Puppycide lawsuit dismissal hides a dark history of a Cleveland cop family

The decision

This week brought major developments in the $2.5 million legal fight between the Maclin family and the city of Cleveland Ohio as the 8th Circuit Ohio Court of Appeals ruled Friday that a lawsuit brought by the Maclins should be dismissed.

The case was brought following Cleveland police sergeant Paul Baeppler opening fire in front of the Maclin home. Paul Baeppler and his brother Matthew Baeppler, also of the Cleveland Police Department, have been at the center of allegations of violence, racism, killings and cover-ups dating back over 15 years. In this incident, Baeppler killed the family dog and shot Lisa Maclin in the head. This is how the Cleveland Plain Dealer describes the shootings:

"According to the suit, Maclin and her husband, Michael, were walking their two dogs on leashes near E. 140th and Rugby Avenue on Aug. 12, 2012 when [their dog] Dirt broke free to protect the family's other dog, Gordo, from an unleashed poodle that was acting aggressively.

An officer pulled up in his cruiser and shot three times at Dirt, killing the dog, the suit said. Lisa Maclin, was hit with one of the pellets, which was later removed from her brain at University Hospitals, according to the lawsuit filed in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court."

The newspaper failed to mention the shooter, Paul Baeppler, by name because for years the City of Cleveland and the Cleveland Police Department refused to release his name to the public, the newspapers, the Maclin family and even the Maclin family lawyer Daniel Roth.

Lisa Maclin miraculously survived the incident after surgeons removed a 12-gauge shotgun shell the size of a .32 caliber bullet from her brain. It was one of three rounds that Paul Baeppler fired at the Maclin family and their dogs, who had not attacked any human beings and did not pose a lethal threat to Baeppler.

Not a single police officer has been killed by a dog in over 50 years. A Puppycide Database Project study covering 12 years of data further found that the risk of death from dog posed to individuals between the ages of 15 and 34 in the United States is statistically zero.

At issue for the court is the doctrine of sovereign immunity, an increasingly controversial legal notion in which the State in a very literal sense places itself and its agents in a position outside of legal redress. The Maclin family attorney David Roth put it this way:

"I think that the whole idea of immunity isn't supported by reality. The argument is – to some degree - that taxpayers would have to pay for the mistakes of public officials and so therefore we'll just make them immune and that puts the burden on people that are actually injured."

Many worry that placing government agencies and agents above the law leads to a situation in which those agents will act lawlessly. The only vocal supporters of sovereign immunity are the police unions, politicians and government lawyers who directly profit through a policy that exempts them from criminal and civil liability in a variety of circumstances. Like this circumstance, in which a police officer acting under the color of law in the State of Ohio shot an unarmed and completely innocent woman in the head. Subodh Chandra, former Cleveland legal director, had this to say:

"That's what sovereign immunity is for, that's what that statute is for is to make it very, very difficult and close to impossible to hold the city responsible for anything, and they will assert it and they will often prevail."

Sovereign immunity will not prevent the Maclins from pursuing a separate lawsuit against Paul Baeppler, the man who almost killed Lisa Maclin while senselessly murdering her dog. The couple will almost certainly pursue that option.

While holding the shooter Paul Baeppler personally financial accountable for his shocking outburst of violence must be a component of any resolution to this situation that could even remotely considered to be just, the City of Cleveland, the Mayor's Office the Cleveland Police Department and the police union all bare a burden of responsibility here as well.

The family history

Paul Baeppler is the son of Gregory Baeppler, former commander of the Cleveland PD 2nd division, and brother of Matthew Baeppler. Paul isn't the only member of the family to have a history of violence.

Paul's brother Matthew Baeppler joined the Cleveland PD in 1995. By 1997, he had killed someone - Adolph Boyd Jr - in a case which would be referred to a grand jury by the prosecutor's office. The grand jury declined to press charges against Matthew, as many grand juries do when asked to hold a cop accountable for shooting someone on duty.

The prosecutor's office was sated, but Internal Affairs wasn't. Many residents unfortunate enough to come into contact with Matthew believed he was a violent cop, even by Cleveland standards. By the time Matthew had killed Boyd Jr, he had racked up three serious complaints alleging physical abuse. Two of the complaints were dismissed out of hand, but the third stuck - internal affairs opened up what would be a year-long investigation. The IA case revolved around Robert Harrell, who told investigators that Matthew Baeppler had accused him of throwing away a crack pipe when approached by police - so, to teach him a lesson, Baeppler and another cop drove him to a secluded parking lot where Baeppler beat him while the other cop kept watch. "You son of a bitch, I'm going to teach you not to throw things when you see me," Harrell claimed Baeppler told him. Once again, Matthew Baeppler was forwarded to the prosecutor's office for indictment. And once again, no charges were filed. But someone beat Robert Harrell so badly his ear drum exploded.

Problems just kept coming at Matthew Baeppler. Just as quickly, the problems disappeared. When the Mayor's office opened an investigation into racism in the Cleveland PD, Matthew Baeppler was the first name that came to mind for his commander Charles McNeeley. Asked what sort of behavior lead McNeely to suspect Baeppler was a bigot, McNeeley clarified:

"Calling these kids niggers. 'Get off the corner, you nigger.' That type of stuff."

