Still no apology for Lakewood couple after 20 hours in jail for crime they did not commit
(Leila Atassi) LAKEWOOD, Ohio — Charles Geiger might owe his freedom to a few moments of grainy footage, captured by video surveillance cameras mounted in the most providential of locations.
Footage from a Lakewood restaurant proved the prominent businessman and former school board member was enjoying dinner with his daughter about the time Cleveland police say he and his SUV struck an off-duty police sergeant directing traffic outside a downtown Cleveland parking garage.
And another video from the garage itself is said to have caught the altercation and shows obvious differences between the Geiger vehicle and the true suspect’s SUV.
But the Geigers and those close to them say Cleveland police conducted little to no investigation before arresting Geiger, 59, and his wife, Patricia, 58, at their Kenneth Avenue home the night of March 1.
And they say the phalanx of officers that descended upon the middle-aged couple refused to investigate their explanations before hauling them to the Cleveland City Jail — where they spent 20 hours for a crime they did not commit.
Police have all but admitted they had the wrong guy.
Cuyahoga County prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss felonious assault and other charges against Geiger on a police investigator’s recommendation more than two weeks after the arrest. And police reportedly have sent the parking garage video to NASA to be enhanced in the hopes of getting a clear look at the license plate.
But police spokespeople have declined to comment on the misidentification, citing a still-open investigation in the case.
During a recent interview at their lakefront home, the Geigers said they won’t hold their breath in anticipation of an apology for the mix-up. But they wondered aloud what happens to people wrongly accused of crimes — and unlike them don’t have the support system or resources to clear their name.
A Plain Dealer analysis done last year discovered that in the past decade more than 350 criminal defendants went to trial only to have judges throw out the case before it reached a jury because there was never enough evidence to gain a conviction.
The Geigers believe they might have been among those tangled in the criminal justice system for months, but for the video evidence and a team of experienced attorneys.
“This shouldn’t happen to anybody,” Geiger said. “The way they accused us, arrested us, incarcerated us and let it drag on despite what could have been a relatively simple investigation to find the truth. Maybe this is our way of saying they shouldn’t get away with it.”
A night at the theater ends dramatically
The evening of March 1 started out quietly enough.
Patricia Geiger and six friends headed downtown to see “Shrek: The Musical” at Playhouse Square. The theater outings are a longstanding tradition among the women, she said. Divided in two cars, they parked where they usually do — in a garage near East 13th Street and Chester Avenue.
Patricia Geiger parked her black Acura SUV in a spot marked “reserved.” She said they were not authorized to park there but had been doing so for years without ever being ordered by a parking attendant to move.
After the show ended about 10 p.m., the women parted ways. Patricia Geiger, accompanied by two of her friends, said she exited the garage through the Dodge Court gate, headed west to East 13th Street, followed Chester Avenue to East 9th Street and got on Interstate 90 Westbound.
When she arrived home, she said goodbye to her friends, went inside and greeted her husband, who had just returned from dinner with their youngest daughter, Christine, 28.
Charles Geiger, who owns Geiger’s Clothing and Sports on Detroit Avenue, left the shop with his daughter about 8 p.m. to eat next door at Melt Bar & Grilled.
Geiger can clearly be seen on the restaurant’s video surveillance footage, walking through the restaurant and leaving with his daughter just before 9 p.m. to return to the store to close the registers.
Back at the Geiger house, Patricia Geiger was changing into her pajamas when she noticed a Lakewood police cruiser parked outside and an officer staring up at the house. She speculated someone in the neighborhood might have reported a break-in, and she ran downstairs to alert her husband.
The officer told Charles Geiger that he was short on details, but Cleveland police had indicated that the Geiger SUV had been involved in an incident downtown. Cleveland police were on their way.
Eight officers arrived just after 12:30 a.m. and told Geiger he matched the description of the driver who struck Sgt. Arthur Gorsek outside the garage and fled the scene. They said that at about 10:20 p.m., Gorsek directed a man in a black SUV to turn right onto Chester Avenue. The driver complied but then made an illegal U-turn. When Gorsek tried to stop him, the vehicle took off, knocking Gorsek to the street.
The police report stated that Gorsek had been involved in an altercation earlier in the night with the driver over parking in a reserved space, and the sergeant was certain it was the same vehicle that had hit him. He had noted the license plate, which traced back to Patricia Geiger.
Charles Geiger, who by then had called his attorney, James Oliver, tried to explain where he had been. He suggested the officers stop by Melt and speak to the staff who would corroborate his story. He said his employees at the store also would confirm that he helped close up that night and had not left until well after 9 p.m.
His daughter said the officers asked for her earlier whereabouts, and she tried to offer up a receipt as proof of the meal and the time. But the officer waved off the evidence, she said. And the police report from that night does not take note of Christine Geiger’s explanation or even her presence at the house.
