In January 2018, The Enquirer reported on the 2015 false arrest of Aaron Roberts for a drug trafficking charge in Highland County. A few days before that Thanksgiving, Roberts spent the night in jail and was released the next day. He subsequently sued in federal court and the case is still pending. At the time, the Highland County Sheriff’s Office never caught the person originally identified in a video of a drug deal.
A deputy with the Highland County Sheriff’s office made a mistake and had a warrant issued for Aaron Roberts in a drug case, which resulted in the arrest of the married father of six.
As it turns out, Roberts was the wrong man and filed a federal civil rights lawsuit.
And according to new testimony in the case, the deputy in charge of the investigation and his partner didn’t go after the actual suspect caught dealing heroin on video captured by an undercover informant. They made just one phone call to try, and that only came after Roberts sued.
Yet a month after Roberts was released, the department had the right guy in custody – but didn’t know it.
Aaron Howland, who was 20 at the time, was then let go after two weeks on a minor criminal charge. Within a month, Howland overdosed on heroin and died in February 2016.
In the meantime, Aaron Roberts moved his family halfway across the country to escape the scrutiny that came with the arrest and suspicion of being a drug dealer.
This tale is all according to court documents and depositions filed in the case and Enquirer research and documents obtained through open records requests.
It left two lives irrevocably changed and both families with questions.
Let’s start with Howland.
“I loved him like a son, but after he turned 18 there wasn’t much we could do,” said his uncle Wayne Hayslip, who says he tried to help raise Howland for the last 10 years and gave him a job at his recycling business in Wilmington, Ohio.
“He might still be alive today if the police had arrested him instead or at least found him later. Maybe he could have gotten some help or treatment in jail … he was only selling to support his habit.”
Hayslip said Howland’s stepfather Dan Howard also died of an overdose recently. Hayslip said he saw previous coverage of the false arrest and the pictures and video and identified the suspect as his nephew Howland.
Meanwhile, Roberts felt such dismay over the mistaken arrest in November 2015 that the Highland County native moved halfway across the country to escape the scrutiny.
But his federal civil rights lawsuit continues to make its way through the U.S. District Court in Columbus.
“They never did anything to catch this guy after I was released, and it’s a lot to take to see that unfortunately, the guy died,” said Roberts.
No effort made to find the culprit
Howland – the person caught on camera, according to his uncle – died of a drug overdose just months after Roberts spent that night in jail. He gave his name as Aaron Roberts to the person buying the drugs, an undercover informant who videoed the encounter.
That led the lead investigator, Sgt. Chris Bowen of the Highland County Sheriff’s Office, to get an indictment and issue a warrant for an Aaron Roberts.
But Bowen mistakenly pulled the information for the married father of six who worked as an engineer in nearby Adams County.
So when a Hillsboro police officer pulled Roberts over a few days before Thanksgiving three years ago, the warrant popped up and he was arrested for selling heroin.
Roberts was released the next day after hiring a lawyer who quickly convinced the county prosecutor that authorities had the wrong man. He filed his federal civil rights lawsuit in November 2017.
In depositions filed with the court, Bowen acknowledged the wrong man was arrested and that he and his coworkers didn’t look hard for the actual suspect shown on the video after Roberts was released.
Their lone effort? A single phone call to the local police in Greenfield where the drug deal took place. It came months following the mistaken arrest. The call was made only after Sheriff Donnie Barrera told deputies they should look because Roberts might be suing the department, according to testimony from Randy Sanders, another detective involved in the case.
In his deposition, Bowen also testified that he asked Greenfield police there if they knew an “Aaron Roberts,” even though he knew it was probably a false name.
Hayslip said his nephew was well known to local police under his real name and was living in the building where the deal took place on video.
“All they needed to do was show that picture to the Greenfield cops and they would have known him right away,” Hayslip said.
Suspect not hard to find online
Howland left a pretty easy online trail to follow as well.
The investigatory notes from the case also have Howland’s cell phone number (those notes were filed in federal court as part of Roberts’ lawsuit).
A five-minute Google and internet search of that phone number led to an ad for Hayslip’s recycling business as well as to Howland’s Facebook page, which still hasn’t been taken down.
Featured prominently on the page are pictures of the arm-sleeve tattoo that was seen on the video – it was a lack of any tattoos that got Roberts sprung from jail in the first place.
Records show that lead investigator Bowen did not indicate the suspect had any special markings or tattoos, however.
According to jail records, Howland was arrested in December 2015 and spent two weeks in the Highland County Jail. But he was never questioned in the drug case that led to Roberts’ arrest.
In his deposition, Barrerra said he was never aware of the investigation and undercover drug buy until after Roberts was mistakenly arrested. He also said he gives his detectives wide latitude to run cases unsupervised unless several agencies are involved.
He also said he didn’t recall ever telling investigators to follow up on the case and that neither he nor his deputies could have released Roberts even if they knew he was the wrong guy.
“I can’t. I don’t have the authority under a court order to release somebody unless a judge would tell me to do that,” Barrera testified. “I don’t write the laws, and the courts are the only ones that can change that.”
Barrera said he was never told by his detectives that the informant told them Howland, who sold the drugs, actually lived in the building shown on the video, until afterward.
And though investigators knew Howland was probably living at that building, he never asked for a search warrant.
Barrera also testified that the department now needs three officers to verify someone’s identity before seeking an indictment and warrant from the county prosecutor’s office.
Barrera declined to comment to The Enquirer, referring all questions to the lawyer representing his office in the lawsuit.
Columbus lawyer Melanie Williamson did not return calls seeking comment. Bowen also did not return messages seeking comment.
Moving away from scene of a crime
Roberts’ lawyer Fred Gittes said he has handled a lot of civil rights and false arrest cases but none with the twists and turns that this one presented.
“This case really epitomizes what the impact is of a law enforcement officer taking shortcuts to make themselves look good,” Gittes said. “This causes danger to the public and in this case the actual offender.
“And this clearly is still affecting Aaron and Jennifer’s lives, and it may have cost the life of the young man hooked on drugs and being used by a criminal organization to keep his habit going.”
Now for the changes in Roberts’ life.
He said no one from the sheriff’s office has contacted him regarding the mistake.
“It’s just disgraceful to know that people with these powers they have are causing extreme stress and disrupting people’s lives for something they didn’t do but that they are not being held accountable,” he said. “It’s a slap in the face, really.”
Earlier this year, Roberts and his wife Jennifer moved their family of six to Kansas, nearly 1,000 miles 850 per google away from their native south-central Ohio after Aaron got a transfer from his employer.
He said it became unbearable to drive day by day past the spot where he was arrested.
“It was very stressful living in the area,” Roberts said. Moving “was extremely difficult … I’ve lived here almost my whole life and started raising my own family here.
“But I felt like we needed a fresh start.”
This investigative report first appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer, and is reprinted here in its entirety with the Enquirer’s permission.