Detroit Free Press

Wrongful-arrest lawsuit settled in pizzeria death

March 11, 2004

BY AMBER HUNT MARTIN
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

A New Baltimore man wrongly jailed for six months in the 2000 slaying of a teenage pizzeria worker says a $300,000-plus settlement of his civil suit against police will help him start a new life -- but it won't end his family's nightmares or stop the accusing stares that follow him.

And while the settlement is about to change Jonathon Kaled's life, legal experts said the suit's outcome won't affect how police handle interrogations and false confessions.

Kaled, now 21, acknowledged Wednesday that some people still feel he played a role in the October 2000 slaying of 16-year-old Justin Mello, who was shot execution-style while working at Mancino's Pizza & Grinders in New Baltimore.

He has denied the allegations for more than three years and said he's lived with constant fear since his April 2001 release from the Macomb County Jail.

"I don't want to see anyone here," he said of his hometown. "I get a nauseating feeling, especially at dark driving through New Baltimore."

With his settlement, he plans to buy a house in another town, he said, and start a business.

Kaled was arrested a week after Mello was killed.

He and codefendant Frank Kuecken confessed in written and oral statements. They quickly recanted, saying overzealous police officers coerced them.

They were held in jail for six months based on the confessions. Ultimately, the 9mm gun used to kill Mello was discovered with two other Anchor Bay-area men who have since been charged with his death.

A third New Baltimore man, Matthew Daniels, also had been arrested. Charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. Daniels, then 16, also filed a suit in federal court, but most of the counts have been dismissed, said his lawyer, David Steingold.

Brian Kutinsky, Kaled's lawyer in the civil suit, said the settlement is a victory.

"It was a long, rocky road," he said Tuesday.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, alleged that the officers interviewing Kaled violated his constitutional rights. Some of the counts were dismissed, but, in a July opinion filed by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Zatkoff, two remained -- conspiracy to violate state and federal law and substantive violations of the Constitution.

The officers had appealed the judge's opinion, asking that all charges be dismissed. In the meantime, the sides settled, Kutinsky said.

Kuecken, 20, who was fatally stabbed in October 2001, had filed a separate suit. His and Kaled's suits were combined.

Paul Stablein, a Royal Oak lawyer who represents Kuecken's estate, said he expects to know whether the estate will receive a settlement within a few weeks.

Martin Bugbee, a former detective sergeant with the Michigan State Police, was named in the suit. Shanon Akans, spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police, said she was not familiar with the case and could not comment.

Other defendants include Dwayne Borowicz and Charles Esser of the New Baltimore Police Department. Lawyers for them could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Legal experts said such settlements can't be considered a victory because they typically don't assign guilt.

"I don't think that anyone is going to recognize anything stemming from that settlement other than the plaintiff," said Southfield lawyer David A. Robinson, a former Detroit officer who now handles police misconduct cases.

Defense lawyer Steve Fishman agreed: "If it is a high-profile crime, my guess is that officers will continue to do whatever they feel they need to do to 'solve' the crime."

The men charged in Mello's death, David Baumann and Dennis Bryan, are awaiting trial in Florida for the slaying of a Subway employee.

Kaled's mother, Cheryl Stepnioski, said, "It's been a long haul for the whole family. For Jon, it's a way for him to move on."

Contact AMBER HUNT MARTIN at 586-469-4904 or hunt@freepress.com.


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