Junk Science Arson-Murder Conviction Leads to Wrongful Prosecution Suit

A Kentucky man who served 12 years for an arson-related murder that he was subsequently cleared of, has filed suit against a number of arson investigators and law enforcement officers who he claims “conspired to frame him for various offenses, including… capital murder… attempted murder … and first-degree of arson.”

Robert Yell was found guilty of first-degree arson, second-degree manslaughter, first-degree assault, disorderly conduct and fourth-degree assault by a Logan County Circuit Court jury in 2006. The charges stemmed from a fire in a trailer in Russellville in 2004 that killed his 2-year-old son, Cameron. Yell was sentenced to 52 years in prison.

As explained in the complaint:

  • Over fourteen years later, on March 18, 2019, the Logan Circuit Court entered an Order granting the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s request to dismiss all charges against Mr. Yell.
  • Mr. Yell now brings this lawsuit seeking justice for the harm caused to him by the Defendants’ misconduct and seeking to enforce the Constitutional right to liberty guaranteed to all citizens by the United States Constitution.
  • On September 11, 2004 at approximately 7:30 pm, Robert Yell’s trailer caught fire.
  • His two children, two-year-old Cameron and eleven-month-old Saralynn, were inside the burning home.
  • Mr. Yell’s girlfriend and the mother of his children, April, ran into the trailer to retrieve Saralynn. Saralynn suffered third-degree burns over 50% of her body.
  • Mr. Yell, too, attempted to run into the burning home to retrieve his children.
  • The Defendant Russellville Officers, however, physically tackled and dragged Mr. Yell away from the fire, preventing him from entering the trailer to retrieve Cameron.
  • Tragically, Cameron perished from smoke inhalation before firefighters were able to pull him out of the blaze.
  • Defendant Russellville Officers Higgins and Mills arrested Mr. Yell at the scene for alcohol intoxication.
  • Rather than truly investigate the fire, the Defendant Russellville Officers, the Defendant KSP Officers, the Defendant Fire Marshals, and Defendant Cannon short-circuited the process and myopically focused on Mr. Yell to solve what they said was a crime.
  • The Defendants named Mr. Yell a “suspect” before even conducting a fire investigation.
  • To this day, there is no physical evidence that the fire was deliberately set.
  • Instead, all the evidence at the crime scene was consistent with an accidental fire.
  • For example, the burn patterns were entirely consistent with a fire that began without the use of an accelerant.
  • Further, laboratory testing confirmed the absence of accelerants at the scene and on Mr. Yell’s person.
  • To get around the obvious problem of no accelerants being found on Mr. Yell or at the scene, the Defendants fabricated conclusions as to the cause of the blaze that were not scientifically supported, relied upon unconfirmed “hits” by an accelerant detection canine (ADC), failed to document possible accidental sources of the fire, and manufactured false statements incriminating Mr. Yell.
  • The fabricated evidence was inconsistent with the crime scene.
  • Similarly, Defendants West, Cannon, Gregory and Flowers fabricated findings – known at the time to be false – that there were multiple “points of origin” of the blaze because of three areas of “low burn” that the Defendants claimed were separate and unconnected.
  • The scientific evidence, however, revealed the exact opposite: that the “separate fires” were a natural outgrowth of the initial fire – a conclusion supported by Defendant Mills’ own  observations.
  • To further their fabricated claim that the fire was an incendiary fire for which Mr. Yell was responsible, Defendants West, Cannon, Gregory, Edmonds and Flowers fabricated unconfirmed alerts of Defendant Cannon’s ADC, PJ.
  • Specifically, Defendant Cannon alleged that the ADC “hit” on six separate locations in the living room, kitchen and bedroom of the trailer, indicating an ignitable liquid was present in each location.
  • The scientific evidence, however, revealed otherwise: Subsequent gas chromatograph examination by the Kentucky State Police Laboratory of all six samples were negative for the presence of any form of ignitable liquid.
  • Continuing their conspiracy to frame Mr. Yell for an intentional arson and resulting murder, Defendant Gregory called in Defendant Cannon to “verify his findings” of an incendiary fire.
  • To that end, Defendants Gregory and Cannon met for breakfast before Defendant Cannon conducted the walk through with PJ so that Defendant Gregory could tell Defendant Cannon the areas in which he wanted the dog to concentrate.
  • Defendant Gregory shared other details of the fire with Defendant Cannon before Defendant Cannon went to the scene, including details of a domestic altercation Mr. Yell – the “suspect”- and his children’s mother had prior to the fire and that Mr. Yell had been drinking on the day in question.
  • Thereafter, Defendant Cannon conducted an interior “examination” of the trailer with the ADC. On the initial walk through, Defendant Cannon put her on a long leash to allow her “to roam as she pleases.”
  • While on the long leash, PJ failed to alert anywhere.
  • To manipulate the “evidence” of an intentional fire and further the confirmation bias, Defendant Cannon immediately put PJ on a short leash and showed her where to sniff.
  • Only then did PJ behave (sitting) in a manner that Defendant Cannon alleged was an alert – in six different spots in the trailer.
  • To reward this behavior, and further manipulate the evidence, Defendant Cannon told PJ she was a “pretty girl” and gave her a treat after each “alert.”
  • If she failed to “alert”, Defendant Cannon did not reward her with food.
  • Defendants West, Cannon, Gregory, Flowers and Edmonds intentionally failed to document or accurately video record the walk through with PJ so that it could not be properly challenged.
  • No one, including Defendant Cannon, retained or disclosed any record of where, how, or with what specific encouragement PJ sat down six times in the trailer.

Named in the complaint are the City of Russellville, five Russellville police officers, three Kentucky State Police Officers, Captain Buster Cannon of the Georgetown Fire Department, the City of Georgetown, Deputy State Fire Marshal Alan Gregory, the Estate of former Kentucky State Fire Marshal Samuel Jack Flowers, Logan County and a Logan County jailer. It contains fourteen counts:

  • Count I – 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – Malicious Prosecution
  • Count II – 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – Due Process Violations
  • Count III – 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments Fabrication of False Evidence
  • Count IV – 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – Supervisory Liability
  • Count V – 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – Failure to Intervene
  • Count VI – 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – Conspiracy to Deprive Constitutional Rights
  • Count VII – 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – Monell Claim Against Defendant City of Russellville
  • Count VIII – 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – Monell Claim Against Defendant Logan County
  • Count IX – State Law Claim – Malicious Prosecution
  • Count X – State Law Claim – Negligent Supervision
  • Count XI – State Law Claim – Intentional or Reckless Infliction of Emotional Distress
  • Count XII – State Law Claim – Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress
  • Count XIII – State Law Claim – Negligence
  • Count XIV – Respondeat Superior

Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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