April 22, 2024

The Family of Ralph C. Ennis has filed a $6 million federal lawsuit claiming that excessive force by two Warren County Sheriff’s deputies during a traffic stop led to his death. The suit alleges that the deputies used excessive force against Ralph C. Ennis, 77, who died on April 15, less than two weeks after sustaining a head injury in an April 2 traffic stop by the Warren County Sheriff’s Department.

Ian R. Ennis, the son of the late Ralph C. Ennis and administrator of the estate, filed a civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia on August 8.  Deputies Tyler Poe and Zachary Fadley are named as defendants.

Warrenton, Va. Attorney Susan Pierce, of the law firm Walker Jones, P.C. is co-counsel for Ennis, along with Richmond attorney Seth Carroll, of the Commonwealth Law Group.

Deputy Fadley is being represented by Fairfax attorney Alexander Francuzenko, a partner of law firm of Cook Craig & Francuzenko, PLLC.  Deputy Poe is being represented by Carlene Booth Johnson, with the Perry Law Firm of Dillwyn, Virginia.

In separate responses to the lawsuit, both deputies deny the allegations and request a dismissal of the lawsuit.  Poe’s co-counsel Carlene Booth Johnson filed a memorandum in support of dismissal of the suit on September 12, writing that, “While the Complaint conclusorily [SIC] asserts that plaintiff is bringing this action in his capacity as the Administrator of the Estate of Ralph Ennis, the Complaint does not offer a single fact supporting that assertion. The plaintiff has not shown when, where, or how he qualified as the Administrator of the Estate of Ralph Ennis, nor provided any facts or evidence showing that he properly qualified to bring this action.”

Johnson on Friday, September 23, filed a memorandum in the Harrisonburg court to further support Poe’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that Ian Ennis had no standing to file the lawsuit.

Ralph Ennis, 77, died on April 15 in the care of Valley Health System’s Blue Ridge Hospice, in Winchester, 13 days after sustaining a head injury during an April 2 traffic stop in Warren County.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Manassas stated in an August 15 email to Royal Examiner that, “The cause of death is complications of Alzheimer disease, cerebral amyloid angiopathy, and hypertensive atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.  The manner of death is natural.”

However, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Manassas is considering reopening the case, sources familiar with the case told Royal Examiner earlier this week, though Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) Administrative Deputy Arkuie Williams has not confirmed that information.

Despite the medical examiner’s initial ruling, the plaintiff claims it was the action of Deputies Fadley and Poe that cause his father’s death. The two-count complaint alleges that Poe and Fadley used excessive force in violation of Ralph Ennis’ Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

The court document states, “The Fourth Amendment is applicable to the Commonwealth of Virginia under the Fourteenth Amendment. Defendants unreasonably used excessive force against Mr. Ennis when they effected their arrest by slamming the elderly man face first into his vehicle and then tackling him the ground after he was already restrained, causing a traumatic and ultimately fatal brain injury.

“No objectively reasonable law enforcement officer would have believed that the elderly and visibly confused Mr. Ennis posed any threat or significant risk of harm to himself or any other person. No objectively reasonable law enforcement officer would believe that the level of force used by the Defendants was necessary to subdue an elderly and visibly confused man during a routine traffic stop.  As such, the Defendants violated Ralph Ennis’ clearly established constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment. As a direct and proximate result of the Defendants actions, Ralph Ennis suffered the injuries described above, resulting in his death.”

The second count accuses Poe and Fadley of battery leading to Ralph Ennis’ wrongful death, in violation of Virginia law.

The complaint states, “Virginia Code § 8.01-50, et seq., establishes liability for the individuals when their wrongful acts result in the death of another person. At all relevant times, both Defendants had a duty to use only the amount of force necessary in subduing Mr. Ennis.

“The extensive injuries suffered by Mr. Ennis demonstrate the excessive force used to subdue a person who was complying with verbal commands, appeared elderly and confused, and posed no immediate threat to others.

“These actions constitute a battery under Virginia law. As a direct and proximate result of the Defendants battery against Ralph Ennis, Mr. Ennis suffered the injuries described above, resulting in his death.”

The complaint notes that Ralph Ennis was traveling southbound on Winchester Road and passed Warren County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Christopher Pontious, who was operating stationary radar, at approximately 1:20 a.m. on April 2.

Pontious reported that Ennis was traveling 63 mph in a 55-mph zone and that Ennis’ vehicle was swaying from side to side in its lane and had a problem with a taillight.

