PINEDALE – A former Sublette County resident previously convicted of first-degree murder but later exonerated of the crime has filed suit against three former county employees who, according to the suit filed Sept. 17, failed to disclose exculpatory evidence.
Troy D. Willoughby, who now resides in Montana, alleges in his suit Randy Hanson, a former investigator for the Sublette County Attorney’s Office, Brian Ketterhagen, former captain of the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO), and Sarah Brew, former deputy of the SCSO “knowingly and willfully conspired and agreed to withhold, secret and hide exculpatory evidence in the criminal case against Mr. Willoughby.”
The case began with the 1984 murder of Elisabeth “Lisa” Ehlers, who was found shot dead in a turnout near the entrance to the Hoback Canyon. The case went cold for more than 20 years before being reopened by a SCSO investigative team in 2008.
A Sublette County jury found Willoughby guilty in January 2010, and he was sentenced to life in prison. In June 2011, the Wyoming Supreme Court affirmed this ruling.
Only two days after the Supreme Court issued its ruling, then-newly elected Sublette County Attorney Neal Stelting issued a press release indicating the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office and previous county attorney failed to disclose evidence, which kick-started the retrial process.
Willoughby was found not guilty in a Fremont County courtroom in February 2012 with the exculpatory evidence present. This evidence placed Willoughby at his Daniel home as late as 12:38 a.m., around five hours before Ehlers body was found off U.S. Highway 191; this information was not provided to Willoughby or his attorneys prior to the first trial or Supreme Court case.
The report likely would never have come to light except under the circumstances outlined in Willoughby’s suit and a previous report where District Court Judge Timothy Day concluded the investigator’s tactics “comport more with a system built on the notion of hide and seek, rather than a search for the truth” when issuing a retrial.
Attempts to hide this evidence are detailed in Willoughby’s 22-page write-up. The leadership team (LT), consisting of Hanson, Ketterhagen, Brew and current SCSO Captain Lance Gehlhausen, who was a deputy at the time, allegedly knowingly hid the evidence.
Gehlhausen recorded multiple conversations with the LT, as he was concerned the report had not been turned over to the defense.
Within the contents of the suit, Ketterhagen explicitly states the evidence is exculpatory, and the entire team is worried about the contents allowing Willoughby to be found not guilty.
“The LT members worried about turning the report over because it would fit Mr. Willoughby’s alibi ‘perfectly’ and stated Mr. Willoughby had ‘an ironclad alibi if we can’t put him at the scene at 6 a.m.,’” the suit reads.
The suit, filed in district court, lists the defendants in their “individual capacities,” meaning Sublette County and former Sublette County Attorney Lucky McMahon are not being prosecuted. The report states McMahon was assured the report contained no exculpatory evidence and was not aware of the exact contents.
After listing all the evidence and more specifically discussing Hanson, Ketterhagen and Brew’s roles in the investigation, the suit states the three “recklessly, knowlingly, intentionally, willfully and wantonly withheld, destroyed and/or hid exculpatory evidence … so that Mr. Willoughby could not use the exculpatory evidence at his trial.”
The suit claims Willoughby’s 4th and 14th amendment rights were violated by the former investigators and deputies and asks for judgment against the defendants to include: an amount that reasonably compensates Willoughby for all injuries and damages, general and specific, sustained and provided by law; for interest as allowed by law; for plaintiff’s costs, disbursements and reasonable attorney’s fees incurred herein; and for such other and further relief as the court may deem fair and just.