Crime victims question local group that bails out violent suspects

COVID pandemic clouds jail procedures
A local organization has spent more than $2 million worth of donations to bail out dozens of people from Louisville’s jail.
Published: Oct. 29, 2020 at 9:52 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - A local organization has spent more than $2 million worth of donations to bail out dozens of people from Louisville’s jail.

WAVE 3 News Troubleshooters found that out of the 73 people bailed out by the Louisville Community Bail Fund, during a several-week period ending Aug. 3, 37 of them were charged with violent offenses including rape, domestic violence, wanton endangerment and murder.

According to its Facebook page and public statements, the group’s mission is criminal justice reform and bringing an end to mass incarceration during a time of Covid-19 and protests.

“The money is spent in accordance to the donor’s mission and the community’s needs,” an LCBF member said during a recent news conference in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse.

The group also argued the inmates' lives were in danger because of the pandemic.

“We demand the release and a moratorium on arrests,” another member said during another news conference announcing an “Inaugural Bail Out Day,” in which the group posted $571,000 for people’s bonds.

The news did not sit well with Yolanda Mack, the sister of Terrance Sheckles who was shot and killed in July. The suspect was bailed out by LCBF. Mack said she believes the pandemic was used as an excuse.

“I know COVID gets a lot, but there’s certain types of ways you’ve got to prevent COVID,” Mack said.

Another victim whose alleged perpetrator was bailed out by LCBF, and did not wish to be identified, told WAVE 3 News she was in fear for her life.

“It’s been terrifying,” Jane Doe said. “I’m sorry, it’s really hard to talk about.”

Doe was still in hiding when she agreed to speak to WAVE 3 News. She said she was fearful 26-year-old Austen Bush would come back to hurt her.

Bush is accused of raping and beating her so severely that she spent days in the hospital with a lacerated liver, among other injuries.

“When he got arrested, I felt relieved,” Doe said.

But that relief didn’t last long.

LCBF paid $25,000 for Bush’s bail despite multiple motions filed in court stating Bush has a history violating parole, is a flight risk and is a “risk to the victim if released.”

“I found it a little hard to believe at first,” Doe said of LCBF, especially since she said Bush continued threatening her while she was in the hospital. The court documents state Bush sent her a letter and text messages saying he would “put a bullet” in her and her fiancé if she called police. Those documents were already publicly available at the time Bush’s bail was posted.

“You keep our secret and I will never bother you again, honey,” the arrest report said Bush texted her.

WAVE 3 News Troubleshooters also learned from the public file that Bush was a registered sex offender who had been convicted on seven counts of distribution of child pornography. He served six years in prison before getting out on parole and being arrested again for the alleged attack on Doe. WAVE 3 News found Bush also was previously convicted of unlawful transaction with a minor in 2016.

“Who would bail someone like that out, without even looking at their actions?” Doe asked.

Bush’s public defender declined to comment, given the case is open and it’s a pending investigation. He’s pleaded not guilty.

Bush is one of 73 people bailed out by LCBF during the several-week period before Aug. 3. WAVE 3 News Troubleshooters learned half of those arrests were for violent offenses including rape, assault, domestic violence, robbery, kidnapping and murder.

Another 11 arrests were for theft-related charges, while nine were drug-related. Another six people bailed out by LCBF were charged with escape after cutting their monitoring devices off, including one individual who had been arrested for domestic violence and assault, and for violating his parole. Three others were in jail on gun charges.

LCBF also paid $50,000 for the bond of Debra Rainey, the woman accused of shooting and killing Sheckles in the middle of the street after he refused to put down his beer, according to records. The incident was captured on video.

“I love him, dearly,” his younger sister Mack said. “It is sad that he’s not even here.”

“Whoever paid her bond should look into the situation of what’s going on before you pay anybody’s bond to make sure that this is the right case for you,” Rainey said.

WAVE 3 News found Brenda Porter has also been bailed out by LCBF. She had a $100,000 bond for allegedly bludgeoning her boyfriend to death, wrapping his body in a tarp and hiding his remains.

WAVE 3 News also found that 12 people, of the 73, had been arrested for domestic violence charges. One of them was Quantez Lewis, who had a history of domestic violence and who threatened to kill his partner while pressing a gun to her head in front of at least one child, according to his indictment. Lewis was previously convicted of violating a domestic violence emergency protective order. Lewis also was accused of beating the victim with her cellphone as she tried to call for help.

Troubleshooters found that nearly one fourth of the bonds posted by LCBF were between $25,000 to $100,000.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine told WAVE 3 News the monetary bond amount itself doesn’t necessarily make the community safe or should be used to keep someone in jail. Instead, he explained, bonds are issued for the suspect to have “skin in the game,” an added layer or reason to make sure they stay out of trouble and come back to court.

“The danger of course is that if somebody has not been following rules all along anyway, and someone else says, ‘Oh, let me post your bond for you,’ that they would take off and not come back to court or re-offend,” Wine said.

According to the Commonwealth, there are already a couple of bond forfeiture hearings scheduled after the defendants allegedly broke the conditions of their bond or did not show up for court.