“Deputy Pontious radioed in that he was attempting to stop a vehicle and it had slowed down but was continuing towards Front Royal. After Deputy Pontious reported that Mr. Ennis passed several opportunities to pull over, he activated his vehicle siren. In reaction, Mr. Ennis slowed his vehicle to around 35 mph, but continued southbound towards Front Royal,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit cites events recorded by Pontious’ body camera; Deputy Pontious activated his body camera while following Mr. Ennis’ vehicle.

“Shortly after Deputy Pontius activated his siren, Mr. Ennis turned his vehicle into the parking lot of the Royal Farms gas station, located directly off Winchester Road at 260 Crooked Run Road, Front Royal, Virginia 22630.

“Mr. Ennis’ vehicle drove through the Royal Farms parking lot to an adjoining 7-11 parking lot, located at 251 Crooked Run Plaza, Front Royal, Virginia 22630, and pulled into a parking space.

“Deputy Pontious pulled up behind Mr. Ennis’ vehicle – blocking it in. He turned off his vehicle siren, but left the vehicle blue lights activated. Deputy Pontious exited his vehicle and began commanding for Mr. Ennis to “step out of the car,“ the lawsuit states.

The plaintiff’s filing continues, “Attempting to comply, Mr. Ennis then began to exit.  However, he had only slightly opened his driver side door when Canine Officer Sergeant Gregory shouted a conflicting command of “Driver stay in the car! Follow our commands!” and notified Mr. Ennis of the presence of a canine officer, adding that “if you do not follow our commands, you will get bit!” At this point, Mr. Ennis started to close his door.

“Another officer on the scene then commanded for Mr. Ennis to “Get out of the car!” and “Get your hands up!” the complaint attests. At this point Mr. Ennis slowly opened his driver side door. Deputy Pontious then commanded for Mr. Ennis to “step out of the car!”

Mr. Ennis stepped out of his vehicle appearing “visibly confused and disoriented,” the complaint maintains.

Ralph Ennis tries to make sense of conflicting orders he is receiving from deputies on the scene of his April 2 traffic stop. Photos from WCSO Deputy Christopher Pontious body-cam footage filed with Ennis family lawsuit

“Deputy Pontious ordered Mr. Ennis to “face away from me,” “face 7-11,” and “to turn around!” while pointing behind Mr. Ennis. Mr. Ennis, who appeared to not hear or was generally confused by the multiple and sometimes conflicting commands, began to slowly walk away from his vehicle towards Deputy Pontious while holding his vehicle keys in his right hand,” the complaint states.  Mr. Ennis continued to appear confused and disoriented, but complied with Deputy Pontious’ command to turn around and began walking back to the rear of his vehicle.

The complaint continues, “Deputy Pontious then ordered Mr. Ennis to “drop your keys!” and Mr. Ennis responded by turning around to face Deputy Pontious. In the video, Mr. Ennis appears to mouth the word “What?”

“At this time, Defendant Poe quickly rushed Mr. Ennis from behind, and without announcing his presence or giving Mr. Ennis any verbal command, violently grabbed Mr. Ennis and slammed Mr. Ennis’ face and body into the rear of Mr. Ennis’ truck.

“Mr. Ennis screamed out in a panic, “Wait a minute!” as the force of Defendant Poe violently slamming him into the vehicle caused Mr. Ennis’ baseball cap to fly off his head.”

The Warren County Sheriff’s Office official press release regarding this incident stated that: “Mr. Ennis continued failure to comply with the lawful orders to stop, resulted in a WSCO deputy approaching Mr. Ennis from behind, and grabbing his arms in an attempt to control Ennis and place him under arrest. The deputy continued to give him commands to stop resisting, drop the keys and place his hand behind his back as Mr. Ennis was escorted several feet away to the rear of his pickup truck,” the complaint states.

The complaint continues, “However, Deputy Pontious’ body camera footage clearly shows that Mr. Ennis was visibly confused and attempting to comply with all commands when Defendant Poe gave no verbal command or warning and slammed, not “escorted,” Mr. Ennis into the rear of his vehicle, causing significant injuries.”

“As Defendant Poe violently pressed Mr. Ennis against the rear of his vehicle, Defendant Fadley immediately rushed in from the side, and without announcing his presence or giving any verbal command, violently pushed and tackled Mr. Ennis and Defendant Poe to the pavement behind the vehicle,” the complaint says.

After having his head slammed into the cab of his truck by Tyler Poe, the first deputy to make physical contact with him, a second deputy, Zachary Fadley, charged the scene and took both Ennis and Deputy Poe to the parking lot pavement with Ennis on the bottom. Below, a pool of blood left where Ennis’ head hit the pavement.

