That Thursday April morning began just as the rest of his days at the Budget Inn Motel on Government Street in downtown Mobile. Spring was here and Ken was up and out by 6:45AM, crossing Government Street to McDonald’s for his usual oatmeal breakfast. He would look through the window and watch the world in all its hurry, hustle, and bustle pass by. His mind then drifted to Momma Gray, his furry feline friend who was for all purposes his only family. After breakfast, he made his “catwalk” to find and feed Momma Gray. He loved that old cat. He usually fed her twice a day, once in the morning and again later in the afternoon. Usually, as lunch would roll around, Ken would visit Popeyes just down the street and order his 2-piece mild with cole-slaw (they give senior discounts, usually 10%). He would routinely dine in, for it was a respite from the old Budget Inn. After lunch, he would return to his room and hang out for a while, watch some TV, and later take a walk to find Momma Gray. Ken would come back to his room late afternoon or early evening. He usually skipped dinner and would turn in early, but today would be different.
I first met Ken routinely walked by my office in the early afternoon hours with a sleeve of turkey. I thought it odd at first. I figured he must live in the area. And then I would sometimes see him in the morning. Ken, I would later learn, was the son of a World War I veteran. Ken, like his father, served his country. Ken signed up for service when he was just 18 years old. He moved to Mobile because of the beautiful buildings and homes. He was in Air Force for 10 years and later in the Navy for 3 years . While in the Navy, he served in Scotland and Japan during the height of the Cold War. As a communications technician, he monitored Russians.
He sauntered at his own pace as his years seemed to suggest he was on his own time. My curiosity ended when I saw him in my office parking lot feeding a grey stray cat one afternoon. Her name was Momma Gray, and boy did Ken love that cat. I would see Ken so frequently that I finally invited him in for lunch motivated every bit as much by the curiosity as the hospitality. He always politely declined. My mother, who works with us, really took a liking to Ken. After a few months, Ken became a regular. If we missed seeing Ken, we would be worried something happened to him. Alas, our worries would subside when we would see him the next day. The only creature who showed more affection than my mother to ole Ken, was Momma Gray. Momma Gray had many food suitors, but that cat would curl up around Ken’s legs and purr her way into his heart every time I saw them together. Ken loved her, and she loved him, or his turkey.
Soon, I learned that Ken lived just down the street from my office at The Budget Inn Motel on Government Street. I knew then that Ken must be on a fixed income, and at times I worried for his safety. The Budget Inn Motel has been the source of many a moment of high drama in the neighborhood. Just ask the Mobile Police Department and/or Mobile Fire Rescue who have responded to the facility before. Just two months before this, SWAT team members were called to this Budget Inn after a man made threat to local law enforcement and called WPMI NBC 15 promising to “shoot someone to get on TV.”
In April 2016, a white male chased 2 females through the front gate of my office. The females were screaming and the male was yelling that the females had robbed him. Shortly thereafter, the male fell on the sidewalk in front of my office and began seizing. We rushed over to help him, but not before one of the females yelled, “be careful, he’s got HIV!”
It was quite an afternoon, as we called 911 and waited for police and emergency responders. While waiting, I noticed a 12 pack of Icehouse beer overturned near the front porch of my office. I guess those must have been too important for them to leave behind at the Budget Inn where they all were staying.
It was around lunch on Friday, April 22, 2016 when I received the call from my office. “Matt, did you see the news about Ken?” I had not. “He’s been arrested for allegedly throwing bleach in one of the Budget Inn worker’s face.” I quickly checked online and the story with Ken’s mugshot appeared online. I could not believe what I was reading. Ken? No way. My mind then raced to the fact that poor Ken was indigent and in all likelihood, sitting in jail unable to make whatever bond he had.
I then called a local bonding company to confirm my worst fears.Ken was still in jail. For those of you who have not experienced bonding out a friend or family member, it is not a pleasant experience, and can take hours to accomplish even with an attorney. And so I found myself sitting across the table from a local bonding agent that afternoon helping bond him out of jail. After determining the charges, assault, 2nd degree (a felony) and menacing (a misdemeanor) the bonding company processed the paperwork and we walked over to the Metro Jail “docket room” to post the bond and wait for the jailers to process the release. For those of you who have not been to the docket room, it is a dreary place. It has the feeling of a small ER waiting room, with much less light. As I took my seat in the docket room alongside other folks waiting, I asked how long they had been waiting. Their responses were not encouraging. As I waited I saw countless others come in and do the same thing I did. Occasionally, I would hear the electric buzzing followed immediately by the metallic clicking of the steel doors unlocking to reveal the body of some poor sap belched from the belly of Metro Jail.
