A Logan County man who spent 12 years in prison before his convictions for manslaughter, arson and other counts were vacated claims in a lawsuit that law enforcement conspired to frame him for his son’s death.
Robert Yell of Russellville was found guilty in a 2006 trial in Logan Circuit Court on several charges stemming from the death of his 2-year-old son, Cameron Yell, in a 2004 trailer fire and was sentenced to 52 years behind bars.
Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Yell before formally removing the death penalty as a punishment option at the start of his trial.
Subsequent appeals were unsuccessful until 2016, when then-Logan Circuit Judge Tyler Gill ruled that conclusions reached by fire investigators determining that Yell intentionally set the fire were not supported by the evidence and not based on credible science.
Three years after vacating the conviction, Gill dismissed all charges against Yell.
In a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Bowling Green, Yell and his legal team allege that police focused on Yell as a suspect before investigating the nature of the fire, relied on unconfirmed reports from an accelerant-detection dog to fabricate conclusions that the fire was intentionally set, withheld evidence that the fire was accidental, fabricated incriminating statements they attributed to Yell and withheld video evidence of an officer hitting and cursing at Yell as he was being brought to Logan County Detention Center.
“Mr. Yell ... spent fourteen-plus years defending himself, his life and his name for crimes he did not commit,” Yell’s attorney, Amy Robinson Staples, said in the complaint. “He lived with the fear of execution.”
The lawsuit names as defendants five current or former Russellville Police Department officers: former Chief Jim Pendergraf, Kenneth Edmonds, John Higgins, Chad Eggleston and Ronald Mills; three Kentucky State Police officers: David West, Jaman Childers and William T. Smith; the city of Russellville; Logan County; former Logan County Jailer Bill Jenkins; one-time Scott County sheriff’s deputy, Georgetown Fire Department captain and accelerant detection dog handler Buster Cannon; Scott County; the city of Georgetown; Deputy Alan Gregory of the Kentucky State Fire Marshal’s Office and the estate of Fire Marshal Samuel Jack Flowers.
Yell is seeking unspecified damages on claims of malicious prosecution, due process violations, fabrication of false evidence, failure to intervene, conspiracy to deprive constitutional rights, negligent supervision, intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress, reckless infliction of emotional distress and negligence.
Staples argues that no reliable evidence existed to show that the fire was intentionally set, that Yell attempted to run into the trailer to rescue his son but was tackled by Russellville officers and that laboratory testing of his hands and clothing showed no presence of accelerants.
To get around the absence of accelerants on Yell’s hands and clothing, Staples argues that investigators falsely stated that burn patterns and burn-through on the trailer’s floor indicated that an ignitable liquid had been poured on the floor and that the fire had multiple points of origin due to separate unconnected fires.
“The scientific evidence, however, revealed the exact opposite: that the ‘separate fires’ were a natural outgrowth of the initial fire,” Staples said in the filing, going on to add that Mills had given an account supporting her contention that the fire began in the bedroom and spread quickly throughout Yell’s trailer.
Staples also says in the lawsuit that an accelerant-detection canine handled by Cannon alerted on six locations in the burned trailer indicating the presence of an ignitable liquid in each spot, but subsequent lab tests of samples from each area produced no evidence of any form of ignitable liquid.
Before deploying the dog, Cannon met with Gregory, who shared details of the fire with him as well as details of a domestic dispute between Yell and his wife that preceded the fire.
The dog, PJ, failed to alert while on a long leash that allowed for broad range of movement. The alerts occurred when the dog was put on a shorter leash.
Staples said the conspiracy persisted after the lab results came back negative.
“Ignoring the scientific evidence and standards in place at the time ... Cannon falsely averred that the dog’s nose was ‘more sensitive’ than a laboratory test and that PJ was nearly 100 percent accurate in alerting to the presence of ignitable liquids,” Staples said in the lawsuit. “He stated as such although he had no records of the (dog’s) accuracy because he kept no logs of PJ’s field work and did no follow-up to confirm whether she was right or wrong in her hits.”
Law enforcement also failed to disclose evidence suggesting the fire was accidental, including a potential faulty outlet in the bedroom into which a window air conditioner unit was plugged, according to the lawsuit.
The suit also alleges that police fabricated incriminating statements Yell made at the scene and on the way to jail, and either withheld or destroyed a video in the jail’s sally port purportedly showing Higgins antagonizing Yell about his childrens’ well-being, cursing at and hitting him and deploying pepper spray.
The conviction was overturned after a two-day hearing in 2016 when Yell’s legal team put on expert witnesses who gave testimony establishing that the fire was not intentional and evidence of arson was based on outdated scientific methodology.
Yell was granted a new trial, and the charges against him were dismissed last year.