Response deadline approaches in UK Football players’ civil rights lawsuit against LPD

Lexington, Ky.–Civil defendants including an LPD detective, the Chief of Police, and the local government itself must respond to a federal civil rights lawsuit this week or face default judgment in the case, according to court records. The lawsuit alleges that five Black UK Football players were falsely and maliciously charged with felonies after they were victims of a racist assault at an Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity party in 2021. All criminal charges against the players were later dismissed by a grand jury.

In October, federal District Court Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove agreed to grant the Defedants–Mayor Linda Gorton’s Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, Lexington Police Chief Lawrence Weathers, LPD Detective Cory Vinlove, and LPD Sergeant Donnell Gordon–more time to respond to the lawsuit.

Court order on extension in Phillips, et al V. Vinlove, et al

While such an order would normally be considered mundane, this one stood out because the new deadline fell just days after the Commonwealth Cup, an annual football rivalry game played between the University of Kentucky Wildcats and the University of Louisville Cardinals.

‘Why does that matter?’ you may ask. Well, interestingly enough, Defendant Vinlove, the lead detective on the case, allegedly graduated from the University of Louisville. According to the lawsuit, he filed the charges the day before SEC Media Day in an effort to further his own career and harm the rival UK Football program.

The players sued Vinlove and the other Defendants in September 2022. In October 2022, the judge agreed to move their response deadline until after the rivalry game. This week, after a long wait, the Defendants will finally be required to answer to the pending civil charges against them. Their deadline to respond is December 1.

Phillips, et al V. Vinlove, et al; Complaint, ¶10 – 11

Local media blackout of the lawsuit

There’s been an audible silence lately in the local media around the civil rights lawsuit. When the false charges were originally brought, the local media was abuzz and frequently regurgitated the LPD’s official story, as they often do. When the players’ lawsuit was filed, however, it received scant coverage that was often just a retread of the original coverage with snippets of the plaintiffs’ press release announcing the lawsuit pasted in.

Once the first local stories were published, the local media quickly shelved the story and has not given any updates since. In the Herald-Leader’s endorsement of Mayor Linda Gorton, for example, they made no mention of the lawsuit. Instead, they praised her for the city’s Racial Justice and Equality Commission and changes to the police Disciplinary Review Board.

Timeline of events

Restricted frat Alpha Sigma Phi hosts party anyway

On March 5, 2021, UK placed Alpha Sigma Phi on “interim restriction,” meaning they were not allowed to host any in-person events and/or events with alcohol until a University investigation into fraternity misconduct was completed.

Alpha Sigma Phi Forest Park Road house

Nevertheless, less than 24 hours later, Alpha Sigma Phi hosted a party at a home on Forest Park Road in Lexington, according to the lawsuit.

The chapter’s treasurer collected money for alcohol and the chapter’s social chair, who lived at the house, bartended for the party.

The members announced the party via texts, SnapChat, and Group Me. The fraternity was known for hosting open-invite parties on Forest Park in the past.

Players allege racist assault by Alpha Sigma Phi members, guests

Andru Phillips’ version

That night, Andru Phillips and some other UK Football players were hanging out when they saw the invitation on social media. Football players had gone to open-invite parties at Alpha Sigma Phi’s Forest Park house before, so they decided to check it out. Phillips and teammate Earnest Sanders set out for the party, with plans to meet some other teammates there.

As they were arriving, Phillips received a text that said their teammate Joel Williams had been jumped at the party. The lawsuit gives the rest of his account of that night:

As they walked up to the home, they heard yelling. Known as a “peacemaker,” Mr. Phillips walked up to the open door to check on his friends and teammates.

At the doorway, a female screamed at him to leave. He asked her if she was ok. He then heard male voices yelling racial slurs.

He did not witness any physical altercation, did not assault anyone, was not assaulted, and never saw anyone with a weapon.

There less than five minutes, Mr. Phillips walked back through the front yard and left the party.

Nevertheless, the Lexington Police Department’s Detective Cory Vinlove charged both Phillips and Sanders with 1st degree burglary, a felony, based on the stories of the White fraternity members and their guests.

Reuben “RJ” Adams and Joel Williams’ version

Prior to Phillips’ arrival, between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m., teammates Reuben “RJ” Adams and Joel Williams, and a friend arrived at the Alpha Sigma Phi party. Adams and Williams arrived in separate vehicles at about the same time.

They walked in together and were greeted and welcomed in by a male they believed to be a fraternity member. He was cordial to both. Adams noticed that most of the 30-50 people at the party were heavily intoxicated (despite this, the criminal citations claim alcohol was not involved in the incident.) Unbeknownst to them at the time, LPD had been at the residence earlier for a noise complaint and “loud party.”

As Adams and Williams, who are Black, walked through the party, a White woman loudly yelled, “Who let the n— in?” The lawsuit gives Adams’ account of what happened next:

Other Caucasian fraternity members and guests at the party also began hurling disrespectful, racial slurs toward the young men. Specifically, Mr. Adams heard a Caucasian male call them “p**** ass n******.”

