Friday, April 28, 2006

Potential lawsuit against county lingers

Former inmate alleges sexual abuse at county jail

Express Staff Writer

Although the Idaho Attorney General's Office earlier this month finished its investigation into the death of former Blaine County jailer Michael Lance, a potential $5 million lawsuit still hangs over the heads of county officials because of allegations against him.

Former jail inmate Gretchen Biddle, of Hailey, has alleged inappropriate sexual contact and sexual abuse by Lance prior to his death last August. She filed a tort claim against Blaine County in September seeking $5 million in damages, the maximum amount allowable under Idaho law.

Officials are uncertain whether Biddle will file an actual lawsuit, but have hired Boise attorney Michael Kane to handle the Biddle tort claim as well as one filed last summer by convicted Bellevue murderer Sarah M. Johnson, who has alleged she was raped while incarcerated at the jail.

A tort claim is a legally required prerequisite for potential lawsuits against governmental entities. Under Idaho law, the person filing the claim has two years after "the date the claim arose" to file an actual lawsuit.

Biddle's claim arose between June and August last summer, when she alleges "inappropriate sexual contact" with Lance, who was founded dead on a wooded hillside in Hailey on Aug. 25, 2005.

The attorney general's office concluded Lance died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. At the time, he was under investigation by the Magic Valley Critical Incident Task Force because of allegations first raised by Biddle on Aug. 15 of that year.

The attorney general's investigation was unable to determine if Lance had sex with Biddle, but found that he was "engaged in inappropriate behavior" with her and other female inmates at the county jail.

Biddle alleges "wrongful conduct of the Blaine County sheriff, his employees and agents" for not protecting her from sexual abuse. She claims their conduct was "criminal, willful, reckless and grossly negligent."

The Blaine County Sheriff's Office declined to comment Thursday.

Biddle claims she suffered severe emotional distress and is seeking damages for medical expenses and pain and suffering.

Biddle, still under Blaine County jurisdiction, is presently being held for probation violation and unlawful entry convictions at the South Boise Women's Correction Center, a state minimum-security facility near Kuna. Her sentence ends in July 2008, though her case is periodically reviewed to determine her eligibility for probation.

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