CEDAR RAPIDS — An Oelwein man is suing Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner, a jail administrator, a federal prosecutor and some U.S. marshals for being brutally assaulted in the Linn County Jail last May by two inmates — a convicted killer and drug dealer.
The lawsuit, filed last year, contends Ethan Palmer's reward for reporting and assisting in an investigation and prosecution of a Justin Michael Buehler, 39, who was convicted and sentenced to 30 years for distributing methamphetamine, was a severe beating by other inmates while in custody in the jail.
Palmer testified against Buehler, despite his "extensive injuries and fear arising from the assault," the suit stated. Palmer's lawyers call is a "cautionary tale" to anyone considering providing assistance to federal prosecutors against a defendant, which could have been prevented and one that could be remedied."
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On Jan. 7, 2019, Palmer gave federal agents information about Buehler regularly selling meth to other employees at Pries Manufacturing in Independence, according to the suit. Later that month, Palmer made controlled purchases of meth from Buehler to assist in the investigation.
Authorities arrested and put Buehler in the Linn County Jail pending his trial.
Palmer was taken from his home on May 27, 2022, by the U.S. Marshals Service as a material witness and placed in the Linn County Jail pending his testimony in Buehler's trial.
The same day, Buehler was being transferred out of jail but before he left, he spoke with Johnny Blahnik Church, formerly known as Drew Blahnik, 36, of Marion, who was convicted of killing Chris Bagley in 2018, and another inmate, Gregory Sills, 49, of Oelwein. Buehler told Blahnik Church and Sills that Palmer had been arrested and would likely be placed at the Linn County Jail.
Buehler gave Palmer's description to Blahnik Church and told him to assault Palmer, and Blahnik Church assured him they would "take care of it." Buehler also told the entire cellblock that Palmer was an informant for federal prosecutors, the suit contends.
Blahnik Church told Sills he intended to beat up Palmer to make him look bad when he testified at Buehler's trial.
Palmer, according to the suit, told some unidentified deputies or jailers upon his arrival that he was a material witness and wanted protective custody. He was initially placed in a single cell but an hour or two later was moved to a general population jail pod, which included Blahnik Church, despite the jail segregation policies to segregate inmates based on violent behavior if they pose a risk to others.
When Palmer learned Buehler was a former bunkmate in his pod, he "pleaded" with some of the deputies or jailers to place him in a single cell but his pleas were ignored, the suit stated.
On May 27, 2022, Palmer was "violently attacked by Church and Sills." Blahnik Church dragged Palmer from the bathroom, throwing him against a table. He then grabbed Palmer and punched him in the face several times, while Sills kicked Palmer in the head.
Blahnik Church then hit Palmer over the head with a dinner tray two times and threw Palmer into a table again, according to the suit.
During the beating, Blahnik and/or Sills told Palmer not to wear a wire, calling him a "rat," and insinuated he would be assaulted again.
Palmer, after regaining consciousness, alerted jail staff with an emergency call button.
The room where Palmer was assaulted is monitored by live video surveillance but none of the deputies or jailers came to Palmer's aid during the attack, according to the suit.
In a jail incident report, one deputy said he was checking each cellblock to see if the inmates were ready to locked down after eating and he noticed one inmate on his hands and knees trying to get up by the door as another inmate was walking away from him, according to the lawsuit. At this time, another deputy came in the control center and advised him that an inmate hit the block buzzer and he said "Help. Help. Help."
Palmer was treated at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics for extensive injuries, including facial trauma, an orbital fracture, broken nose and teeth and a fractured knee.
Palmer was then transferred to the Hardin County Jail and then testified June 7, 2022, in Buehler's trial, where he was convicted.
According to the suit, Sheriff Gardner claims none of the Linn County defendants were provided any classification information regarding why Palmer is being held by federal authorities. But threats to Palmer made some of the deputies or jailers aware that he was testifying against Buehler.
Since the jail assault, Palmer was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and he continues to have physical and mental health complications, the suit contends.
Palmer's federal civil trial in U.S. District Court is set for Aug. 16, 2024.