The officers seemed disinterested in investigating their claims, the family said. They only bullied Geiger and repeatedly told him how much trouble he faced for such a serious offense.
When Gorsek arrived on the scene to identify Geiger, the officers forced Geiger into a police spotlight in the front yard. Gorsek identified him from the backseat of a cruiser, and Geiger was arrested for felonious assault, resisting arrest and possessing criminal tools.
Patricia Geiger, who Gorsek identified as the passenger, tried to explain that her friends would confirm that she, not her husband, was driving the car that night, and that she did not exit the garage onto Chester Avenue or see any officers.
Cleveland police arrested her for obstructing justice. A male officer let her change out of her pajamas before going downtown, she said. Although he turned his back to allow her some privacy, the officer insisted he stay in the room, Patricia Geiger said.
Waiting for the truth to be revealed
The couple were taken to the Justice Center, where they were booked, searched and separated. Police confiscated the drawstrings from their hooded sweatshirts, cut the tassels from Patricia Geiger’s moccasins and took Charles Geiger’s eyeglasses.
Patricia Geiger said she was at first somewhat relieved to be near the police station, because she assumed police would question them and realize their error. But that opportunity never came.
It was nearly 2 a.m., when they were corralled into cells with others accused of crimes — drug possession, public intoxication, breaking and entering, or domestic violence.
Charles Geiger said he tried to keep to himself as the shouts of out-of-control inmates echoed through the men’s cell block. He caught a few hours of sleep. And when breakfast came at 5 a.m. — a bowl of cereal and milk — he gave his portion to his cell mate as both a gesture of goodwill and a prayer that he would be out of jail in time for breakfast with his family.
Patricia Geiger, who had used her one phone call to comfort her daughter, was handcuffed to two other women until she was released into a room that held about a dozen. A guard detected her fear and handed her a blanket, reassuring her that it was freshly laundered. But it was of little comfort.
After spending a sleepless night in jail, she was crushed to learn she would be held for up to 72 hours for investigation. The case was out of their control. The Geigers could only hope that Charles’ brother, Gordon, was working hard to have them released and that police were busily investigating the couple’s story.
But the morning came and went, and circumstances seemed dismal when they met separately with attorneys, who told them they would have to remain in jail through the afternoon.
Their newly retained defense lawyer William “Bud” Doyle had filed paperwork, demanding police either charge the Geigers or turn them loose. And they had no choice but to wait to find out which it would be.
The couple were finally released at 8:30 p.m. on March 2. Patricia Geiger was not charged with a crime. But her husband was charged in Cleveland Municipal Court with felonious assault, assault and failure to comply with a police officer’s order. He posted $500 bail to be released.
Their daughter, Christine, had tried to make their homecoming comfortable — stocking the kitchen with their favorite foods. And their other children, Charlie, 29, and Elizabeth, 32, flew home in a matter of days from Seattle and Denver respectively to be with their parents.
Later in the week, Patricia Geiger was told she could retrieve her SUV from a Cleveland police impound lot downtown. But when she found the car in the crowded lot, she discovered the driver side window had been left open, and the front seat was blanketed in a snow drift a foot deep. Police also had left the key in the ignition, and the battery was drained.
The Geigers then received a letter from Gorsek’s attorney, demanding the Geiger’s file a claim with their insurance company for Gorsek’s injuries.
Doyle supplied police with the Melt receipt that officers previously had rejected, the video of Charles Geiger in the restaurant and affidavits signed by the restaurant’s staff, Geiger employees, customers and the women who were with Patricia Geiger at the theater that night.
Police quietly dropped the case on March 18.
Police spokesman Sgt. Sammy Morris said at the time only that detectives would not pursue the case due to lack of evidence. When asked this week if the Geigers can expect an apology, he pointed out that Gorsek was working secondary employment that night and was not the city’s responsibility.
Patricia Sanney, a police records custodian, then sent a written statement declining to comment further. The city law department is yet to supply records in response to a request for Gorsek’s personnel and disciplinary files.
Doyle said he believes an altercation between a parking attendant and the true suspect earlier in the night over a reserved parking space led to Gorsek’s misidentification of the Geiger vehicle.
Gorsek recorded Patricia Geiger’s license plate number, presuming it belonged to the other driver, Doyle speculated. And when he was struck by a black SUV, he believed it was the same vehicle.
The Geigers say they are grateful to be free of the threat of criminal charges and will heal with the support of family and friends. Although they have not ruled out the possibility of filing a complaint against the arresting officers for their brash conduct, they are eager to put the experience behind them.
The couple says they still have faith in the system and in the integrity of most law enforcement officers. But the Geigers say they feel less safe today in downtown Cleveland — and not because of crime.
“You’re supposed to feel protected by police,” Patricia Geiger said. “And we don’t feel that way anymore. Our friends don’t want to go downtown. It’s too risky. We love Cleveland, and we want to see the city thrive. But I’m a different person because of this.”