The Omaha police union has filed a defamation lawsuit against a local activist for accusing a police officer of killing a gang member.
Not only was Officer Ryan Sedlacek not present or on duty when Jimmy Levering was shot to death in 2011, the lawsuit says, but the bullet that killed Levering wasn't from a police officer's firearm.
The Omaha Police Officers Association filed the lawsuit Thursday against Mark Welsch on behalf of Sedlacek, who has retired because of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Welsch is “accusing somebody literally of killing somebody else,” said union president John Wells. “It's not like you're accusing him of jaywalking, of having bad taste in music.”
Welsch declined to comment on the lawsuit.
“I will need to study it more and I will probably need to talk to an attorney before I say anything more to the media,” he said.
Also named as defendants are the Omahans for Justice Alliance and Nebraskans for Peace. Welsch is a spokesman for both groups and president of GASP, an anti-smoking group.
Levering's family originally believed that an officer shot him. At the hospital, Levering's cousin, Robert Wagner, became involved in an altercation with police officers in which he called them “cop killers.”
Officers gang tackled, punched, kicked and shocked Wagner with a Taser. He was charged with assaulting an officer for allegedly punching one.
The union's lawsuit, filed in Douglas County District Court, comes a day after prosecutors allowed Wagner to plead to a reduced charge of misdemeanor attempted assault on an officer.
Wagner's first trial last month ended in a hung jury.
Welsch repeatedly told courtroom gallery members that the reason Wagner and other members of Levering's family were at the hospital was because Sedlacek had shot and killed Levering.
Welsch made the same claim in an email sent to hundreds of people before Wagner's trial.
Under the subject line, “Why Aren't Police on Trial?” Welsch wrote: “The public deserves answers to questions about this uncalled-for, brutal beating of a man who was grieving with his family because Omaha police officer Ryan Sedlacek shot and killed his cousin a few hours earlier.”
The union lawsuit also refers to an April press conference in which Welsch made a similar claim. He alleged that Sedlacek had asked to leave the police gang unit and was denied.
“He has to live with him killing a man but that's how maybe he saw that as his only way out of that stressful situation,” Welsch said, according to the lawsuit. “So he shot Jimmy in the head, killed him, and now he's on a pension for the rest of his life.”
Omaha police officers were helping to disperse the crowd at Club Seville near 30th and Pratt Streets when Levering and another man were shot.
Detectives almost immediately focused their investigation on Sidney Smith, who was seen confronting Levering inside the bar. Smith blamed Levering for the shooting of Smith's brother — one of a few murders that Levering was suspected in.
Smith has never been charged in Levering's slaying.
Under state law, a grand jury would have to be called if a police officer killed someone. No grand jury has ever been called in Levering's death.
“It was not an officer's firearm that killed Levering,” Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said. “If it had been, we would have had a grand jury.”
Welsch's allegations of an officer-involved shooting echoed the grief-filled comments that were made at the hospital by Levering's family members.
Wells, the union president, said Sedlacek fears retaliation against himself, the department or his family.
“If somebody wants to debate a policy or procedure or the overall direction of the department, so be it. That's their God-given right,” Wells said. “But you cross a line when you make unsubstantiated claims with no basis in fact against officers. . .it's dangerous.”
Welsch's comments have exacerbated Sedlacek's post-traumatic stress disorder, said the lawsuit, and he recently had to be hospitalized.
“He had his own issues to deal with,” Wells said. “He certainly doesn't need this.”
The lawsuit asks for an unspecified amount of money.
Detective Billie Jo Ceglar testified at Wagner's trial that she asked Levering's family who would want to kill Levering.
“They said, ‘Everyone,'” Ceglar testified.
Ceglar then asked who might have shot Levering. “The police,” they said, according to Ceglar.
That notion spread throughout the hospital as more members of Levering's family grieved his loss. It was further fueled by reports that Omaha police had broadcast a “help an officer” call as the commotion broke out outside Club Seville.
It is unclear when Sedlacek's name became inserted into the discussion of a night he wasn't even on duty. Welsch said he couldn't comment about that.
Sedlacek was a member of the gang unit for five years and was present when Officer Frank Platt shot gang member Jovan Reed in March 2008. A grand jury cleared the officers of wrongdoing.
Both Sedlacek and Platt retired with service-related disability pensions after doctors diagnosed them with post traumatic stress disorder.
Contact the writer: