Richmond Times-Dispatch

Freedom -- at a Cost / Charges dropped, man finally his has life back

Saturday, April 10, 1999

BY MARK BOWES
Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

What if I was just sitting on my couch reading the newspaper? . . . I could have gone to prison for something I didn't do. It scares me to think about it."
Ralph Grounds is a bitter but happy man today.
On Feb. 24, he was surrounded by about 20 law-enforcement officers with guns drawn and accused of robbing two Richmond-area banks within five days -- one in Henrico, the other in Hanover. Police said four different people identified Grounds as the robber from a bank surveillance photo.

Yesterday, Grounds walked out of a Henrico County courtroom a free man, exonerated of all charges. With the help of his attorney, Joseph D. Morrissey, Grounds provided authorities with ironclad alibis.

Police acknowledge they made a mistake, albeit an honest one.

Grounds, who spent seven days in jail, still can hardly grasp what happened to him.

He spent his savings to pay his legal bills, his mother "almost had a nervous breakdown" and he began seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication for the emotional upheaval caused by his arrest.

"I never thought in my whole life that I would be accused of anything, especially bank robbery," Grounds said yesterday outside Henrico's Courts Building, clutching the hand of his pregnant fiancee, Jennifer Sasser. "What if I didn't have my family, my friends and my boss" to supply police with sworn affidavits attesting to his whereabouts during both robberies?

"What if I was just sitting on my couch reading the newspaper [during those times and had no proof of where he was]?" the 27-year-old construction worker asked. "Where would I be right now? I could have gone to prison for something I didn't do.

"It scares me to think about it."

Henrico authorities, who charged Grounds with the Feb. 16 holdup of the Consolidated Bank & Trust Co. at 5214 Chamberlayne Ave., said his exoneration proves that the system works. Police said they work as hard to prove innocence as they do to prove guilt.

"Police were doing what they thought was right," said Henrico Commonwealth's Attorney Toby Vick. "I believe there were four people who said that [he was the robber], and with what's been going on recently with bank robberies in the area, it's incumbent upon us to move as quickly as possible.

"Certainly there was probable cause to believe that he was the person based upon the identification. I think that there's nothing that the police can be criticized for here. They received supposedly positive identification from witnesses and acted upon it."

Vick noted that once Grounds' alibis were presented to police and prosecutors, authorities "moved expeditiously on that." Prosecutors moved up Grounds' scheduled preliminary hearing from April 29 to yesterday so the charges could be withdrawn.

Federal authorities, who filed a criminal complaint against Grounds for the Feb. 11 holdup of the Wachovia Bank at 8123 Mechanicsville Turnpike, dismissed the charge March 4, a day after an article about Grounds' case was published in The Times-Dispatch.

Grounds' life was rudely interrupted Feb. 24, when, he said, about 20 officers from police agencies in Henrico, Hanover and King William counties, in addition to the FBI, confronted him with guns drawn as he was working at his boss's house in King William.

"I had two of my co-workers with me and my boss standing there," said Grounds, a Richmond native who now lives in James City County. "I can't tell you how many guns were on me; I heard [someone] actually jack back a shotgun on me. Here I was standing there scared to death. I thought I'm going to die right here."

Grounds said police hustled him into custody not telling him why he was being arrested. "Nobody would tell me anything."

The next thing he knew he was in the Henrico County Jail.

"I've got a family, I've got a fiancee, I've got a child on the way," Grounds explained. "I have a home, a really good job and everything was going good for me. Then all of a sudden it was taken away from me and it seemed there was nothing I could do about it."

Frightened and confused, Grounds sat in jail until March 1, when his attorney persuaded Henrico authorities to hold a bond hearing. Morrissey, the attorney, presented compelling evidence during the hearing about Grounds' possible innocence.

Vick, the county's chief prosecutor, agreed to have Grounds' $100,000 bond reduced to a $10,000 personal recognizance bond, and he was released. But police and prosecutors wanted more time to review Grounds' alibis.

Morrissey got involved the day after Grounds' arrest. Morrissey was answering legal questions from callers to the "Jeff and Jeff" morning show on radio station WRXL (102 FM) when Grounds' stepfather called seeking help.

Morrissey's office soon began compiling sworn statements from Grounds' friends, fiancee, work supervisor and neighbors and collected an assortment of phone records, credit-card receipts and deposit slips that would help corroborate those statements and prove Grounds' whereabouts during the robberies.

Grounds' alibis appeared to be overwhelming.

For example, David Lohmann and his father, Edwin Lohmann, signed affidavits saying that Grounds was fishing on Canterbury Lake in western Henrico with David Lohmann at 3:15 p.m. Feb. 11 -- the time the Wachovia branch in Mechanicsville was robbed.

Edwin Lohmann said in a statement that he talked with Grounds at 3:25 p.m. on a cellular phone Grounds had in the fishing boat with him on the lake, and he could see Grounds in the boat with David Lohmann as he spoke with him on the phone.

About the time of the Feb. 16 Consolidated Bank holdup, several of Grounds' neighbors, who didn't know him that well, said they saw Grounds trying to light an outdoor grill and then cook on it for about 45 minutes. Other people attested to Grounds' whereabouts in the hours before the cookout.

Grounds said he understands why police pursued him as a possible suspect, but he thinks they should have done more to corroborate the witnesses' accounts before arresting him.

"It created a lot of hassle having to apologize to a lot of people," Grounds said.

"And having to explain ourselves," added Sasser, Grounds' fiancee.

Grounds said he doesn't see how anyone could mistake him for the hooded robber in bank surveillance photos. His brother-in-law blew up one of the photos and gave it to Grounds, and "it didn't even look like me."

The experience, the couple said, has altered their view of the criminal-justice system. Sasser's father is a police lieutenant in Richmond.

"Because my father is in law enforcement, I've always had a different view on that," Sasser explained. "And this has kind of been a shock to me. I've always believed there was more investigation involved" in criminal matters.

"This really changed my mind about a lot of things I used to believe in."

Morrissey offered this perspective:

"On Feb. 24, Ralph was looking at double life sentences [for bank robbery], and now he's free," he said. "I don't think it helps to be bitter, and I don't think when it's all over and done with, he'll be bitter. I think he feels good to have his life back."

© 1999, Richmond Newspapers Inc.



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