Det. Sgt. Gerald Parks of the Genesee County Sheriff’s Department testified on Thursday that in over twenty years in police work, he had never arrested the wrong person.
A jury disagreed.
The nearly unanimous verdict by a jury of five women and two men (one juror took a position as “undecided”) exonerated Neil Helmkay, 53, of Fenton, when they found in his favor in a civil suit related to his September 2005 arrest, said his lawyer. Helmkay had been arrested by Det. Parks for his role in a fight near Lake Fenton. In that incident, Helmkay was beaten with a 4 x 4 mailbox post and kicked in the head, and two men were cut with Helmkay’s pocket knife. Those two men, Robert Dark of Fenton and Dale Dark of Columbiaville, were not arrested. Dale Dark then filed suit, seeking damages for the injuries he sustained in the incident. Thursday’s verdict dismissed that case.
“For the first time, Mr. Helmkay got to tell his side of the story,” said Steven Shelton, Helmkay’s attorney. “And when the truth finally came out, there was absolutely no doubt that Mr. Helmkay was the victim in this case. It was very clear that the Dark brothers viciously assaulted Mr. Helmkay, and he defended himself appropriately.”
Testimony in the trial showed that Helmkay was at a party at the home of Robert Dark when a woman at the party, who was sleeping on the couch, was found with her top off. Although nobody saw how this woman’s top was removed, the Dark brothers assumed Helmkay had removed it and “launched themselves out of that house after him,” Shelton said.
Upon reaching Helmkay, the brothers began beating him. Robert Dark then broke off a 4 x 4 mailbox post and started using it as a club on Helmkay as he was on the ground. Dale Dark kicked Helmkay in the head several times, causing injuries that required several stitches. Helmkay then drew a pocket knife, which he used to ward off the Dark brothers until he could escape. In the process, Dale received several long cuts that required medical treatment. All three men testified that after Helmkay escaped, Robert Dark continued to pursue him with the mailbox post.
Det. Parks then arrested Helmkay, who was charged with felony assault with intent to do great bodily harm. The case was widely reported in the media. Shelton said the police, prosecutors, and the media all got it wrong.
“The real unfortunate thing here is that a lot of people jumped to conclusions in this case,” Shelton said. “The police jumped to conclusions, the prosecutor jumped to conclusions, and the media jumped to conclusions. Mr. Helmkay was really pilloried in the press at a time when he was unable to express his side of the story. What nobody reported was how quickly and completely the prosecution’s case fell apart.”
An internal email, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, revealed that soon after prosecutors made statements to the media about the strength of their case, they concluded that a trial would lead to an acquittal. “[O]ur victim (Dale Dark) and his brother chased Helmkay down the street and upon catching him, beat him with their fists and a mailbox,” wrote an assistant prosecutor. The email also noted that Dark had “a long history of assaultive conduct and is what one would call a ‘brawler’”.
Helmkay was eventually offered a plea agreement on a misdemeanor charge, to which he entered a plea of no contest. In a “no contest” plea, the defendant allows a conviction to be entered but does not admit guilt. Shelton called Helmkay’s plea a “business decision”.
“Even though it was a virtual certainty that he would have won at trial, there was a tiny chance that lightning could strike and he could lose,” Shelton said. “If that happened, the penalties would be huge, so his attorney at the time advised him to do the safe thing and take the misdemeanor plea. I probably would have told him to do the same thing.”
Shelton credited Helmkay’s original attorney, Michael Manley of Flint, with much of the credit for his win in the civil case. “He gave me a file with a tremendous amount of research, and that information was really key.”
After the verdict, jury members said police botched the investigation from the beginning, jumping to conclusions and failing to interview key witnesses.
“Those two boys (Dale and Robert Dark) are the ones who should have been arrested,” said one.
Jury members also called the plaintiff a “con man” who “sues for profit”. Evidence showed that in the last seven years, Dark had been involved in at least five fights in which he claimed he was attacked without provocation and injured. He filed lawsuits in three of those cases, and collected money from the Crime Victims Fund in another. On the stand, he testified that he had not yet decided if he was going to file a civil suit in that case, as well.
Helmkay called the verdict a “relief” and the end of a “three-year ordeal.”
“It’s nice to be able to finally tell my side of the story,” he said.
Steven Shelton is an attorney in private practice in Fenton, Michigan. Initial consultations are always free. To schedule an appointment, contact attorney Steven Shelton on-line or by telephone at 810-750-1420.