested the wrong Aaron Roberts.
That’s because a Highland County Sheriff’s detective used his picture and driver’s license information to get an indictment and a warrant against another suspect who gave the same name in a video of a drug deal. That warrant showed up after the Hillsboro officer ran Roberts’ driver’s license after pulling him over.
The charges were dropped the next day after a review of that video showed a man that looked nothing like Roberts.
Yet for the two-plus years since then, the arrest has haunted Roberts, his wife and their family of six in this small community, at church and even at his job.
And that’s not even mentioning the lingering reminders on the internet, thanks to mugshot websites that refuse to take down his picture and arrest record.
“Rumors start flying and you have to make multiple public disclosures where you work and even on the street in front of your kids,” Roberts said. “People are always asking ‘Is it true what we heard?’”
“I’ve had to tell my kids that these things never leave you now with the internet. It will forever be out there that I am associated with heroin felonies.”
To try to clear his name, in November Roberts filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati against the Highland County Sheriff’s Office and Sgt. Chris Bowen, the lead detective who filled out the original warrant and received the indictment.
Roberts seeks $200,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. He initially applied to have his record expunged, but withdrew that effort after deciding to file the lawsuit as the evidence and documents may have been destroyed or sealed.
Sheriff Donnie Barrera declined to comment, and Bowen did not return messages seeking comment. Contacted Monday by The Times-Gazette, Barrera said he could not comment on the advice of attoneys.
Lawyers for the department also did not return messages from the Enquirer. In their written response to the lawsuit, those lawyers acknowledge that the man depicted in the video has not been arrested.
Jennifer Roberts said she always told her six children 1 to 11 years of age – all blonde and blue-eyed like their father – to trust the police. She now has a hard time with that message.
“It is scary for them because we’ve always told them to stay out of trouble, and here is Daddy being arrested in jail,” she said. “That’s especially true for the older ones. We’ve had some hard conversations.”
Those conversations didn’t happen at first, she said. The couple kept putting off telling their kids until they started asking some very specific questions – and knew it was time about a year after the arrest when an acquaintance asked Roberts about it in front of the children.
“They were very upset to see us upset … they even said that they wish we hadn’t told them,” Jennifer said. “The oldest was 9 at the time, but he is starting to realize this is going to be with us forever.
“And the youngest will have to relive this when they get older and can look it up online.”
She balks every time she sees the anti-drug signs put up by city officials featuring skulls and crossbones and threatening prosecution of any dealers upon entering Hillsboro.
“Now when I see that sign I think it’s a joke,” she said. “From what I’ve seen, they’ve made little to no attempt to actually catch the person who really did this.
“I’ve lost that trust in the police, and it’s really hard to tell my kids to keep that trust.”
In late June 2015, a paid informant for the Highland County Sheriff’s Office videotaped a drug transaction outside a building across the street from several schools.
That campus includes McClain High School and Greenfield Elementary School in downtown Greenfield, where Roberts said he hasn’t stepped foot in at least a decade.
The town is about 18 miles from the couple’s home just outside Hillsboro, the city that acts as Highland County’s seat about 60 miles east of Cincinnati.
The man in the video is young, with close-cropped dark hair wearing a bright green tie-dyed T-shirt and a baseball cap. A tattoo is visible on the man’s forearm.
The Roberts who was arrested recently turned 38 years old, has sandy blond hair and no tattoos.
The man in the video identifies himself as “Aaron Roberts,” which apparently led to the confusion.
Following the drug deal, Bowen sought and received an indictment based on the name and address apparently pulled from the wrong Roberts’ license. And when issuing the warrant, Bowen attached the wrong Roberts’ picture.
But in his incident report from June 2015, Bowen stated that he did compare Roberts’ license picture side by side with photos of “the male suspect in the green shirt.”
An Enquirer search of publicly available records only showed one Aaron Roberts in the Highland County area – the one arrested by police.
After the arrest, Jennifer Roberts spent the night frantically looking for a lawyer and for help on what to do. She eventually hired local criminal defense lawyer J.D. Wagoner, who met with Roberts in jail that following morning.
“Within 30 seconds, I knew they had the wrong guy,” Wagoner said. “I mean, this is an engineer with six kids who had no prior record. I was dumbfounded.”
