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Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012 08:56 am

County pays sex assault claim

Deputy accused of having sex with 911 caller

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A 2009 encounter between a Sangamon County sheriff’s deputy and a woman who called 911 has proven expensive for county taxpayers.

In a little-noticed action, the county board’s civil liabilities committee in April approved a $30,000 settlement for Sherry Janssen, who claimed that deputy David Howse had sex with her while he was on duty and she was in a drunken stupor, helpless and unable to resist.

In addition to paying Janssen, the county has paid more than $52,000 in costs and attorneys’ fees to defend a lawsuit that was dismissed in June, pursuant to the settlement agreement. The settlement agreement did not have to go to a vote before the county board because the amount involved was not more than $30,000.

The case against the deputy was more than a he-said-she-said. As evidence that Howse had taken liberties, Janssen preserved a voice mail the deputy left hours after leaving her home.

“I’m just calling to say hi,” Howse said in the voice mail. “I’ll talk to you a little later.”

Shortly afterward, Howse left a text message on Janssen’s phone: “Happy New Year B Seeing U.”

The encounter began when Janssen, who had been drinking for hours, called 911 in the early morning of Jan. 1, 2009, concerned that she could not find her husband, who had also been drinking, and that he might be in the cold somewhere outside her home on the north edge of Springfield. After looking for Janssen’s husband outside her home, Howse asked to look inside, then sexually assaulted Janssen, according to the lawsuit in which Janssen says she was too intoxicated to give consent and that she felt powerless because the deputy was armed.

Janssen sued after the sheriff’s office failed to substantiate her complaint against Howse. During the internal investigation, Janssen passed a polygraph examination. Howse refused to submit to a polygraph. In her lawsuit, Janssen says that an internal affairs investigator for the department told her that deputies often have sex while on duty and that the department would have virtually no deputies left if they were fired for having sex during work hours.

Attorneys for the county, Howse and sheriff Neil Williamson in court papers denied that the deputy had sex with Janssen and denied that the sheriff’s department allows employees to have sex while on duty.

In previous cases alleging wrongdoing by employees, sheriff’s officials have said that the department vigorously defends cases, even if settling might be less expensive, to discourage more lawsuits.

“We will defend them to the hilt when we feel they haven’t done anything wrong,” chief deputy Jack Campbell said last fall when the county prevailed in a lawsuit filed by a former inmate who claimed guards at the county jail used excessive force.

Campbell declined to discuss specifics of Janssen’s case against deputy Howse. While the sheriff’s department will still defend employees when officials believe they have not done anything wrong, there are occasions where settling cases makes sense, he says.

“Our position hasn’t changed,” Campbell said. “We have to balance out the totality of the circumstances of the case. … You can’t principle yourself into poverty.”

Neither Janssen nor her attorneys could be reached for comment.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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