East Lansing City Council member Lisa Babcock has demanded from City Manager George Lahanas and East Lansing Police Department Chief Kim Johnson accountability regarding a case in which ELPD issued a press release about an alleged sexual assault – including the name and mugshot of the accused man – only to have the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office completely drop the charges weeks later, once prosecutors finally got recordings of the events from ELPD.
Babcock has questioned why the charges were brought, given her review of police reports and evidence; why the press release went out with the claim that officers “stopped the assault” (as if the man had been found guilty); and whether racial, ethnic, religious, or other biases played a role in the extraordinary press release.
The originally-alleged assault happened in December 2020. ELPD issued a press release two days later naming the accused — a man who is “an American man of Arabic descent” according to his attorney — and including his mugshot.
Recognizing at the time that the press release was highly unusual – ELPD does not typically issue releases like this, including mugshots of people in custody – ELi asked Deputy Police Chief Steve Gonzalez in December to explain the choices that went into the release. Gonzalez told ELi, “This was a significant, and particularly violent, incident that warranted a press release.”
The man accused (who ELi is not naming because the charges were dropped) was charged with crimes that could have led to a sentence of life in prison. According to his attorney, Christopher Wickman of the Nichols Law Firm, the man spent around two weeks in jail without bond, prior to bond being set at $25,000 and posted.
The charges – which had included first-degree criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping, and felonious assault – were all dropped in February by Judge Andrea Larkin at the request of the office of Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon.
The decision by prosecutors to dismiss the charges came after prosecutors finally got to review recordings of the incident, including material captured on the phone of the accused and police bodycams. Siemon has spoken to how her office is limited by what police turn over to prosecutors.
“After reviewing the video, I determined that, in conjunction with the other evidence in the case, the allegations made against the accused were not supported by the evidence found in the video/audio,” Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Sarah Pulda told ELi over email.
Why it took weeks for key evidence to get from ELPD to the prosecutors is not fully clear. Babcock says she has gotten conflicting answers from the police and prosecutor’s office about what caused the hold up.
Two weeks after the charges were dropped, Babcock filed a formal complaint, which ELi obtained late last week via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Material released to ELi about the complaint listed as co-complainants Chief Johnson and a person whose name was redacted. Other unredacted material provided allowed ELi to identify the author of the chief complaint memo as very likely being City Council Member Lisa Babcock, and Babcock confirmed she was the author when asked by ELi.
The materials released under FOIA show Babcock’s complaint to have been “sustained” by police investigators, meaning Babcock’s complaint was found justified. The complaint was noted by ELPD as a request for “an investigation into the truthfulness of the report completed by Sgt. Jeff Thomas” on this incident.
ELPD has not responded to questions about what exactly the investigation found and what actions resulted from the finding of the complaint being “sustained.”
Babcock, an attorney with years of experience in criminal law, told ELi she generally found it odd that a prosecutor would make the about-face from pursuing the most aggressive criminal sexual conduct (CSC) charges to eschewing the case. So, she did some digging and eventually wrote her complaint memo to Lahanas and Johnson.
Babcock’s complaint focused on what she identifies as problems with the “truthfulness” of claims made by Sgt. Thomas about the incident in December. Babcock cited the fact that out of the four officers to witness what happened, only one officer — Thomas — stated in his narrative report that he witnessed sexual intercourse between the alleged perpetrator and victim as police entered the room.
Babcock wrote that claims based on Thomas’ account were “apparently released to the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office and to the media without internal challenge or verification.”
Babcock directly quoted the police report narratives of Thomas and the three other officers — Jason Cotton, Jose Viera, and Jake Cortez — in her memo. She said that Thomas is the only officer to make reference to sexual intercourse occurring when police arrived.
In his narrative, Thomas wrote that, upon entering the bedroom, he immediately observed “what appeared to be a w/f [white female] laying on her back/side, as well as what appeared to be an Arabic male who was having sexual intercourse with the w/f.”
Narrative accounts from the other three officers describe the woman as being partially dressed and quickly leaving the room. There is no corroboration, in their accounts, of Thomas’s claim of active sexual intercourse when police arrived.
Additionally, ELPD Detective Traci Sperry’s narrative report written after watching and listening to the accused man’s phone recordings — a report written more than two weeks after the arrest, once a warrant had been executed and MSUPD had extracted the recordings and sent them back to ELPD — did not make any mention of active sexual intercourse occurring when police arrived.
“I have my questions based on what I read in the police report,” Babcock told ELi. “And quite frankly, how anyone could have read the police report in its entirety and not reached the same questions is beyond me. And how the City could be comfortable publishing a news release without seeing the glaring contradictions and addressing them is beyond me.”
In her memo, Babcock excoriated the decision to issue that press release, writing that the City had “outrageously harmed a city resident” in how the matter had been handled.
She also wrote that, along with being prejudicial to the accused, the press release was “not factually supported by the ELPD report that was transmitted” to the prosecutor’s office.
On the same February day that Babcock filed her complaint, in an extraordinary move, Thomas filed a FOIA request to the East Lansing City Clerk seeking to see Council’s emails with the City Manager and Police Chief over a decision to cancel an ELPD Awards Ceremony. Thomas made the request using his police department street and email addresses.
Thomas has not responded to a request for comment for this story.
For those who have experienced sexual assault or relationship violence, these resources are available in our community.