After that, Wagoner went straight to the office of Highland County Prosecutor Annika Collins. She viewed the videotape, compared it with Roberts’ license picture, and made a phone call to the jail.
Roberts remembers deputies at the jail asking him to pull up his sleeves and show his arms.
Soon thereafter, Collins dropped the charges and ordered Roberts released.
Collins said the arrest was a mistake and that she is sorry the mixup happened. But she adamantly stated that Roberts’ lawsuit should not be allowed to continue.
“Sgt. Bowen made a mistake, but that should be covered by immunity,” she said. “I’ve known Chris Bowen for a long time, and I trust him implicitly. I can’t imagine him ever doing something like this intentionally or allowing this to happen and continue on.”
Federal law provides police officers with what’s called “qualified immunity” against lawsuits in the course of their duties unless their actions are considered reckless or intentional.
Collins said the heroin epidemic has been “terrible” in Highland County, but does not feel that led to extra pressure to make arrests.
National experts say otherwise. There are no comprehensive national statistics on false arrests, but New York-based civil rights lawyer Joel B. Rudin said such cases are on the rise as law enforcement faces pressure to close cases.
“Some are less diligent in making sure they have the right person than others,” Rudin said. “And it comes down to whether the officer should have known that these were two different people … and if you have a clear videotape, that makes the argument that much stronger for damages.”
According to Bowen’s personnel file, he has been praised several times for his work on the drug beat.
His only major disciplinary issue at the sheriff’s department was a five-day suspension following a scuffle with his girlfriend in a bar in 2011. Those documents indicate that Bowen has not been disciplined for this latest incident and remains on the force.
“One of the reasons I took this case is that it shows that police have enormous power no matter where they are, whether it be in an urban setting or even in a rural area like Highland County,” said Roberts’ civil lawyer, Fred Gittes of Columbus.
Gittes said such cases can result in judgments in the hundreds of thousands of dollars if damage to someone’s reputation or livelihood can be proved.
“This is not just a mistake … the officer recklessly and totally disregarded evidence right in front of him,” Gittes said.
That first night in jail and following day proved harrowing for Roberts, whose only previous brush with the law was a conviction for reckless operation of a vehicle in an alcohol-related incident about 15 years ago.
Roberts said he made no contact with the other inmates and wasn’t necessarily scared for his safety. But he spent the night confused and frightened for his future.
He said he was able to make two calls to try his wife and his father, and finally made contact with Jennifer.
At the couple’s small split-level ranch, she and the children had been waiting “for Daddy to come home for dinner as usual,” she said.
When Roberts called from the jail, Jennifer Roberts said, she immediately “went into a panic.”
She couldn’t speak for several minutes as she had to catch her breath and then made busywork around the house to calm herself down. After soothing the kids and getting them to bed, she spent the night researching lawyers and the legal system in general.
“I knew nothing about this and how to deal with it,” she said. “I didn’t sleep once the entire night. I didn’t even know what kind of lawyer to look for.”
Jennifer found Wagoner online, and he got Roberts released the next morning.
But first, a deputy made Roberts clean the floors in the cell that had been shared with other inmates.
“I don’t know why they made him do that, but that’s just horrible and still makes me mad,” she said.
The ordeal cost the couple several thousand dollars in legal fees, $100 to get Roberts’ truck out of the impound lot and a humiliating trip back to the jail to retrieve his fingerprints and the DNA sample deputies took from him in jail.
But the real trouble began in the following weeks and months, with constant reminders of the incident from friends, family, co-workers and even their children.
Roberts, a quality engineer at an area manufacturing plant, said he has held several meetings with co-workers and his bosses to explain the situation.
“And it’s tough when people ask you about it in front of your kids,” he said. “And it really bothers me that the police have yet to get the guy who actually did this – it makes it seem like I still may have done it.”
Since her husband was released, he has not had any contact with the sheriff’s office by way of explanation or apology.
Roberts said a win in court would be further vindication and more proof of his innocence.
“It’s just something you can’t get closure on – especially when you drive by that same spot through town every day and knowing your picture is out on the internet,” he said. “It’s important that something gets done so this doesn’t happen to someone else.”
This story originally appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
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