After several hours of waiting, I stepped outside the docket room to get some fresh air and sunshine. Shift change hit, and several corrections officers exited and I said hello to several who I recognized from my days on the municipal court bench. Finally I hear an old man quarreling near the door with a corrections officer. It was Ken. I heard him tell the jailer who was bringing him out that he did not want to be released and to leave him there. The corrections officer told him that he had to go, his bond had been posted. I stepped up to the curb to greet Ken, and I gently touched his arm and said, “Ken, it’s me, I bonded you out.” He then looked at me with this distant glazed look in his eyes as if I was some stranger. He interrupted the awkward silence with, “Who are you?” I responded, “Ken, it’s me, Matt, remember me?” It took a few seconds but the light bulb brightened, “Oh yes.What are you doing here?” Ken required assistance to get to my car, he could barely walk. It was then that I saw just how injured he was. Ken looked like someone had savagely assaulted him. His wounds were consistent with defensive wounds. The tops of both arms were purple and his face was clawed to hell and back.I thought to myself, how is HE the DEFENDANT?
I helped him to my car and drove him to my office. We helped in and treated all his wounds. I photographed him too, as I knew we needed to document his condition.
As we doctored him up, we realized that he could not return to his home (room) at the Budget Inn. The purported victim lived there and she had several family members who could make short work of Ken. As we were about to leave my office, several local TV stations were now running the story that Ken had thrown bleach in some poor woman’s eyes. The Mobile Police Department issued a formal statement:
This was the narrative being pushed by the media too. From the looks of the online remarks from the AL.COM story, Ken was GUILTY AS CHARGED.
After cleaning him up, we drove Ken back to his room to gather his belongings. The accommodations I witnessed were meager. It took him about 10 minutes to gather most of his possessions and to move on with his life. Ken was able to call a friend in Saraland who offered his trailer to share with him. Once we secured safe housing for him, I told Ken to come see me the next week and we would talk about his representation.
True to his word, Ken returned the next week and we discussed what happened. I also learned more about Ken in our meeting. Ken had a prior verbal altercation with the motel cleaning woman, Bonita McPherson. According to Ken, Bonita provided cleaning and custodial services to the motel in exchange for discounted room rates at the motel. Because Ken did not want Bonita anywhere near his room and personal effects and because she was prone to bouts of volatile behavior, the motel made arrangements for other staff to clean Ken’s room earlier that day. On the day in question, his commode needed cleaning. He noticed Bonita’s cleaning cart in front of the room next to him that belonged to the motel and borrowed the bleach on it with the intention of returning. He took the bleach into his bathroom to go clean his commode. The next thing Ken heard was Bonita busting in his room and she “rushed me.” Although the door to Ken’s room was open, she came in uninvited and “began hitting me.” “She just came at me.” Ken still had the bottle of bleach in his hands from cleaning (the cap was off). As Bonita assaulted him, Ken raised his hands with the bleach in it to defend himself. She repeatedly screamed, “GIMME MY BLEACH! GIMME MY BLEACH!” Ken described her as losing it and going “totally bonkers. He estimated she struck him a dozen times. He was emphatic that he did not throw bleach in her eyes. The injuries to the backside of Ken’s arm corroborated his story. Ken said the bleach spilled all over him too. We took pictures of his shirt showing the bleach stains on it.
Bonita eventually left and her son called 911. The police arrived and interviewed Ken who told them what happened. Bonita told the police Ken threw bleach in her eyes .
On a slow news day, there is something exciting about an old man tossing bleach in a poor woman’s eyes, so it was one of the lead stories on the local news.
The State of Alabama vs. Ken Ellis
We immediately got working on his case. We subpoenaed the motel video if any existed and all 911 calls made as well as the Metro Jail Video. After subpoenaing the motel video, the motel insurance adjuster called me and sent me a copy of a video. The video was dynamite for us and confirmed what Ken told me. The video did not show what happened inside Ken’s unit, but did show Bonita racing into to Ken’s room from clear across the motel parking lot.
