COLUMBIA — A local private investigator has taken up an unusual cause: proclaiming the innocence of a man who has already pleaded guilty.
Ricky Gurley has opened up his firm's private investigative files on a Sept. 28, 2009, incident in which police said area car salesman David Riley, 31, tried to rob an undercover police officer at a gas station and then resisted arrest.
The case concluded Aug. 9 in the 13th Circuit Court of Boone County when Riley took a plea deal of two years in prison for a felony charge of resisting arrest.
Gurley, whom Riley hired to investigate the case, said his client encountered an overzealous officer and that the attempted robbery charge never held any water.
"I’m not looking for recognition — I could care less," Gurley said. "The citizens of Columbia need to know what happened here."
According to video recordings and witness statements, Riley, along with local woman Desiree Kemp went to buy beer at the Ultra Mart at 2102 Paris Road. Riley and Kemp were leaving the store when Columbia Police Department Officer Chris Hessenflow started watching Riley. Hessenflow was working undercover with a teenager to see if the gas station was selling alcohol to minors.
Video surveillance from the convenience store, provided by Gurley, shows Riley standing at the passenger door of his car as Hessenflow walks toward the entrance of the store. When Riley noticed Hessenflow looking at him, police said Riley cussed at the officer and demanded his wallet — a claim Gurley said is ridiculous.
"How do you rob a guy from 15 feet away?" Gurley said. "What do you say: ‘Throw me your wallet’?"
The store's surveillance video shows Hessenflow drawing his gun on Riley. Then, Riley gets on his knees with his hands behind his back, facing away from Hessenflow.
Although the video is partly obscured, Hessenflow can be seen kicking Riley to the ground. That, Gurley said, led an angered Riley to resist arrest when more officers arrived on the scene. Gurley also said Riley was not handcuffed soon enough; handcuffs could have prevented at least some of Riley's resistance to officers, as well as some of his injuries.
After Riley was bailed out of jail, his wife Lucaya Riley said one of his eyes was filled with blood and that doctors at University Hospital discovered a chipped bone in his elbow.
Prosecutors charged David Riley with attempted robbery and resisting arrest for a felony.
Because the audio recorder worn by Hessenflow during the incident did not clearly capture what happened, the attempted robbery charge hinged on the officer's statement that Riley demanded his wallet.
The sound on the recording "is very very clear in all aspects — except for the incident where my client asked for the wallet," Riley's attorney Adam Dowling said.
Dowling's theory: Riley said, "Take a (expletive) walk," but Hessenflow heard, "I'm gonna take your (expletive) wallet."
Kemp, who was sitting in the car at the time, said Riley didn't try to rob Hessenflow, according to a statement given to Gurley's staff.
The teenager who was working undercover with Hessenflow was also wearing a recording device, but the audio is missing from police files, Dowling said.
Dowling attempted to have the case thrown out on those grounds, filing a motion that alleged destruction of evidence by the police department. But Dowling said Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Brent Nelson then threatened to withdraw a plea deal that would let Riley escape trial for attempted robbery by allowing him to plead guilty to the felony resisting arrest charge.
Dowling said Nelson also threatened to increase Riley's potential sentence to 22 years by categorizing him as a "prior persistent offender." Riley was convicted of sexual assault in Texas when he was 19.
Nelson did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Lucaya Riley said the case had dried up all the family's resources. She sold her truck, her couches and her children's furniture to pay the bills. The couple could not afford to pay Dowling to go to trial. They had to take the deal, she said.
"I lost everything," she said. "I would have loved to taken it to court."
Lucaya Riley lives in Austin, Texas, in a one-bedroom apartment with her father and her three children, ages 2, 4 and 8.
Both the Columbia Police Department and the Columbia Police Officers Association issued statements Monday condemning the release of "misleading" and "erroneous" information. In its release, the department reiterated that Riley asked for Hessenflow's wallet and also said Hessenflow kicked Riley to the ground for being uncooperative.
The release from the officers association was more direct.
"Make no mistake, David Riley pled (sic) guilty to felony resisting arrest because he was guilty of this offense," the release stated. "We are confident that he would have also been convicted of robbery had this case gone to trial."
Neither release addressed the missing audio from the teenager's recording device.
Dowling and Riley filed a complaint in connection with the incident. It is under review by the department, said Sgt. Lloyd Simons of the internal affairs unit.
Riley faces a charge of third-degree assault on a law enforcement officer in Greene County for a May incident in which he flicked a cigarette at a police officer who had entered his house after Riley had an argument with his brother, said Lt. David Millsap of the Springfield Police Department.
Even though Riley lost the right to appeal when he took the plea deal, Gurley has decided to speak out now that the case is concluded. He acknowledges that Riley isn't a saint, but he said the case is still worth discussion.
"David (Riley) is not what you would call a real personable fella," Gurley said. "He’s a complete jerk. He really is … but there’s nothing illegal about being a jerk.”
He said he generally thinks the police department does a good job but decided to speak out because it was one of the most egregious acts he had seen an officer commit.
"The beating that night could have killed David Riley," he said.