Deborah Heinrich found the wallet lying on a pump at a Casper gas station.
She took it home and tried to contact the owner. When that failed, she called the police. Officers demanded she turn over the wallet, and when she refused, they jailed her for misdemeanor interference.
Heinrich, a grandmother from Natrona County, maintains she did the right thing by refusing to relinquish the wallet before speaking with its owner.
“It’s been hard,” she told the Star-Tribune in a January interview. “It is going to continue to be hard ... but it is what’s right. I did the right thing and I believe that.”
Heinrich’s case drew attention from media outlets around the country. It resulted in a mistrial, a court battle, and now, a federal lawsuit.
In court documents filed earlier this year, her attorney claimed police violated Heinrich’s civil rights when they arrested her. However, an attorney for the officers contends their actions were reasonable in light of circumstances.
Heinrich and her attorney, John Robinson, declined to comment on the case. Lawyers for the defendants did not respond to calls seeking comment.
A jury is scheduled to decide the matter next year.
The case began in July 2010 after Heinrich found the wallet, which belonged to a Colorado man named William McCreary.
When she couldn’t find McCreary at the gas station, she took the wallet home and tried unsuccessfully to call him. The next day, she called a police dispatcher and reported the missing property.
Officers called her back, seeking the wallet. She told them she wanted to hear McCreary’s instructions before handing it over.
According to her lawsuit, the officers threatened her with arrest and lied to her about a search warrant they claimed to have. Police claim she was uncooperative on the phone and hung up on them multiple times.
Officers eventually arrived at her rural home. Heinrich says she agreed to turn over the wallet, but an officer arrested her after she told him he wasn’t welcome inside her house. Authorities claim she berated officers after they asked her again to retrieve the wallet.
Instead of resolving the matter, Heinrich’s subsequent trial only caused more confusion. After the prosecution presented its case, her attorney, John Robinson, made a motion for acquittal. Instead, Natrona County Circuit Court Judge Michael Patchen declared a mistrial, explaining he wanted to give the prosecution and himself time to research the legal issues raised by Robinson.
After the prosecution decided to pursue a second trial, Robinson asked a court to toss the case on double jeopardy grounds.
The subsequent court proceedings continued well into this year. Robinson argued the double jeopardy provision in the U.S Constitution barred his client from being tried again for the same offense. Prosecutor Kara Crawford insisted the court used reasonable discretion in declaring a mistrial and noted that neither she nor the judge acted in bad faith.
In June, Natrona County District Judge Thomas Sullins dismissed the case against Heinrich. He agreed that the double jeopardy provision prevented prosecutors from trying Heinrich a second time.
Afterward, Robinson released a statement declaring the “nightmare prosecution” over for Heinrich.
“She looks forward to moving on with her life, exploring ways to repair the harms caused by her arrest and prosecution, and supporting law enforcement reforms that prevent other well-intended citizens from being unnecessarily arrested and prosecuted,” he said.
District Attorney Michael Blonigen defended the officers’ actions and the decision to pursue a second trial. The officers, he said at the time, would have been criticized if they had left the wallet with Heinrich and something happened to McCreary’s money.
“I think the police were caught between a rock and hard spot,” Blonigen said.
The case didn’t end there. In August, Robinson filed a federal lawsuit that accused the police of violating Heinrich’s civil rights when they entered her home without a warrant and arrested her. It further alleged the Casper Police Department’s policy to require people turn over lost property to officers was unconstitutional.
Two of the officers — Sgt. Steve Freel and Officer Joseph Moody — are named in the suit, along with Tom Pagel, who was the chief of police at the time. The city of Casper is also a defendant.
In court documents, an attorney for the officers denied Heinrich had been unlawfully arrested and jailed. A lawyer for the city, meanwhile, also denied the allegations and claimed the lawsuit misstated the Police Department’s policies.
The defendants scored a minor victory in November when Heinrich’s attorney conceded that too much time had passed to pursue one of her claims — false imprisonment. But several other allegations, including unlawful seizure and negligence, persist against the officers and the city.
It’s been a year and a half since Heinrich first found the wallet, and her case could still be months from a resolution.
The trial is set for Sept. 4.