I was contacted by a local attorney who said he represented the motel, and he spoke with the manager and they confirmed to him, that the motel had no video either outside or inside. This is an attorney I know and trust, so either the manager did not know video existed or the representations made to their attorney were not accurate. I would later learn that the motel management made the same representations to the detective assigned to the case.
Prior to the case, I did not know anything about Bonita. I then looked to see if she had any criminal history. I learned that on December 2, 2013 she had been arrested for possessing drug paraphernalia- a pipe used to smoke crack cocaine. It was the location of the arrest however that surprised me the most: 555 Government Street (Budget Inn). Two other men were arrested with her and charged with distribution of a controlled substance (crack cocaine) . One of these men was also charged with solicitation for the purpose of prostitution.
I also discovered Bonita had also been charged with Assault,2nd degree in 1993, but pled it down to a misdemeanor. She had a history of drugs and violence. Then we received the 911 calls. On one 911 call, Bonita’s son can be heard threatening to “beat that old man’s ass.”
Poor Ken’s story was coming into sharper focus for me now.
Ken’s case was set for a preliminary (probable cause) hearing Wednesday June 29, 2016 in Mobile County District Court. Before court started that morning I met with the detective in a side room to discuss the case. The detective initially tried to convince me to waive the preliminary hearing. No way. I asked him to tell me what he knew. He did. I showed him the photographs of Ken’s injuries we took the day after his arrest and he still was a bit skeptical. I asked him to tell me what Bonita told him. The detective told me that Bonita said she followed Ken walking into his room to retrieve the bleach. I asked him if he got any video from the motel. He said the motel management told him there was no video. I then showed the detective the video.
Once I showed the video, the detective was shocked. I even sensed a hint of betrayal as he had signed his name on the felony arrest warrant against Ken based on a purported victim who had not been entirely truthful with him. We caught her in a significant lie. It was a he said-she said case and the video refuted what she said on a material fact of the case. I told the detective that if Bonita intended to testify at the preliminary hearing as she had to the detective, I planned on showing the Court the video and asking the court hold her in contempt for perjury. I could see the detective was now sensing a grave injustice had been done. The detective, to his credit, went to the prosecutor and told her what had just transpired. The detective then took Bonita outside and explained to her what was about to happen. It took some convincing, but ultimately Bonita went in front of the judge and requested all charges against Ken be nolle prossed, which the court did. As I was walking Ken out of the courtroom, I noticed what appeared to be the motel owner or manager or representative.
Ken was ecstatic. He labeled me his Clarence Darrow or something along those lines. I tried to abate his excitement, angered at what Ken had to endure. His spirits were much better than mine had the roles been reversed. I think he feared no one would believe him and he really appreciated all our efforts.
My efforts were only half done. Ken’s exoneration was not enough. We proceeded with a civil claim against the motel. Recently Darrin Thompson with our office negotiated a favorable settlement for Ken in our civil case against the motel for negligently employing, hiring, and retaining Bonita. I often wonder if Bonita is still working there.
When I see Ken’s mugshot, I see a poor old man, battered, scared out of his wits, wrongfully accused, and without the resources or family to fight for his freedom. What do you see?
Eventually, Ken was fairly compensated for this ordeal. We made sure of that. However, some things cannot be undone. Ken never moved back to the motel and is no longer living in the area. Momma Gray and I both miss seeing our buddy Ken.
May you have a happy, safe, and prosperous New Year from each of us at The Law Office of Matt Green.
Note: This story has been shared with the express permission of Ken Ellis, a wrongfully accused person who achieved justice in both the criminal and civil courts of justice.
About the Author:
Matt Green represents personal injury and victims of criminal wrongdoing. He served as a municipal court judge in the City of Mobile and the City of Saraland for nearly a decade. Before that Matt prosecuted major felonies, traffic homicides (including drunk drivers who injured innocent victims), and violent crimes in the Baldwin County District Attorney’s Office. He teaches trial advocacy to Mobile Police Cadets and speaks to the Mobile County Court Referral Victim Impact Panel. Matt also defends the constitutional rights of his clients. He may be reached at 251.434.8500 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Alabama State Bar, Rules of Professional conduct, Rule 7.2 (e), requires the following language in all attorney communications: No representation is made that the quality of the legal services to be performed is greater than the quality of legal services performed by other lawyers.