An informant who testified against a meth dealer is suing a county sheriff in Iowa and federal authorities alleging they failed to protect him from a brutal assault by a convicted killer and a drug dealer in a jailhouse beatdown caught on video.
Ethan Palmer said despite his extensive injuries and post-traumatic stress from the May 27, 2022, assault at the Linn County Correctional Center, he still testified in the successful prosecution of Justin Michael Buehler, 39.
“To add insult to injury, the various parties responsible for Palmer’s safety during this ordeal have all refused to accept any responsibility and appear more interested in pointing fingers and blaming others for the assault,” the complaint said. “Meanwhile, despite his assistance and testimony in support of the prosecution, Palmer lingers in the Black Hawk County Jail, cast aside and forgotten by those he aided and who were responsible for his safety.”
Palmer’s story is a cautionary tale to anyone considering helping the U.S. government against a criminal defendant, the complaint said, arguing it was entirely preventable and one that should have been remedied.
Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
The complaint documents the brutal attack and the actions that led to it when Palmer began informing federal agents in January 2019 about Justin Michael Buehler’s methamphetamine sales to employees at a manufacturing company in Independence, Iowa.
The May 27 assault happened while Palmer was at LCCC before he testified at Buehler’s trial.
A portion of a recorded call between Palmer and an unidentified woman captured the lead-up when Buehler was to be transferred out of the LCCC.
“Why, why would they do that?” the woman said.
“Well, probably because, f——, they picked up [Palmer] yesterday,” he responded, according to court documents.
Woman: “So what’s that got to do with anything? I don’t understand.”
Buehler: “Yeah, I don’t either. We have no contact on each other because he’s snitch’n on me, but regardless [unclear whether Buehler says “I” or “they”] got people in different pods here, you know what I mean.”
That same day before he was transferred from the LCCC, Buehler spoke with fellow inmates Johnny Blahnik Church and Gregory Sills. Church had been convicted in a brutal stabbing death of a man in 2018 and sentenced to 57 years for the murder.
Buehler told Church and Sills that Palmer had been arrested in Black Hawk County, Iowa, and would likely be housed in the LCCC.
Buehler provided Palmer’s name and description, telling Church, “[i]f they bring him here….”
Following this comment, Church assured Buehler he would take care of it. Buehler also made it known to the entire cell block in the LCCC that Palmer had cooperated with the government.
Church told Sills that he intended to give Palmer a bloody nose and a black eye to make him appear “f—– up when he testified [against Buehler].”
Palmer told jailers he was a material witness and wanted protective custody when he arrived at LCCC. He was initially placed in a single cell but was at one point moved to a general population pod, the complaint said.
Palmer, detained only as a material witness, was placed in the same general population pod as Church, a convicted and violent murderer, despite the jail’s policies saying such inmates shall be segregated for safety reasons, according to the complaint.
While there, Palmer said his bunkmate told him inmates were waiting for a “snitch.”
“When Palmer saw Buehler’s name on the phone sign-up, he realized he was in Buehler’s former bunk in the pod,” the complaint said.
Jailers ignored his pleas to be put in a cell by himself, the complaint said.
Palmer told a jailer he was in danger, stating, “They are going to kill me.”
“You’ll be okay,” the official responded.
Palmer was then placed in the pod that also contained Church and Sills, the complaint said.
Jailhouse surveillance footage captured the attack.
Church dragged Palmer from the restroom, threw him against a table, and punched him in the face several times while Sills kicked him in the head, the complaint said. Church hit Palmer over the head with a dinner tray twice and again threw Palmer into a table.
One of the assailants told Palmer not to wear a wire, that Palmer was a “rat,” and insinuated that he would be assaulted again, court documents said.
He was knocked unconscious. When he came to, Palmer alerted jailers by hitting an emergency call button.
A deputy in the control center wrote that while checking each block to see if the inmates were ready to be locked down after eating, he looked up at the monitor and noticed something odd in 4-V.
“I noticed one white male inmate on his hands and knees, trying to get up by the door entering 4-V while a different white male was walking away from him,” the deputy wrote, according to court records. “The inmate was able to stand up and hit the block buzzer to talk to the 5th-floor control center.”
“I answered him, and he replied, ‘Help, Help, Help!”
Palmer was treated at a hospital for extensive wounds, including facial trauma, an orbital fracture, a broken nose and teeth, and a fractured knee, documents state.
Following the assault, Palmer was segregated before being transferred to another jail.
Despite his injuries, Palmer testified at Buehler’s criminal trial less than two weeks after being attacked.
Federal and state investigations were launched, meanwhile, into the jail assault.
Sheriff Gardner claimed that the feds provided no classification information or no-contact instructions for Palmer. The complaint said this statement ignores that Palmer had repeatedly told jailers of the threats to his safety.
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