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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Joe Riley spent two weeks in Spokane County Jail for assault – he was completely innocent, and now he’s suing

Joe Riley is photographed in Spokane Valley in February 2020. He was charged with assaulting a man at a bar in Spokane Valley in December 2019 and held in jail for two weeks. But he was completely innocent, and now he’s suing for damages.  (KATHY PLONKA/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

In the early morning hours of Dec. 29, 2019, a man badly beat 40-year-old Daniel Jarman in the parking lot outside of Ichabod’s East, a Spokane Valley bar.

Jarman, an Army veteran and father of two, died a few days later at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.

On Jan. 2, 2020, while Jarman was still alive in the hospital, Spokane County Sheriff’s Det. Marc Melville arrested 38-year-old Joe Riley on suspicion of assault. TV viewers and newspaper readers learned Riley’s name after the Sheriff’s Office publicized the arrest, and for thousands of county residents, Joe Riley became linked with Jarman’s killing.

Riley spent two weeks in jail, but he was innocent. He wasn’t in that parking lot, he didn’t know Jarman and he was miles away that night, in his South Hill home.

Now he’s suing the Sheriff’s Office, County Prosecutor Larry Haskell, Spokane Valley and other defendants for a slew of damages. He’s trying to clear his name and get compensation after being falsely arrested for first-degree assault, having his name dragged through the mud and being locked away from his family.

Riley, who owns a Spokane Valley tattoo parlor, said the situation has upended his life. He’s racked up thousands in debt, lost business as a tattoo artist and suffered severe and long-lasting emotional trauma, not to mention the impact of the last two years on his wife and kids.

“The feeling in the pit of my stomach, it’s horrifying,” Riley said. “It’s like one of those dreams you can’t wake up from.”

The Sheriff’s Office didn’t respond to requests for comment, but the agency has described Riley’s arrest as a case of mistaken identity.

Riley says he doesn’t think this was an honest mix-up. This was just terrible police work and there’s no excuse for it, he says.

“They didn’t do an investigation properly,” Riley said. “This isn’t about being stupid; this isn’t about making simple mistakes. Where’s the accountability?”

The lawsuit

Riley’s 37-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court alleges that the Sheriff’s Office made a long list of mistakes while investigating Jarman’s assault. The County Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment, saying it doesn’t discuss cases pending litigation.

The key point the lawsuit argues is that Melville, the Sheriff’s Office detective, should have known Riley wasn’t at Ichabod’s that night in December 2019.

The lawsuit states an Ichabod’s bargoer assumed Riley’s identity the night of Jarman’s beating.

The Spokesman-Review is not using the man’s name because he has not been charged by prosecutors in connection with Jarman’s death.

However, the Sheriff’s Office found the man’s DNA in the car Jarman was sitting in moments before his beating. Ichabod’s had bar receipts in the man’s name that night – there were no receipts with Riley’s name – and phone records suggest he was in the area. The man has a criminal record and has previously been charged in Superior Court with making threatening phone calls.

Riley said it’s incredibly frustrating that the man hasn’t been charged.

“Why is it that my name is plastered everywhere, across the country, across the world?” he said.

The Sheriff’s Office arrested Riley without any physical evidence, tying him to the killing, Riley said, alleging the Sheriff’s Office and county prosecutor have done little to bring the real killer to justice.

“They came after Joe so hard, locked him up and threw him in jail, and now they’ve got a guy, they’ve got even more evidence on him, they’re not charging him at all,” said Doug Phelps, Riley’s attorney.

Even though the man was pretending to be Riley that night, Melville should have quickly and easily realized he wasn’t really the real Joe Riley, for a litany of reasons, the lawsuit argues.

For instance, two women witnessed Jarman’s beating. Initially, they both said they didn’t know who assaulted Jarman.

Plus, Melville should have known Riley wasn’t at Ichabod’s from video camera footage. Video shows both Jarman and the two female witnesses, but not Riley, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also alleges that Melville withheld important information from the probable cause affidavit for Riley’s arrest.

The affidavit didn’t mention that Riley has no criminal history and that none of the bar receipts belonged to him, the lawsuit says.

It also failed to include that an Ichabod’s bartender told Melville that Riley wasn’t at the bar that night.

Two years of hell

When Riley first sat down in his Spokane County Jail cell, he had no clue why he was there. He didn’t learn what he was accused of until he heard his name mentioned in connection with Jarman’s death on TV. He pushed his ear against the cell’s food slot to hear the broadcast.

During his time in jail, Riley feared he’d never get out.

“Those two weeks seemed like a lifetime,” he said. “I really thought, ‘Hey, I’m gone.’ I was writing, basically, goodbye letters to my family.”

The entire time he was in jail, he was terrified.

“There were people that whispered in my ear that they were going to stab me as they walked by,” he said.

Riley said his time in jail was made worse because he has Asperger’s Syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum.

Life didn’t immediately return to normal after Riley got out of jail. It didn’t return to normal even when the charges against him were later dismissed with prejudice.

Riley said he’s had to constantly prove his innocence both to loved ones and strangers. He said he’s had people confront him at the grocery store, while he’s buying a jug of milk for his kids, and talk to him as if he’s a murderer. Even though he’s been officially cleared of all wrongdoing, the issue keeps coming up again and again.

“Every day I wake up worried,” he said. “I find myself always having to explain myself, as if I did something wrong.”

During the first few weeks after he got home, Riley’s wife Shalee Riley followed him everywhere.

“That’s how scared my family was for me,” Riley said. “I would go to work, my wife would sit next to me at work.”

Riley’s tattoo business has been affected, too, because he mostly relies on reputation and referrals. He said he’s lost contracts because of the arrest and the news stories tying his name to Jarman’s death. He said he sometimes has to show clients the paperwork exonerating him before they agree to be tattooed, which he called degrading and humiliating.

“I worked so hard to build up a following over the years,” Riley said. “Next thing I know, everybody’s turning their back on me. Everybody thinks I’m this horrible person.”

The lawsuit doesn’t list a specific dollar request for damages – Riley and Phelps want a judge or jury to decide what the amount should be. And it’s difficult to put a number on the psychological harm the arrest and false accusations have had on Riley and his family. Still, Riley can list a few concrete financial losses off the top of his head.

He’s out $15,000 for posting his $150,000 bond. He had to pay for a private investigator to look into what happened at Ichabod’s. He estimates he’s spent $25,000 on legal fees already.

“I owe a lot of people right now,” Riley said. “I have so much money I have to pay back.”

Riley said the county offered him $25,000 as compensation, which he called “a joke.”

The lawsuit isn’t just about money, Riley said. He said someone has to hold the Sheriff’s Office and Prosecutor’s Office accountable when they make mistakes.

“They had no evidence to back it,” Riley said. “All it took was a he-said, she-said moment, and the police ran with it.”