By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 2009
The judgment stood for one day before unraveling. It was a plot so off the wall, so bizarre, that U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon said it was "like something out of a novel."
After serving a prison term for molesting an eighth-grader in Ohio, David Copeland-Jackson moved to the District to live with his mother. He e-mailed a buddy and together, federal authorities said, they came up with a plan that would fool a respected judge into issuing a $3 million defamation order against Copeland-Jackson's victim.
Copeland-Jackson relied on forged documents, the victim's unwitting assistance and the help of a 71-year-old paralegal who had become interested in his case. He even hired a handwriting expert and impersonated a private detective, authorities said.
Last month, a federal grand jury indicted Copeland-Jackson on charges of conspiring to commit perjury and obstruct justice. Copeland-Jackson, 36, of Southeast Washington, has pleaded not guilty.
Copeland-Jackson's attorney, Robert Lee Jenkins Jr., said that his client was contrite and that "we are trying to resolve this matter by way of plea." His mother said she can't believe this is happening. "He would do anything for anybody," Peggy Copeland said.
On Friday, his friend Peter J. Brandel, 71, of Mansfield, Ohio, pleaded guilty to conspiracy before Leon, whose facial expressions signaled increasing astonishment as the details tumbled out. Brandel faces up to 2 1/2 years in prison under federal guidelines at his sentencing in November.
The victim, Joseph Cutlip, now 24 and still living in Ohio, learned about the scheme only when it was too late -- two years ago, when he received a court notice about the defamation suit in the mail. "My body felt numb," Cutlip said. He was just getting over the trauma of the abuse, said Cutlip, who agreed to be named for this story. "It all sent me back into a deep depression. I just didn't understand how he had taken advantage of me twice."
To understand what happened, it helps to start at the beginning.
In 1999, Cutlip was an eighth-grader in Ashland, Ohio, and Copeland-Jackson, then 26, was one of his tutors. Copeland-Jackson molested Cutlip while helping the 14-year-old on a school project. He was convicted of two counts of gross sexual imposition of Cutlip and another boy and sentenced to three years in state prison, court records show.
While in an Ohio prison, he befriended Brandel, a paralegal who had learned about the case and believed that Copeland-Jackson had been wrongly accused, federal prosecutors said.
Copeland-Jackson was released from prison in late 2003. He changed his name legally to Xavier Justice in 2004, but he used both identities interchangeably and filed the federal suit under his original name, prosecutors said.
He moved to the District to live with his mother, and in 2006 he contacted Brandel and they started work on a scheme that they hoped would "coerce or fool" Cutlip into recanting his accusations, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Mitzelfeld wrote in court papers.
They soon settled on filing a federal defamation lawsuit. But first, federal prosecutors said, they needed Cutlip's signature so they could forge the necessary court documents. Brandel filed a separate small-claims suit in April 2007, alleging that Cutlip had broken into his shed in Ohio and stolen tools and a barbecue grill, prosecutors said.
They knew the suit would go nowhere, prosecutors said, because Cutlip had been jailed on a separate burglary conviction when the tools were supposedly stolen from Brandel's shed. But that was all part of the plan.
Cutlip quickly contested the suit, and Brandel arrived at his front door the next month to apologize, according to authorities. He told Cutlip that he needed his signature on documents to have the case dismissed. Cutlip signed the records in front of a notary public.
"I had no idea he was connected to" Copeland-Jackson, Cutlip said. "I was just happy to have that suit go away."
In June, Copeland-Jackson filed his $3 million defamation of character lawsuit against Cutlip before U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle. He alleged that he was defamed by "false comments to third parties that [he] engaged in certain homosexual activities with" him.
Copeland-Jackson, who represented himself, soon filed court papers falsely claiming that the suit had been served on Cutlip, and Brandel signed an affidavit, under penalty of perjury, that he had handed the papers to Cutlip.
Copeland-Jackson then filed court papers in which Brandel swore that Cutlip had told him he was "sorry for lying" about the sex abuse accusations. Over the next few months, Copeland-Jackson even filed court papers on behalf of Cutlip -- forging his signature on the documents -- saying the allegations had been false and he didn't wish to contest the defamation suit, federal prosecutors allege.
"I did not have any kind of sexual contact with David Copeland-Jackson," Cutlip supposedly wrote in one document. "I willfully lied."
Because the sex abuse case occurred in Ohio, Huvelle ordered Copeland-Jackson to explain why she had jurisdiction in the D.C. civil suit. That's where Xavier Justice came in. Copeland-Jackson then filed an affidavit by a private investigator -- Justice -- who reported that Cutlip has family in the District and has lived here.
In a letter to Copeland-Jackson about his investigation that was filed in the case, Xavier Justice added an aside, apparently to make the document seem authentic. "Hit the gym this summer so you work out that stress," Justice wrote to Copeland-Jackson.
Of course, federal prosecutors said, Xavier Justice actually was Copeland-Jackson.
In August 2007, Huvelle granted Copeland-Jackson the $3 million judgment. About that time, Cutlip first learned about the legal action after receiving a court notice in the mail that said he had lost a suit filed by Copeland-Jackson. Worried, Cutlip forwarded the letter to the local prosecutors' office in Ohio, which immediately alerted Huvelle that Copeland-Jackson had molested Cutlip, was a registered sex offender and was on parole for the offense.
The judge also received a letter from a perplexed and upset Cutlip. "Would you please send me the paperwork on what Copeland-Jackson is suing me for," he asked.
Huvelle quickly vacated the judgment, which stood for one day.
Cutlip said he is angry about what happened. The abuse wrecked his life, he said, and he later did a stint in prison. After learning about the suit, he said, he grew depressed, started drinking and lost his job. Now sober, he is looking for work but can't get over his anger at Copeland-Jackson and hopes he gets a long prison term.
He is also upset with Huvelle. "If she had done any footwork at all, she would have known this was all bogus," Cutlip said.
Huvelle declined to comment. At a hearing after learning about Copeland-Jackson's actions in August 2007, she said she had referred the matter to federal authorities to investigate.
"I regret to say I was not astute enough to stop this," she said at the time.