About 45 people appeared in Bryan Municipal Court on Monday morning for consideration of jury duty. After about two hours, eight jurors and one alternate juror were selected as the jury for misdemeanor charges against Williams County Sheriff Steve Towns.
The jury, comprised of five women and three men (the alternate juror is a woman), began hearing the case against Towns shortly before 1 p.m.
The charges against Towns originally stemmed from his online release, in October 2018, of more than 600 pages of investigative documents related to child abuse, and his and his department’s investigation of child abuse reporting and follow-up of specific cases involving personnel of Bryan City Schools and the Williams County Department of Job and Family Services — specifically, family services personnel and procedures.
Columbus-area attorneys Mark R. Weaver and Ryan M. Stubenrauch were appointed special prosecutors in the case.
Towns had originally faced five misdemeanor charges. Four of the charges against him stem from his release of investigative information online. Another misdemeanor charge alleges dissemination of case information of a child abuse case to a parent not associated with the cases in question.
In court on Monday, Weaver told the jury that Towns was being tried on two counts only.
Count one relates to the sheriff’s online dissemination of information related specifically to confidential reports of alleged child abuse and a mandatory report made by an emergency room nurse at a Hicksville hospital, concerning suspected abuse of an infant in June 2016.
This count also included an allegation of public dissemination of a confidential report of child abuse made by a nurse from the Defiance Regional Medical Center, concerning suspected sexual abuse of a 5-year-old child in November 2013.
Count two stems from Towns sharing some of the information relevant to the June 2016 report and investigation of child abuse with someone not authorized to receive the information — a parent with a complaint against child protective services in Williams County, that took place at the sheriff’s offices on July 23, 2019.
Three other misdemeanor charges filed against Towns were dismissed at the request of the special prosecutor’s office.
The state called 10 witnesses who testified during the afternoon.
The first witness for the state was Diana Hoover, a social services professional who worked for Hancock County Child Services for 30 years. Hoover testified about memorandums of understanding signed by county agencies, and inter-county agencies.
Hoover testified that the agreement Towns signed for the Williams County Sheriff’s Office included language that would prohibit the release of confidential information in child abuse cases. On cross examination by defense attorney Stevin Groth, she read a section of the MOU that stated “except for reasonable use in professional judgment.”
Groth asked Hoover if that meant at the sheriff’s “discretion.” Hoover responded, “Yes.”
The state’s second witness was Pam Hablawetz, who was the mandatory reporter of the suspected child abuse case at the Hicksville ER in 2016. Hablawetz’s first name, Pam, was left unredacted in the materials Towns released online in October 2018.
Hablawetz testified that she was a third-shift ER nurse in Hicksville when a child suffering from suspected abuse was brought in by her mother days after, as the mother reported, the child has slipped from her mother’s grasp while in the shower. Hablawetz said she called the Williams County Sheriff’s Office to report the suspected abuse.
On cross examination, Groth noted that the very next month the baby was taken to a hospital in Lima, where the baby died of injuries sustained by abuse. Later he added that the parents were found guilty in a Marion County Court, and that all the information related to the case was available to the public — Google, newspaper and radio reports, and court records.
Groth later stated that three years after the fact, there was no confidential information released by the sheriff.
Deputy Ben Baldwin, of the Williams County Sheriff’s Office, was called to the stand as he was the deputy who took the report from Hablawetz. Baldwin testified to the validity of redacted pages of the online release, to the original unredacted report. “That appears to be everything I would write,” he said.
Haley Schmidt, deputy clerk at the Williams County Sheriff’s Office, testified that she had scanned and transmitted the documents that the sheriff had directed be placed on his website — transmitted to an outside web administrator.
On cross examination, Schmidt testified that, at the request of the sheriff, she notified that website administrator to take down the site after the sheriff had been informed that several pages of the 600-plus page post had not been fully redacted.
Lisa Nye, deputy clerk in the sheriff’s office, testified that she had redacted all of the files that originated in the sheriff’s office, but told Sheriff Towns that she didn’t know how to deal with other agency’s documents.
Nye testified that she didn’t touch other agency files. “Rule of thumb, if you don’t create, you can’t release,” she said.
Nye testified that she didn’t see the files that were placed online after she gave them back to Towns, but she said he may have missed something on the redactions.
“You don’t miss these things on purpose,” Groth asked on cross examination. “No,” Nye replied.
Williams County Sgt. Andy Collert testified about placement of the availability of the documents on the sheriff’s Facebook page. He posted the notice on Facebook, and about 24 hours later deleted it from the page after it was discovered that redactions had been missed.
Craig Meyers of Pioneer testified that shortly after the online posting his wife, who was mentioned in online released material, told him that the documents were online shortly after they were posted.
“Official records showed our name and address,” he said.
Towns’ defense noted that the document in question, while part of the online release, was part of a case heard in Bryan Municipal Court, where Meyers’ wife was named a defendant in 2016.
Meyers’ response was, “I’ll take your word for it.”
The last three prosecution witnesses of the day were Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents Ryan Emahiser, Supervisor Jeffry Cook, and Supervisor David Pauly.
Pauly testified to the validity of taped recordings of Towns speaking about elements of the online release. In one short audio clip presented to the jury, Towns told Pauly that Williams County Commissioners had requested a report of his investigation of Bryan City Schools and the department of Job and Family Services. Towns said he put it on the website so anyone who wanted a copy could access it as a public records request.
In the recording Towns said, “It didn’t get completely redacted.” “I missed a couple of names.” And, “I wrote a letter of apology to the parents…”
On cross examination, Pauly acknowledged that Towns didn’t know that he was being recorded; that Towns wasn’t evasive and wasn’t arrogant during the interview.
BCI Special Agent Chris Hamberger recorded two additional interviews — two clips were presented to the jury. In one brief audio clip, Towns can be heard saying he didn’t know exactly what was put online. He said he handed the report to his clerk, and put it online, because it was a report to the board of commissioners.
“You instructed Haley to put those 600-400 pages (online),” Hamberger is heard asking Towns. “Yep, yep,” was Towns’ recorded response.
BCI Special Agent Ryan Emahiser was the last state witness for the day.
Emahiser introduced a short video of a conversation that Towns had in July with Jennifer King, a parent with numerous complaints about the job child protective services is doing in Williams County.
The video was produced in an interview room at the sheriff’s department, and the sheriff was not aware of it. According to Emahiser, the video came to his attention through the Williams County Prosecutor’s Office.
The video presented to the jury shows Towns referring to the 2016 infant abuse case, saying that his office called JFS twice about this child and the agency, “said, release him to his mom.”
In his cross of the BCI agent, Groth noted that the tape was recorded on July 23, 2019, “three years after the baby in this case was dead.”
Groth again noted that the information Towns was speaking about was available though public sources — courts and media.
Emahiser responded that he was asked to look into the release of confidential information, and “I just know these were JFS reports.”
Prosecutors rested their case at about 4 p.m.
The trial is scheduled to pick up at 9 a.m. on Tuesday.