“As Mr. Ennis was pushed and tackled towards the pavement, his legs were caught on his vehicle’s protruding tow hitch as he tumbled sideways with Officer Fadley’s entire body weight on top of him. Defendant Fadley issued his first verbal command – “Get on the ground!” –as Mr. Ennis’ head slams into the pavement,” the complaint maintains.

“While Defendants handcuffed Mr. Ennis on the ground, Mr. Ennis can be heard on Deputy Pontious’ body camera footage frantically pleading for help and crying out in extreme pain.”

The complaint included still images from the body camera to show Mr. Ennis on the ground directly after sustaining injuries to his face, head, and extremities, as well as the extent of the bleeding from his injuries. They are too graphic for publication.

The complaint continues, “Front Royal Police Department Corporal R.D. Lowery, who was also dispatched to the scene of the incident, arrived in time to observe the Defendants encounter with Mr. Ennis. In his report, Corporal Lowery (who was farther away from Mr. Ennis than the Defendants) described his initial impression of Mr. Ennis as appearing “elderly and confused.”

The complaint further states, “Corporal Lowery described his observations as follows: “[t]he Deputy (Defendant Poe) slammed the male into the camper top face first. I observed the male spit something out on the pavement just below his body. Another Deputy (Defendant Fadley) came from the side of the male while the Deputy had his hands behind his back. The male was pushed over but his legs caught the hitch on the back of the truck.”

The lawsuit continues, “As Corporal Lowery left the scene of the incident, his body camera footage captured him stating “that was f***king unjust and f***ing un-f***ing called for” and “Jesus Christ, oh that’s going to be …” before the video cuts out. Corporal Lowery’s subjective impression of the situation clearly demonstrates he believed that there was an excessive use of force against Mr. Ennis.”

After the altercation, Mr. Ennis was handcuffed, searched, and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) were called to the scene to tend to Mr. Ennis’ injuries. The complaint states that deputies found no weapons on Mr. Ennis.

The complaint continues, “There is no factual basis within the materials to indicate that Mr. Ennis gave any of the officers reason to believe he was armed. Mr. Ennis did not act in a threatening manner in any way. On the contrary, Mr. Ennis at all times presented as an elderly man who appeared confused and disoriented but attempting to comply with various commands in a disconcerting environment. “

Records indicate that Mr. Ennis was “completely sober at the time of the incident and the officer-issued breathalyzer rest returned a result of 0.00.”

Mr. Ennis was transported by an EMS (Emergency Medical Service) unit to Warren Memorial Hospital for treatment at approximately 2:15 a.m. The complaint states that: “Mr. Ennis presented at Warren Memorial Hospital with significant head trauma. Hospital staff reported that Mr. Ennis was “completely confused. He does not know where he is. He is not able to tell me the name of his son. He does not recall the altercation that led to his injury and hospitalization. He is not able to provide any further history.”

Emergency Department physicians diagnosed Ennis with a traumatic brain injury caused by the fall, specifically “a bleed in his brain known as a subarachnoid hemorrhage in the left parietal and occipital lobes” the complaint maintains.

Ennis was then transferred from Warren Memorial Hospital to Winchester Medical Center for the severity of his trauma, arriving at approximately 6:30 a.m.  He was then diagnosed with “terminal intracerebral hemorrhage” the lawsuit maintains. His health continued to decline at the Winchester Hospital and his family opted to change his level of care to comfort or palliative care. Mr. Ennis was then transferred to Blue Ridge Hospice on April 14. 2022, for end-of-life care.  He died from his injuries on April 15, 2022, the complaint states.

The investigation into the incident was referred to the Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney office by Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney John Bell.

Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth wrote in a Tuesday night email to Royal Examiner that: “The investigation into this matter is on-going and therefore we cannot publicly comment on it.  The case has been reassigned and is a high priority for this office. I do not have a time frame for when the investigation might be completed.”

Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth

The Assistant Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney assigned to investigate the case, Teresa Polinske, recently resigned from Ashworth’s staff, which caused the investigation to lag until it was reassigned.

Deputy Poe continues to work at the Warren County Sheriff’s Office, though Deputy Fadley is no longer employed there. No information was provided regarding the circumstances of Fadley’s departure, other than it was referred to as a “personnel issue.” Both deputies were initially reassigned off the patrol unit, to desk or other non-interactional with the public duties in the wake of the Ennis incident.

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