“We have a principal that we hold dear and that is you are innocent until proven guilty and if you are presumed to be innocent, pretrial incarceration is very destructive,” Wine said. However, he added that the courts have released hundreds of people, like those arrested during recent protests, and those not considered a danger to the community, on administrative releases or on their own recognizance because of COVID-19 concerns.

Other groups, like the New York-based Bail Project, have had success across the country, with 93 percent of the people they’ve bailed out showing back up for court. The Bail Project, which is not affiliated with LCBF, declined an on-camera interview, but told WAVE 3 News the bonds they pay are $5,000 or less, with a soft cap of $10,000. WAVE 3 News Troubleshooters verified The Bail Project’s average bail amount in Louisville was $3,182, compared to LCBF’s average of $14,373.

The Bail Project, a non-profit, created a Louisville chapter in 2018. Between July 1 and Aug. 3 of this year, The Bail Project posted 91 bonds with a total of $306,000, compared to LCBF’s total of $1,063,000 for 67 bonds during that same time period, according to a series of open records in the course of WAVE 3 News' investigation.

According to its website, The Bail Project believes people should not be held in jail only because they can’t afford their bond and that bonds should not be used as a way to keep them in jail.

They stated that if a judge made the determination a person could be bonded out, by giving them a bail in the first place, then that person should have the right to be free while still being presumed innocent.

The Bail Project told WAVE 3 News it focuses on helping the accused avoid incarceration by also providing housing, transportation, drug treatments and other needs.

The local chapter of The Bail Project in Louisville works with the Commonwealth’s Attorney Office, LMPD and Mayor Greg Fischer’s office to reduce the city’s jail population, Wine said.

Wine explained The Bail Project reviews cases and has talked to those involved before choosing who they bail, something he said isn’t happening with LCBF.

“I don’t have that same confidence with the people now being released,” Wine said of LCBF. “I don’t believe that they are going through the same vetting that the Bail Project went through.”

LCBF’s founder is Chanelle Helm. She is also the leader of Black Lives Matter Louisville. She did not respond to WAVE 3 News' request for an interview.

“The Louisville Community Bail Fund exists to not only bail out folks, but provide post-release support to get them from jail, fed, and to a situation of safety,” Helm described on the group’s Facebook page. “LCBF also maintains a focus on preventative measures for those targeted by law enforcement and threatened with incarceration.”

“You took a black life, you took my brother’s life,” Mack said of the suspect.

“If black lives matter, then this should matter,” she said of bailing out the accused killer.

Mack said she feels her family has been victimized twice by allowing the suspect to be set free and feels the victims of those bailed out do not have a voice.

“I know he’s looking down on me saying, ‘Defend me,’” she said while fighting back tears. “And he knows I’m going to defend him.”

LCBF is not a non-profit. WAVE 3 News found it is listed as a corporation with Kentucky’s Secretary of State under Helm’s name. Helm has stated in the past that the group works with 12 organizations for bail funding.

“Black Lives Matter Louisville is not obligated to share its finances,” one member of the organization told the crowd during a news conference. “It protects our organization from disclosing highly confidential information about who, in many cases have Child Protective Services cases, domestic violence orders and other legal cases. These people also simply deserve a right to privacy.”

The group previously argued innocent people’s lives were in danger while in jail because of COVID-19. That’s something Tracy Dotson, spokesperson for the jail’s Fraternal Order of Police, refutes, stating the courts released hundreds of people during the pandemic and have continued to keep incarceration numbers at a historic low.

“We applaud The Bail Project’s efforts and vetting process as a means of legitimate inmate population control,” Dotson said. “But anyone haphazardly bailing out accused violent offenders is a cause for concern for alleged victims as well as the community.”

Wine said he believes some people would have thought twice before donating to LCBF.

“Had people been made aware of that, they may have changed their minds about donating to individuals who are not being properly monitored once they are released and are a danger to the community,” Wine said.

Doe and Mack agree.

“That’s just so wrong,” Doe said. “You’d think they’d look at what they did first, and the evidence behind it ... He threatened my family, my fiancé's family, he threatened me again. I’m terrified of him.”

Mack said people need to research before making donations in good faith.

“I would be one of those people who is going to look over everything,” she said.

While working on this investigation, WAVE 3 News learned Bush was re-arrested Oct. 21 on a new warrant for allegedly continuing to contact the victim. Police said Bush most recently called Doe’s fiancé again, threatening to kill him.

Doe credited the LMPD detective for finding Bush after the most recent threat and helping to keep her safe during the time he was out on bail.

When he was arrested, Bush fled from police, hopped a fence and ran into oncoming traffic before he was apprehended, according to his arrest report.

The CEO for the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence told WAVE 3 News that her group’s focus is to keep survivors safe.

“While KCADV vigorously champions survivors' rights to safety and protection, we hold criminal justice policies, laws, structures, and systems accountable for determining appropriate conditions of release for accused offenders rather than bail fund relief initiatives,” Angela Yannelli said. “We strongly advocate centering conversations about criminal justice and survivor safety on broad, systemic reforms.”

When asked for an interview for this story, Helm said the focus should be on the issue of mass incarceration and how she believes changes are needed. She added the people her group has bailed out also are members of the community.

At last count, LCBF has continued to post bails, totaling 120 bonds.

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