Courts - Wyoming Judge knocks state's handling of abducted trucker Calls Highway Patrol's settlement agreement 'somewhat sleazy'

By Ben Neary

Associated Press Writer

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) -- The state of Wyoming's treatment of a Wal-Mart trucker kidnapped by a rogue state trooper during an aborted murder plot last year was "somewhat sleazy," a federal judge said Monday.

U.S. District Judge William Downes didn't rule immediately on the state's request to dismiss trucker Richard J. Smidt's civil rights lawsuit.

Former trooper Franklin Ryle pleaded guilty last year to federal charges that he violated Smidt's civil rights by kidnapping him and holding him in his patrol car for about an hour.

Ryle has testified that he had intended to kill Smidt after pulling him over near Douglas in January 2009. Ryle took Smidt to Ryle's house to ask his wife to help stage the accident. She later alerted authorities.

Ryle testified that he released Smidt after having a change of heart. But federal prosecutors argued that Ryle only abandoned his plan after realizing that the global positioning system in Smidt's truck would have proven it had been stationary, not traveling down the road, before getting involved in any accident with Ryle's car.

"It was a very close thing, wasn't it?" Downes asked Smidt's lawyer, Pat Crank, of Cheyenne. "It's only by the grace of God the man's sitting at counsel table today."

Crank responded, "Absolutely, your honor."

Smidt, of Arvada, Colo., approached the Highway Patrol early last year, before news of Ryle's plot broke, to document that Ryle had forced him to abandon his truck for a while by the side of the road.

Smidt's lawsuit states that top Highway Patrol officials entered into a settlement agreement with him, paying him $10,000 to end any claims he might have against the state. He says the officials didn't tell him that they knew Ryle had plotted to kill him.

The Wyoming Attorney General's Office has asked Downes to dismiss Smidt's lawsuit, saying the settlement agreement prevents Smidt from pursuing claims against the state.

"Would that release have been signed if the plaintiff had been informed of Mr. Ryle's full intent?" Downes asked Misha Westby, a lawyer with the Wyoming Attorney General's Office.

Westby responded that the settlement agreement itself warned Smidt that he couldn't rely on any representations from the state in agreeing to accept it.

Crank argued that the settlement agreement was void. Crank said Col. Sam Powell, former head of the Highway Patrol, told Smidt that Ryle had pulled him over only because "he wanted your truck."

Crank said the state didn't have to tell Smidt any reason for Ryle's actions but state officials couldn't be dishonest about it.

"This is the colonel of the Wyoming Highway Patrol, who knows full well that one his troopers has almost murdered a truck driver -- Rick Smidt," Crank said. "They pay him a pittance, $10,000, and have him, without a lawyer, sign a settlement agreement."

Westby told Downes that if he wouldn't dismiss Smidt's lawsuit, then Smidt should first have to file a lawsuit in state court to get a ruling that the settlement agreement was void before he could be allowed to proceed in federal court.

And Westby told Downes the state disagrees with Smidt's claim he wasn't informed of Ryle's plans before accepting the settlement.

"That's not what the facts of this case are," Westby said. "In fact, a full disclosure was made to Mr. Smidt."

Downes, in his closing remarks, said he's glad Smidt is still alive.

"I'm supposed to determine how this somewhat sleazy approach to solving this problem is legal or not, because it doesn't look very good," Downes said.

He said he will rule on the state's request to dismiss the case as soon as possible.

Published: Wed, Jun 16, 2010