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Family of slain Ohio police chief sues judges who let killer out of jail early

The family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the judges and officers who oversaw the case of the man who fatally shot the LEO in 2017

Bethany Bruner
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

KIRKERSVILLE, Ohio — The family of slain Kirkersville Police Chief Steven Eric DiSario has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the judges and probation officers who oversaw the case of the man who shot and killed DiSario in the line of duty in 2017.

DiSario’s widow, Aryn; his mother, Robin Walker; and four of DiSario’s six children filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Licking County Common Pleas Court.

It names Municipal Court Judges Michael Higgins and David Stansbury, Municipal Court probation officers Jessica Massa, Karrie Rice, Steven Crawmer and Vanessa Stalnaker, as well as the Licking County Municipal Court and the city of Newark, as defendants.

The suit says the judges’ and probation officers’ “willful, wanton and reckless” actions led to the death of DiSario, who had responded to the Pine Kirk Care Center on May 12, 2017, on a report of a man with a firearm. DiSario had been chief of police in the village less than a month when he was killed by Thomas Hartless, who had gone to the facility because his estranged girlfriend worked there.

Nurse Marlina Medrano — Hartless’ estranged girlfriend — and nurse’s aide Cindy Krantz also were killed by Hartless before he killed himself.

Hartless was on probation at the time of the shooting for three convictions of domestic violence from March 2017. He had been released early from jail, serving less than three weeks of a 90-day sentence imposed by Higgins.

On May 26, 2017, about two weeks after the shooting, Higgins and the probation department released a report showing that Crawmer failed to properly review the case files and improperly recommended early release for Hartless, which was approved by Higgins without a hearing in open court.

The lawsuit also says that the probation department and Higgins failed to hold “any meaningful review” before releasing Hartless and did not properly assess him when he appeared for his first meeting with a probation officer.

After his release, Hartless continued to have contact with Medrano, and when probation officers Massa and Rice learned of new allegations of domestic violence and the filing of a protection order by Medrano in early May, they failed to take proper action, as did Stalnaker, according to the internal review cited in the lawsuit.

All four probation officers were suspended without pay as a result of that internal Municipal Court investigation.

The lawsuit cites these problems, as well as failing to physically locate Hartless — instead sending a letter to an address that had not been verified as his residence — as leading to the death of DiSario.

The lawsuit also says that Higgins had personally warned Medrano of the danger Hartless posed to her, but did not ensure her safety when he released Hartless.

By admitting their own failures in the handling of the case, the lawsuit said the probation department, Municipal Court and Higgins were acknowledging their part in the deaths of Krantz, Medrano and DiSario.

The lawsuit names the city of Newark because it pays the salaries of the probation officers at the Municipal Court.

Higgins, the probation department and attorney Nathan Painter, who is representing DiSario’s family, did not return calls seeking comment.


©2019 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)