A male Caucasian member of the fraternity yelled at Mr. Adams and Mr. Williams to “get the f*** out.”

Not wanting to cause any trouble and worried for his and his teammate’s safety, Mr. Adams walked towards the back door of the home. Mr. Williams followed.

Mr. Adams made his way out the back door and walked toward his vehicle. He then heard a commotion and walked back towards the home, worried about Mr. Williams, who had not yet made it out.

The lawsuit continues from Williams’ perspective:

As Mr. Adams attempted to leave, male chapter members began pushing Mr. Williams toward the back door. Mr. Williams told the aggressors that he was leaving, but the fraternity members continued their physical assault of Mr. Williams.

Mr. Williams was “jumped” by members and/or guests of the fraternity before he could exit the back door. Multiple male chapter members swung, with their fists, at Mr. Williams. Mr. Williams tried to defend himself before being able to finally run out of the back door.

Nevertheless, the Lexington Police Department’s Detective Cory Vinlove charged Adams and Williams with 1st degree burglary, a felony, based on the stories of the White fraternity members and their guests.

DeVito Tisdale’s version

As Adams and Williams were trying to leave, another team member, DeVito Tisdale, arrived at the party. He knew the house as a “weekend party spot” and had been there for parties before.

As soon as Tisdale walked to the door, he was ambushed, physically assaulted, and called a “n— boy,” according to the lawsuit. Tisdale defended himself from the blows being thrown at him, but ultimately backed off the porch, left the property, and returned to his dorm.

At no point did Tisdale return to the home or have a gun, according to the lawsuit.

Nevertheless, the Lexington Police Department’s Detective Cory Vinlove charged Tisdale with 1st degree burglary and 1st-degree wanton endangerment, both felonies, based on the stories of the White fraternity members and their guests.

LPD investigates, but declares frat “victims”

An Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity member allegedly called the cops. No probable cause was found at the time to make any arrests, but false allegations quickly surfaced of the players having guns at the party. The allegations differed widely. Some alleged they saw one individual with a handgun. Others said they saw up to four individuals with guns. Still others alleged they saw the players wielding knives.

LPD denied an open records request for body camera footage from the scene and the full investigative report, claiming that releasing it could “harm the agency“.

The abbreviated report LPD did release lists 10 alleged victims. Their account does not include any mention of the alleged racial slurs. The report does say the “victims” stated the players had a gun and endangered them with it, though. The grand jury rejected this claim.

The victims stated the suspects, with the intent to commit a crime, knowingly entered or remained unlawfully in a building, and were armed with deadly weapons and caused physical injury to any person who is not a participant in the crime.

The victims stated, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, wantonly engaged in conduct which created a substantial danger of death or serious physical injury to another person.

The victims stated the suspected intentionally or wantonly caused physical injury to another person.

Phillips only learned he was accused of assault from his coaching staff. Adams cooperated with the police investigation and even voluntarily took pictures of his hands and knuckles for the cops, to demonstrate that he hadn’t assaulted anyone. Both Phillips and Adams denied being involved in a physical altercation.

Defendant Vinlove takes over

A little over 24 hours after the alleged racist assault, Det. Vinlove took over the investigation. The lawsuit doesn’t mince words describing his involvement:

Despite learning from the beginning of the investigation that it was the fraternity members and their guests who assaulted Mr. Williams and Mr. Tisdale, and not vice versa, and knowing that Mr. Phillips did not assault anyone, Defendant Vinlove refused to charge the culpable parties of the assault and used racial slurs– the fraternity members.

Instead, Defendant Vinlove, a white officer, set out to make a name for himself and conspired to frame Plaintiff and his teammates.

Indeed, less than three weeks later, Vinlove allegedly fabricated information in a sworn affidavit to a Fayette County District Court Judge to seize the contents of Adams’ phone.

Specifically, Defendant Vinlove swore that Mr. Adams admitted to being involved in a physical altercation with two male white occupants of the home resulting in bruising to his knuckles, despite allegedly having physical evidence to the contrary.

Vinlove also seized Phillips’ phone and in an April 21, 2021 affidavit for search warrant for the contents of Phillips’ phone, included the same allegedly fabricated information.

UK clears the players of any wrongdoing

UK’s Office of Student Conduct held a hearing regarding the allegations against the players. Multiple fraternity members acted as witnesses during the hearing and corroborated the players’ story. On April 23, 2021, UK cleared the players of any wrongdoing at the party. The players, who had been suspended from the team pending the case’s outcome, were fully reinstated and began practicing with the team in June.

The lawsuit alleges that Vinlove and the other LPD officers had access to all the same information UK had access to, but intentionally ignored the information in their quest to frame the players.

LPD knew frat members used football roster and “threw out names” to identify alleged assailants

Vinlove and LPD were also aware that the accusers had an unreliable process for deciding which players to accuse, according to the lawsuit. It alleges that Alpha Sigma Phi members got together and “threw out names” while perusing a UK Football roster. Vinlove was also allegedly aware that they had all been drinking alcohol, there was low lighting, and the altercation occurred at 2:00 a.m.

