November 28, 2014

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Secret tapes show police chief doubted Head Start case

LORAIN — In secret recordings made by Nancy Smith’s daughter, Amber Bronish, Lorain Police Chief Cel Rivera can be heard questioning whether there was enough evidence to convict Smith and co-defendant Joseph Allen in the controversial Head Start child molestation case.

Rivera

Rivera

“We just felt like there wasn’t enough evidence,” Rivera can be heard saying on a copy of the tapes played on Channel 19 News during a segment Wednesday. Rivera also said during the taped conversation that despite concerns raised by police, then-Assistant Lorain County Prosecutor Jonathan Rosenbaum continued to push the case.

Smith

Smith

Allen

Allen

“Rosenbaum kept calling and saying he wanted the case, and we kept saying, ‘it’s too confusing. There’s just not enough there,’ ” Rivera said during his conversation with Bronish.

The tapes were leaked to Channel 19-WOIO and The Plain Dealer by Joseph Montelon, a former Lorain police officer and convicted sex offender, who is currently under investigation for allegedly authoring a string of anonymous letters blasting Rivera and other Lorain police officers.

Montelon refused Wednesday to provide copies of the tapes to The Chronicle-Telegram.

Jack Bradley, Smith’s attorney, also declined to share the tapes, which he said he plans to use as part of a request for a new trial for Smith, who, like Allen, continues to maintain her innocence. Bradley also declined to comment on what other new evidence he has gathered.

Smith is currently free while the Ohio Supreme Court reconsiders its decision ordering Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge to overturn his 2008 order acquitting Smith.

Burge, who also acquitted Allen, had originally planned to correct technical problems with the original sentencing entries prepared for Smith and Allen following their 1994 trial but acquitted them after reviewing the evidence and trial transcript.

Allen also appears likely to head back to prison if the Supreme Court doesn’t overturn a 9th District Court of Appeals decision saying Burge overstepped his authority.

Bradley said Bronish, who couldn’t be reached for comment, didn’t provide the tapes to Montelon, whom he believes has an ulterior motive for releasing the tapes.

“I think he’s got his own agenda, and it might not be in Nancy’s best interests,” Bradley said. “I think he’s more concerned with smearing the chief.”

Montelon said he’s trying to expose problems within the Lorain Police Department and the Head Start case.
“This is about two people who went to prison for something they didn’t do,” he said.

In addition to being the lead investigator on the Head Start case — in which Smith was accused in the early 1990s of bringing 4- and 5-year-old children from her bus route to Smith’s home where they were allegedly sexually abused — Rivera also investigated allegations that Montelon had sexual relations with an underage girl.

That investigation led to Montelon’s departure from the Lorain Police Department and his conviction on attempted rape and gross sexual imposition charges.

Police raided Montelon’s Wickliffe home in August 2008 seeking evidence that he was the author of anonymous letters which Rivera considers threatening. So far, federal officials and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office have reviewed the case and declined to prosecute Montelon and the case is now being examined by the Lake County Prosecutor’s Office.

Montelon and Rivera have also sued each other in federal court, although that case is on hold until the criminal investigation is completed.

Montelon is also responsible for providing numerous internal police documents sent to the U.S. Department of Justice as part of a request for an investigation into the Lorain Police Department by Lorain City Council members Anne Molnar and Mitch Fallis. That request is believed to have been what sparked a long-running probe by the Justice Department into allegations of excessive force by members of the Lorain Police Department.

Rivera’s opinion of whether Smith and Allen are actually guilty of the crimes they were convicted of surfaced before in January 2010 in an e-mail sent to Bronish by the chief’s secretary.

The e-mail said, “Nancy Smith has been incarcerated for almost 15 years for crimes that she did not commit,” but Rivera, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, has denied that it was his view of the case.

Instead, he said at the time, it was language he helped Bronish prepare to use in a request for clemency she planned to send to then-Gov. Ted Strickland.

“That statement did not represent my personal position, nor the position of the Lorain Police Department,” Rivera wrote in a letter to The Chronicle at the time.

County Prosecutor Dennis Will said although he’s heard rumors there were tapes of Rivera discussing the case with Bronish, he hasn’t heard them.

“If anybody has additional evidence that needs to be considered or has new evidence, we’ll take a look at it,” Will said.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.