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Utah DOC Settles Wrongful-Death Suit Involving Exonerated Suspect For $150,000

by Michael Rigby

On September 29, 2004, the widow of a one-time suspect in the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping settled her wrongful-death lawsuit against the Utah Department of Corrections (DOC) for $150,000.

When 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City home on June 5, 2002, police were desperate to name a suspect. With no leads, the investigation quickly focused on Richard Ricci, a paroled handyman who had performed odd jobs at the Smart's home. Nine days after the kidnapping, Ricci 48, was arrested for allegedly drinking a beer, a violation of his parole.

Ricci was quickly returned to the Utah State Prison. Two months later, on August 30, 2002, he collapsed and died from a cerebral hemorrhage. He remained a suspect until Elizabeth Smart was found March 12, 2003, walking in Sandy, Utah, with homeless street preacher Brian David Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee. Mitchell and Barzee have both been charged in the abduction, though Barzee was declared mentally incompetent.
Ricci's widow, Angela Ricci, brought separate federal lawsuits against the DOC, the Salt Lake City Police Department, and police officers.
In her wrongful-death suit against the DOC, Ms. Ricci alleged that a prison employee disregarded her husband's history of hypertension and that other workers altered his medical records to cover their mistakes.
The way he was treated at the prison was regrettable," said D. Bruce Oliver, who represented Angela Ricci. He was placed in solitary confinement, he had no hot meals, he was shackled every time he stepped out of a cell and he was hooded." Her husband was subjected to the harsh conditions, the lawsuit contended, because police had asked prison officials to make him uncomfortable in order to gain information.
Rather than go to trial, the DOC agreed to pay Ms. Ricci $150,000 but denied any wrongdoing.

As for Angela Ricci's lawsuit against the Salt Lake City Police Department, Police Chief Rick Dinse, and at least six investigators, U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart dismissed the case on July 6, 2005. Ms. Ricci had alleged wrongful death, cruel and unusual punishment, false arrest and slander.
In his ruling, Judge Stewart chided Oliver as unprofessional for failing to provide witness statements or documents to help prove the case. Oliver, who was not sanctioned, said he will appeal Stewart's ruling to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Still pending is Ms. Ricci's suit against Cory Mack Lyman, a lead investigator in the Smart kidnapping. That suit contends Lyman fingered Ricci as a suspect to avoid public pressure and allegations of incompetence even though no evidence linked Ricci to the crime. Lyman is now chief of police for Ketchum, Idaho.

Another suspect in the kidnapping also sued the Salt Lake City Police Department. In his lawsuit, Pete Romero, an ex-convict, alleged false arrest, libel and slander, unlawful use of police authority, baseless prosecution, and cover-up. Romero had been required to wear an ankle monitor for 5 months during the investigation. He also contended that police investigators subjected him to Gestapo-style interviews and interrogations." The suit was dismissed in 2005. See: Estate of Ricci v. Salt Lake City, USDC D UT, Case No. 2:03CV00749 TS.

Sources: Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret Morning News

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Related legal case

Estate of Ricci v. Salt Lake City