Expectant mother Ashley Brown had turned into the driveway of her mother’s home in Rittman last fall when two police cruisers pulled up behind, blocking her in.
As her distraught 13-year-old sister looked on, officers informed Brown she was under arrest on a felony warrant for trafficking dangerous drugs.
But there was a problem: Police had the wrong woman.
Never questioned before her arrest, 23-year-old Brown — who at the time was eight months pregnant — spent the weekend in the Medina County Jail before making bail.
“I thought I was going to prison when I was innocent and I wouldn’t be able to see my daughter,” she said. “I mean, there are no words to describe that.”
Eight months of court battles later, she and her attorney finally got police and prosecutors to concede the mistake and drop the charges.
Bob Campbell, her court-appointed attorney, said the Medina County Drug Task Force botched the investigation and put a new mother through a terrifying experience.
“People think in my business that to get charged, you’ve got to at least be hanging out with the wrong people or you’re in the wrong kinds of places,” Campbell said.
Not only had Brown never seen the inside of jail cell before, she’d never had more than traffic citations.
“Here’s a woman who’s basically sitting at home waiting for her baby to be born, and she gets a knock at the door that results in felony charges.”
The Oct. 28 indictment charged her with complicity to traffic marijuana and oxycodone pain pills, felonies of the third and fourth degree. If she’d been convicted, she would have faced up to 4½ years in prison.
Brown was accused of being the girlfriend of a convicted drug dealer, Terry Lambert, of Norton. Medina County Drug Task Force agents reported a blonde who identified herself as “Ashley” drove Lambert to a drug deal in Wadsworth on April 15, 2013.
Lambert was put on three years’ probation earlier this month after pleading guilty to drug trafficking.
Brown said she’s never met Lambert. The day police say she was driving Lambert, Brown was hiking with friends. Her friends and a Facebook post from that day provided what should have been a convincing alibi.
Brown said she doesn’t understand why her name was enough to warrant an arrest.
“There are a lot of Ashleys who are blond and there are a lot of Ashley Browns in the world and in Wayne County or Medina County,” she said. “So they obviously didn’t do their research very well.”
There are at least 90 Ashley Browns in Medina County and its surrounding five counties, according to Switchboard.com, an online phone book.
Gary Hubbard, director of the Medina County Drug Task Force, declined to explain how the mistake happened, saying his agents still are searching for the Ashley involved in the drug sting.
“We had a name and we were confident enough to have indicted her,” Hubbard said. “Then more information came out to say that’s not who it was.”
Hubbard said not interrogating suspects before they are arrested is a common practice in drug investigations.
“Lambert wasn’t interviewed prior to being arrested either,” he said. “There are various reasons not to interview suspects, but at the time we were very confident we had the right person.”
Hubbard said this case of mistaken identity was the first since he took over the task force five years ago. He said grand juries have issued more than 1,000 indictments as a result of his agents’ investigations.
“We don’t want the public to think we’re out there just charging anybody,” Hubbard said. “It’s very rare, and we work very hard to make sure this doesn’t happen at all.
“The last thing we want to do is charge the wrong person.”
Hubbard said he’s made some internal changes to prevent similar mistakes, but declined to explain the specifics.
Though she had no attorneys’ fees because Campbell was court-appointed, Brown said she had to pay her way to a drug-testing facility as part of her bail. She spent $15 once or twice a week and the gas to get from Rittman to Medina.
In addition, she said she missed some days of work at an Orrville nursing home and wasn’t paid those days.
But Brown said the emotional distress was much more costly.
“Working third shift and having a new baby and losing sleep and money, and going to Medina at least once or twice a week to take a urine drug test, it was all very stressful,” Brown said.
Brown said a frustrating part of her ordeal was that so few people believed she was innocent — not even her attorney at first.
“He’s looking at me like I’m crazy because I know nothing about it,” Brown said. “He thought I was lying.
“I would have thought I was lying, too, if I were him.”
She said Campbell only started to believe her story when she didn’t recognize photos of Lambert.
Campbell said once he was convinced of Brown’s innocence, he reached out to county Assistant Prosecutor Scott Salisbury.
“The prosecutors did the right thing,” Campbell said. “She’s lucky Salisbury pressed the cops here, or she’d still be facing these charges.”
County Prosecutor Dean Holman said he also was glad Salisbury did the right thing.
“We in this office work to achieve justice, and Scott did that in this case,” Holman said. “We strive to achieve the correct result in this office.
“If that means a case was dismissed because someone’s not properly accused, that’s what we do.”