Nothing came of the charges of racism (this was back in 1999). Then there was more violence: 14 complaints in 2001. Two complaints in three days in February 2002. All 16 complaints dismissed.

Then Matthew Baeppler was at the center of another "officer involved shooting". in 2002, Baeppler and his newly-minted partner Robert Taylor shot two people who didn't stop when Baeppler and Taylor pulled them over, killing one of them (the other miraculously survived a gunshot wound to the head, like Lisa Maclin)

They shot two 16 year old kids.

The next killing

The kids were Malcolm Hoyle and Ricardo Mason, both unarmed, who has been smoking pot while driving a car that was wanted by police. Malcolm was driving, and when he saw the police behind him he believed he could outrun them. Malcolm was on probation at the time. Ricardo's last words were "Don't shoot".

The first person Matthew Baeppler called after he had shot an unarmed child in the face was his brother, Paul Baeppler. By the time Paul arrived, Matthew was in a car with another officer, getting ready to be taken to the Justice Center to make a statement. Paul, by then a Sergeant (he has remained a sergeant to this day, 15 years later), ordered the other officer out of the car and got in with Matthew, where they had a private conversation. This private conversation would have been an excellent opportunity for Paul to coach Matthew prior to his statement. It is impossible to say what the two brothers discussed, but it is a matter of public record that Paul contaminated the crime scene while fellow officer Adrian Neagu re-positioned the police car the Baeppler and his partner were driving in such a way as would better support the eventual police narrative of the shooting. The car the two boys were driving was also moved - although "expert witnesses" dispute whether it was by police after the fact or as a result of one of the boys putting the car in reverse, either version contradicts the police version of events reconstructed by accident reconstruction experts. In a deposition, one such witness for the City of Cleveland would later say:

"I don't know who moved it [the vehicle driven by the boys] or when it was moved. Maybe an outer space ship grabbed it and it moved it back there."

There were more problems with the investigation. No bullet trajectories were studied at the scene of the shooting. And someone managed to send the boy's bullet-ridden car to the salvage yard to be destroyed before any case, civil or criminal, made it to court. A lawyer hired by the boys' families to sue the city managed to track down the vehicle, which had been reclaimed by Progressive Insurance, before it was demolished.

It is almost unheard of for the evidence of a murder investigation to be so cavalierly discarded. When retired Indiana cop Larry Danaher filed a brief with the court based on a review the evidence, he was frank in exactly the sort of exception to the norm he saw in this case:

"It is my opinion that the Cleveland Police Department made a conscious and deliberate decision not to properly investigate the misconduct of Officers Taylor and Baeppler as well as the misconduct of others."

Incredibly, a murder charge was filed for the shooting death of young Ricardo. It was for Malcolm Hoyle, who had been driving when he and Ricardo were gunned down by Baeppler and Taylor. Baeppler had shot Malcolm in the head from behind; as the gunshot exited his head it took the lower half of Malcolm's face with it. In a final bit of collusion, the prosecutor's office gave Malcolm a deal: if Malcolm would accept a plea agreement, the prosecutors would lower the charge from murder to manslaughter - and would agree to accept probation as Malcolm's only punishment. Malcolm's lawyer Terry Gilbert explained the rationale:

"You wonder what that's all about, from a murder charge to probation. They didn't want a trial to happen. Because if a trial happened, a lot of stuff would have come out."

The conversation

13 years later, the other Baeppler boy is in the newspapers. 13 years later, and once again a Baeppler brother is going to court because he shot an unarmed person in the head.

Cases like those of Paul and Matthew Baeppler highlight the need for public skepticism when confronted with "common sense" reforms to issues of police brutality. Readers familiar with such cases and the calls to reform that follow them will already be familiar with what has become accepted as the solution to the problem of police violence: more training, additional scrutiny from elected officials as to the racial composition of police forces and prisoners, ending programs that supply local cops with military weapons. Faced with the case of the Baepplers and the thousands of other police like them, we at PuppycideDB find ourselves facing a doubt that any of these reforms would have stopped Paul Baeppler from shooting Lisa Maclin and her dog. Despite the immense (and growing) amount of social pressure building as the result of these incidents, the more cases we review the easier it becomes to suspect that something fundamental is missing from reforms proposed by politicians and activists alike.

This is at least partly an empirical question; and it is that part we seek to answer at Puppycide Database Project. Do individual reforms work?

In the final analysis, answering this question requires we consider a stark possibility that we have yet to find in any of the conversations surrounding Paul Baeppler shot Lisa Maclin for the same reason that Matthew Baeppler shot Malcolm Hoyle for the same reason any police officer shoots any unarmed person: because they can get away with it. And if the situation is such that police can shoot a woman for the crime of walking her dog (or a child for running away), keep his job and keep his freedom, and the courts absolve everyone innocent as though nothing had ever happened, and this happens all the time ... what on earth would need to happen to change it?


note: this article owes a very large debt to the original reporting conducted by Rachel Dissell and Ida Lieszkovszky of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Kevin Hoffman of the Cleveland Scene