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York County, Pennsylvania Reaches $550,000 Settlement in Lawsuit Involving Woman Murdered by Ex-Boyfriend

 by Douglas Ankney

According to a report released on July 23, 2019, by, a $550,000 settlement was reached in a § 1983 lawsuit brought against York County, its Prison Board, and numerous officials by the family of a woman killed by her ex-boyfriend in 2012.

CherylAnn J. Dowell was killed by Ross Crawford in June 2012.

Dowell’s son, Jeffrey M. Fleckstein, brought suit against Crawford, Mary E. Sabol, Dana M. Brienza, Kim McDermott, K. Eyster, Albert J. Sabol, and the York County Prison Board of Inspectors (“Defendants”).

 The suit alleges that between 2009 and 2012 Crawford was arrested numerous times for committing violent crimes against Dowell. After each incident, Crawford would post bail, get released from prison, return to Dowell’s home, and hurt her again.

 Crawford’s crimes against Dowell included aggravated assault, arson, burglary, and making terroristic threats.

 In 2010, Crawford took Dowell hostage, assaulted her, and set her home on fire. In March 2011, Crawford pleaded guilty to terroristic threats, criminal mischief, and harassment, for breaking into Dowell’s home and threatening her with a fireplace poker.

 Judge Michael E. Bortner of the Court of Common Pleas of York County sentenced Crawford to three years of probation and ordered him to have no contact with Dowell. Crawford violated his probation and in August 2011, Crawford was sentenced to six to 12 months of incarceration, three years of probation and again ordered to have no contact with Dowell.

 Then, in March 2012, Crawford was arrested for disorderly conduct and harassment in an incident again involving Dowell. He was detained at the York County Prison. In May 2012, Crawford was convicted of disorderly conduct and harassment. Bortner determined the convictions were a violation of Crawford’s probation. Bortner sentenced Crawford to 396 days with reparole after six months of house confinement.

 Even though the Defendants were aware of Bortner’s order and were aware of Crawford’s propensity for violence toward Dowell, they immediately released Crawford directly into the community without any house confinement, without any monitoring, without any parole plan, and without notifying Dowell.

On June 8, 2012, a friend entered Dowell’s home to check on her welfare after Dowell failed to show up for work. Crawford emerged from a bedroom, covered in blood, and carrying a knife.

Officers then entered and discovered toppled furniture, broken picture frames, and blood in numerous areas of the bedroom and in the hallway. Dowell’s body was found in a bathroom. She had been bludgeoned to death.

Crawford was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Count I of the suit alleged a state-created danger theory of liability. To prevail on the claim, a plaintiff must show: (1) the harm ultimately caused was foreseeable and fairly direct; (2) a state actor acted with a degree of culpability that shocks the conscience; (3) a relationship between the state and plaintiff existed such that the plaintiff was a foreseeable victim of the Defendant’s acts; and (4) a state actor affirmatively used his or her authority in a way that created a danger to the citizen or that rendered the citizen more vulnerable to danger than had the state not acted at all. Sanford v. Stiles, 456 F.3d 298 (3d Cir. 2006).

The suit argued the murder was foreseeable because Defendants knew Crawford was placed on probation for violent crimes against Dowell; that he violated his probation by committing further violent crimes against Dowell; and a no contact order was imposed against Crawford because he would likely again harm Dowell.

As for culpability, the Defendants knew that they had failed to properly fund Probation/Parole and that electronic monitoring of persons on house arrest could not be accomplished yet they led judges believe that house arrest was a safe, viable alternative to incarceration; Defendants released Crawford into the community without any parole plan while knowing there was no means to monitor or properly supervise him; and Defendants failed to notify Dowell of Crawford’s release so she could take extra precautions to ensure her safety.

As to the relationship between Dowell and the state, the Commonwealth was well aware of Crawford’s previous crimes against Dowell and that all of his violent crimes targeted only Dowell.

With regard to a state actor affirmatively using authority in a way that created a danger to Dowell, the Defendants allocated funds to other programs while failing to fund Probation/Parole, which created the situation of inadequate equipment and inability to enforce house confinement; and Defendants had discretion as to when to release Crawford but chose to prematurely release Crawford immediately from prison without a proper parole plan and without proper supervision.

 Count II of the complaint alleged municipal liability under Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). This count argued that the York County Prison Board of Inspectors either authorized, participated in, or acquiesced in, policies and practices that permitted Crawford’s unlawful acts. And Count III was brought under Pennsylvania’s Wrongful Death Act, 42 PA. CONS. STAT. § 8301, which permitted, inter alia, Dowell’s three sons to share damages recovered for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence of another.

Fleckstein’s attorney, Devon M. Jacob, said the Defendants “did not have the proper equipment or manpower to keep [Crawford] under lock and key .... He simply did what everybody knew he would eventually do — he went to Ms. Dowell’s home and murdered her.” The $550,000 settlement did not resolve the claims against Crawford. See: Fleckstein v. Crawford, No. 1:14-cv-01085 (M.D. Pa. 2019).

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Related legal case

Fleckstein v. Crawford