Charges announced months later, right before SEC Media Day

Over five months later, on August 12, 2021, despite allegedly knowing that probable cause did not exist to charge the players, Vinlove filed felony charges against the players.

All five players were charged with 1st-degree burglary, a class B felony. Tisdale was also charged with 1st-degree wanton endangerment, a class D felony, over the gun allegations. Class B felonies are punishable by 10 – 20 years in prison in Kentucky.

A press release issued by LPD’s Sgt. Donnell Gordon has been removed from LFUCG’s website, but a WKYT story at the time detailed what the release said:

According to police, on Saturday, March 6, 2021, there was a private party being thrown at a residence. During the party, three individuals entered the residence uninvited and were asked to leave. The individuals became upset and threatened they would return.

Police say a short time later, the three individuals returned with additional subjects. The group forced their way into the residence. One suspect was observed pointing a firearm at a victim.

Police say Tisdale has an added charge of wanton endangerment because they say he was identified as the suspect who pointed the gun.

The press release was picked up by the Associated Press and published by media outlets around the world. The players allege that any time someone Googles their names now, those reports are among the first to pop up.

Grand jury rejects Vinlove’s tales

On September 28, 2021, Defendant Vinlove presented his bogus charges to a Fayette County grand jury, who rejected his claims and returned no true bill. The players were immediately reinstated to the team and some reacted on social media.

Andru Phillips reacts to the grand jury’s decision

The damage done

The lawsuit lists an array of damages the players suffered as a result of their wrongful prosecution.

  • Suspended from the University of Kentucky football team for months
    • prohibited from practicing with the team
    • banned from eating meals with the team – causing a financial burden
    • banned from conditioning and working out with the team
    • stripped of playing in the first four football games of the 2021 season, forever altering his career football statistics
  • Reputation suffered, resulting in financial injury, both present and future.
    • Missed out on NIL deals
    • Strangers disparaged them on social media and in public
    • Were forced to limit public appearances and delete social media
  • Emotional pain and suffering
    • The players mental health suffered as the felt defenseless against the wrongful prosecution.
    • Phillips was so anxious, nervous, and depressed that he lost 30 pounds, affecting his standing on the team when he returned.
  • Education and career suffered
    • The players’ cell phones were confiscated subject to a search warrant. They used their phones to remotely attend classes, submit work, and check their schedules.
    • The players grades suffered as a result.
    • The felony charges affected their ability to get internships.

The charges

The lawsuit lists five federal civil charges against the Defendants: Malicious prosecution and fabrication of false evidence by Defendant Vinlove and other officers, supervisory liability and failure to intervene by Defendant Weathers and LFUCG, and conspiracy to deprive constitutional rights against all defendants. The lawsuit also claims defamation and negligent hiring under state law.

Count I – 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Malicious Prosecution

In the manner described more fully above, Defendants made, influenced and/or participated in the decision to prosecute Plaintiff, for which prosecution there was no probable cause and which caused Plaintiff to suffer a deprivation of liberty. Their misconduct included falsifying evidence and withholding exculpatory and impeachment evidence.

Count II – 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – Fourth Amendment
Fabrication of False Evidence

In the manner described more fully above, the Defendant Officers, individually, jointly and in conspiracy with each other, fabricated evidence, including without limitation, false police reports, fabricated statements attributed to witnesses, and fabricated testimony offered at grand jury and other pretrial proceedings. Defendants knowingly fabricated this evidence and a reasonable likelihood exists that the false evidence affected the decision of the grand jurors and courts that considered this false evidence when determining whether probable cause existed.

The Defendant Officers were acting under color of law and within their scope of employment when they took these actions.

Defendants misconduct directly resulted in the unjust continued prosecution of Plaintiff, thereby denying him from his constitutional right to due process as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Absent this misconduct, there would have been no probable cause for Plaintiff’s continued prosecution, and the prosecution of Plaintiff could not and would not have been pursued.

Count III – 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Supervisory Liability

Furthermore, these supervisory defendants failed to supervise the Defendant Officers in constitutionally adequate law enforcement practices, particularly those which concerned interviews of suspects and the production of exculpatory evidence, thereby encouraging and/or permitting these employees and other defendants to engage in a reckless investigation, to coerce and fabricate false inculpatory evidence and to withhold exculpatory and impeachment evidence, which caused the constitutional deprivations suffered by Plaintiff.

Count IV – 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Failure to Intervene

In the manner described above, during the constitutional violations described above, one or more of the Defendant Officers stood by without intervening to prevent the misconduct, despite having a reasonable opportunity to do so.

The misconduct described in this Count was undertaken pursuant to the policy and practice of the Lexington Police Department in the manner described more fully in preceding paragraphs, and was tacitly ratified by policymakers for the municipal defendants with final policymaking authority.

Count V – 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Conspiracy to Deprive Constitutional Rights

After the underlying incident, the Defendants reached an agreement amongst themselves to frame Plaintiff for the crimes, and to thereby deprive him of his constitutional rights and his liberty to be continuously taken away from him, all as described in the various Paragraphs of this Complaint