Wisconsin Spotlight | Sept 9, 2020
MILWAUKEE —Milwaukee Fire Department supervisor Michael Peden wrote a negative performance review on a junior firefighter. It cost him his job, his freedom, his savings and his reputation, according to a lawsuit filed against Milwaukee County, the city of Milwaukee, the city’s fire chief and others.
Peden’s year and a half-long nightmare ended in July 2019, when prosecutors were forced to drop what the lawsuit claims were trumped up second-degree sexual assault charges against him. Now he wants those who took away so much from him to legally pay the price.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for Eastern District of Wisconsin, alleges, among other offenses, the defendants “demonstrated an intentional and malicious disregard” for Peden’s “constitutional rights, his reputation, and livelihood.” The paramedic and heavy-equipment operator is seeking a jury trial and “an award of punitive damages up to maximum amount as allowed by law.”
In 2017, Peden was serving as “acting lieutenant” of the medical unit of “MED 3,” stationed at Engine 26 in Milwaukee. The position involved training, mentoring, and evaluating junior colleagues in their development, according to court documents.
In his review, he found rookie Aleah Ellis’ performance lacking, that she was “failing to progress in her training and that she was mentally and physically unable to perform her duties,” according to the lawsuit. It was the shared belief of “several” others in the department.
Before the negative review, Ellis had complained that she was targeted as a victim of hazing, court documents state. She did not accuse Peden. That is, until her supervisor’s pointed assessment of her performance. Two weeks after receiving the review, Ellis filed a complaint that Peden, among others, had picked on her.
“Notably absent from the complaints were any allegations of misconduct that was sexual in nature,” the lawsuit states.
’Shocking how he was treated’
MFD officials investigated the complaint. They interviewed about 30 firefighters and, according to court documents, found no evidence of wrongdoing. Then a couple of days after the department’s holiday party in December 2017, Ellis leveled the charges of sexual assault against Peden.
Peden’s attorney Brent Eisberner told Wisconsin Spotlight last week that Gerard Washington, one of the department’s chiefs, had specifically asked Ellis if the alleged harassment included sexual misconduct. Ellis, according to court documents repeatedly said no, all the way up to that December day.
Milwaukee police detectives were quickly called in. They grilled Peden but apparently didn’t bother to record or save the interview, according to Eisberner.
“About five hours later, my client is arrested on a Saturday and is subjected to about a year and a half of trying to defend himself against baseless accusations,” the attorney said.
Without physical evidence and no witnesses to corroborate the serious allegations, Peden was taken into custody. He was locked up in solitary confinement, 24 hours a day, for more than five days. He was forced to wear a “suicide jacket” despite the fact that mental health professionals had evaluated Peden and found he was not a suicide risk, according to the lawsuit. He made his initial appearance tightly bound and secured in the jacket.
When his family was finally able to come up with the money for his pre-trial release, Peden was made to wear an ankle monitor long after.
“It’s really kind of shocking how he was treated throughout the entire process, but even in the intake into jail,” Eisberner said.
Throughout the pre-trial period, prosecutors wouldn’t allow Peden and his attorney at the time access to the many interviews, recordings and documents critical to his defense, according to court records. They were told that Peden’s fellow firefighters had signed a “truth statement” that prevented them from speaking to anyone except their union representative about the case.
When Peden’s legal counsel finally obtained the records, the prosecution was forced to drop the case. The documents revealed, as prosecutors had to acknowledge, that there wasn’t evidence to prove the charges. Peden’s fellow firefighters all told investigators that the acting lieutenant did not engage in the allegations made against him. There was no evidence that he made sexist or racist comments. No evidence he forced Ellis to touch him inappropriately or that he “groped” her.
The charges were dropped in July 2019.
“There has been some additional investigation and new information that has been provided to the state, and after reviewing that information, discussing it with detectives and then meeting with the victim and her parents, the state does not feel they can meet their burden at this time,” said Erin Karshen, a Milwaukee County prosecutor.
The lawsuit alleges Ellis, her mother, Bille Ellis (a Milwaukee Police officer), Gerard Washington, MPD Captain Raymond Banks, and Sharon P. Purifoy, a department captain and mentor of Aleah Ellis, “acted in a concerted effort to have the MPD detectives interview Defendant Aleah Ellis and Billie Ellis in Defendant Bank’s office, without recordings, and eventually had Mr. Peden arrested approximately five hours after the interviews were complete.”
The lawsuit asserts Purifoy threatened her mentee that if she didn’t come forward with allegations that Peden had sexually assaulted her, she would inform Ellis’ police officer mother of the accusations. And Purifoy, according to Eisberner, coached and told Ellis what to say during the interview with police. That revelation, he said, is on a recording — one of many records Peden will have to fight to obtain again in his civil lawsuit. In the deal that turned over the original records, Peden had to sign a non-disclosure form. Now he’ll have to go after the documents in discovery.
The lawsuit also alleges that certain members of the MFD, “at the request” of Washington or Purifoy “in furtherance of the conspiracy,” unlawfully accessed Peden’s official fire department account “to tamper with his previously issued evaluation” on Ellis. It was changed to give the accuser a much better review.
Officials named in the lawsuit, including Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing and Milwaukee City Attorney Grant Langley, did not return requests for comment.
Peden recently was fired from the MFD for “failing to follow orders.” He refused to serve under supervisors who were involved in depriving him justice, his attorney said.
Ellis remains at the department, serving under her mentor, Sharron P. Purifoy, Eisberner said.