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Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Ava's Grace Scholarship Program presents college scholarships to children of Incarcerated parents

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell delivers the keynote address during the Ava's Grace Scholarship Program annual scholarship presentation luncheon at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. The group presents scholarships to graduating seniors whose parents are incarcerated and who are attending four-year, two-year or technical training after completing high school. Photo by Sid Hastings

It started like a bad April Fool’s joke.

It was April 1, 2014, and the Clayton Police Department arrested Town and Country attorney Scott Ehlermann and booked him on suspicion of felony stealing.

The allegation was that Ehlermann had taken a document from a case file in St. Louis County Circuit Court. Ehlermann and Marie Lipowicz, who is also an attorney, were going through a difficult custody dispute. She had filed for an order of protection against him related to their son. There was a dispute about a requirement of a consent decree that allegedly contained two pages.

Scott Ehlermann’s decree only had one page. When he went to the court, he found the consent decree in the file also only had one page.

From the moment he was charged, Ehlermann denied taking anything.

Here’s how his attorneys, Jeff Goldfarb and Will Goldstein, described what happened in a recent letter to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell:

As Ehlermann was looking at the court file, he took a folded copy of his consent decree from his pocket to compare to the one in the file. “He then folded up his copy and placed it back in his pocket, organized the court file, and returned it (to the clerk).”

So why were Goldfarb and Goldstein writing Bell?

Because five years, seven witnesses, six judges, 38 subpoenas, a grand jury and two canceled trials later, the case against Ehlermann was still hanging over his head.

Until Monday.

That’s when Bell’s office dropped the case, and suggested that the previous prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, had engaged a massive waste of resources on what might have been a “personal grudge,” says Sam Alton, Bell’s chief of staff.

“This is exactly one of the reasons Wesley Bell ran for office,” Alton says. “The whole idea of this being a felony in the first place is unbelievable. He’s been run through the wringer since 2014, all without evidence that is sufficient to prosecute.”

The last time the charges were dropped, McCulloch blamed a judge’s ruling, and then refiled them as a misdemeanor. At the time, Ehlermann said he thought McCulloch had it out for him.

“I was an intern under (McCulloch) and I guess he’s got a vendetta. All they’re trying to do is smear my name,” he said.

In their letter to Bell, asking his office to look at the case again, Goldfarb and Goldstein make a similar case.

“It is important to note that Scott was not well liked by the previous administration,” the attorneys wrote. “Scott had worked as an intern in the office and had a falling out with Bob McCulloch. We do not mean to suggest that the prosecution against Scott was malicious, just that when the issue arose, logic and common sense were brushed aside. The disdain for Scott among many within that office resulted in an illogical prosecution.”

McCulloch could not be reached for comment.

The clerk who was present when Ehlermann looked at the court file that day said in a deposition that she didn’t see him take anything from the file. But until Bell’s office took over, the case persisted.

The assistant prosecutor who handled the case the longest, Ed McSweeney, was among the first of the McCulloch loyalists to be fired by Bell when he took office. McSweeney infamously turned to Facebook after Bell won and wrote that “County voters will soon regret what they did.”

That’s definitely not the case for Ehlermann.

“I appreciate the new regime at the prosecuting attorney’s office looking into my case and understanding what really went down,” he says. “I praise their effort to look at the truth. Wesley Bell and Sam Alton deserve praise to push this county in a new direction of seeking the truth for the public good. I truly believe the prosecutor’s office has not only a duty to prosecute cases but also not to prosecute cases when the truth is overwhelming against their own interest and not to rely on any political or other motives when taking action.”

This is the new culture in progressive prosecutors’ offices all over the country. It is the spirit behind conviction integrity units, like the one operating in St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s office and the one close to being up and running in Bell’s office.

Justice in 2019 isn’t just about law and order.

It’s about the truth.

And that’s no joke.

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