Deadly delay

The man who murdered Rebecca Caldwell should have been arrested days before the fatal domestic dispute — but the warrant was never served

It had been two days since Christy Caldwell last spoke with her daughter, and she was beginning to worry. The two typically talked on the phone at least once a day, sometimes more.

As the morning gave way to afternoon on Sept. 19, 2000, she called her daughter’s Old Louisville apartment again and again, until finally someone answered. But it wasn’t Rebecca Caldwell who picked up the telephone — it was her estranged boyfriend, Benjamin A. Mills Jr.

Christy Caldwell was outraged. Not only had a judge recently ordered Mills to stay away from her daughter, a warrant had been issued for his arrest a week earlier and he was supposed to be in jail for domestic assault. Instead, the warrant was lost in a bureaucratic maze between the courthouse and the Louisville Police Department, and Mills remained free.

Slurring his words, Mills told Christy Caldwell her daughter — an aspiring writer and student at Spalding University — was sleeping, and that he would have her call when she awoke.

The minutes ticked by with no phone call, and the concerned mother tried to remain calm. Passing the time in front of the television, Christy Caldwell tuned into the mid-day local news. That’s when the words “breaking news” flashed across the screen, followed by the headline: “Murder in Old Louisville.”

A mother’s worry quickly turned to panic.

“Something hit me. I just knew something was wrong,” Christy Caldwell testified from the witness stand last week in federal court, recounting the horror she experienced eight years ago. “Next thing you know, the reporter said her address. Then they said apartment 10.”

During a domestic dispute 36 hours earlier, Mills murdered his 25-year-old girlfriend in the bedroom of her apartment. After strangling her to death, he spent the next day and a half in a drug-induced haze inside the residence before finally calling police and confessing to the brutal crime.

In the two months leading up to the murder, the couple’s stormy relationship had turned violent on more than one occasion, leaving Caldwell bruised, battered and seeking help from police.

But as is often the case with victims of domestic violence, Caldwell wavered when it came time to prosecute, prompting police to forge ahead with pressing charges on her behalf. And at least in the beginning, it seems the Louisville Police Department did everything right.

When Rebecca Caldwell was most vulnerable, however, her mother claims police failed in their duty to protect, in large part due to a deficient system of serving arrest warrants. In fact, months before Caldwell was murdered, the police chief at the time acknowledged the system was inadequate, resulting in a backlog of tens of thousands of unserved warrants.

After Caldwell’s death, the department repeatedly tweaked the way it tracked and served warrants in an effort to reduce the backlog, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that a complete overhaul finally brought about an expedited electronic system.

It’s a change Christy Caldwell has long fought for, starting in 2001, when she filed a lawsuit in Louisville’s U.S. District Court claiming the city should be held accountable for allowing an arrest warrant for Mills to languish in red tape. Twice a federal judge dismissed the suit, only to have the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstate the case. In 2004, the appellate court wrote in a strongly worded opinion: “We find that the deficiencies in the LPD’s warrant processing policies were well known by police officials, but never were corrected. There is also evidence that the LPD knew or should have known that their practices could render citizens more vulnerable to danger.”

Last week, a jury finally heard the grieving mother’s case.

During a four-day trial, attorneys for the city argued it’s unclear where the warrant was during those six days, suggesting it’s likely the court clerk sent it to the wrong police department, meaning it might not have been the fault of Louisville police. Besides, even if they had arrested Mills in a timelier fashion, the city argued he likely would have been released eventually, possibly resulting in the same deadly outcome. They also reiterated that Rebecca Caldwell was unwilling to cooperate with detectives, that she had a tumultuous past that included depression and drug use, and that she chose to stay with her abuser — topics they skillfully broached without criticizing her outright.

“The reason Rebecca Caldwell was killed was solely because she was in an argument with Benjamin Mills. It had nothing to do with the court system or the police department,” Lisa Schweickart, assistant Jefferson County attorney, told the panel of seven jurors. And while the lawyer acknowledged the city’s system of serving warrants was flawed at the time, she said, “There’s only one person to blame for Rebecca Caldwell’s death and that’s the murderer.”

But according to David Friedman — one of two lawyers representing the plaintiff — the victim died on the police department’s watch. The department knew of the risk Mills presented and that its warrant system was deficient, yet recklessly failed to act.

“While it was taking the warrant six days to travel two miles, Benjamin Mills was breaking (Caldwell’s) neck and strangling her to death,” Friedman said during his closing argument, prompting his client to sob, burying her face in her hands. “If Benjamin Mills was in jail he couldn’t have killed Rebecca Caldwell … What happened to her was the inevitable consequence of a broken system.”

After deliberating for only two hours, however, the jury returned to the courtroom with a verdict in favor of the city.

Struggling to hold back tears, Christy Caldwell hugged her lawyers before quietly exiting the courtroom. Not yet ready to face the television cameras waiting outside on the sidewalk, she headed downstairs to the cafeteria in the courthouse basement.

Sitting at a turquoise table sipping a bottle of water, Caldwell sifted through photographs of her daughter: one of her in a white dress, smiling and holding her GED; another of her at age 9, towering over her younger brother and sister; and one taken just a few months before she died, laughing for the camera in front of a picturesque blue sky.

Rehashing the murder of her daughter during the trial was “pure hell,” she explained. Despite losing, she is satisfied that she finally had her day in court and does not plan to appeal the verdict.

“My biggest problem, even to this day, is that they haven’t admitted there was a problem or that they did anything wrong,” Caldwell said of the police, reiterating that suing the city was never about the money. “Even though we didn’t win, this allowed my voice and Rebecca’s voice to be heard.”

Rebecca Caldwell was born in Bardstown, Ky., on June 29, 1975. The oldest of three children, she was interested in learning from an early age, devouring books and often scribbling down unknown words or phrases on scraps of paper to later look up the meaning.

But as much promise as she showed, it was clear Caldwell did not have an easy road ahead. Her family was poor and her parents held a string of low-paying jobs, eventually uprooting the children from rural Nelson County and moving to Texas.

When she was a young teenager, Caldwell’s parents separated, in large part because her father was an alcoholic and suffering from depression, a combination her mother believed was “uncomfortable for the family.”

At that point Rebecca Caldwell began to rebel, experimenting with drugs, including marijuana and LSD, skipping school and eventually dropping out. And with this rebellion came the first signs of depression, a disease she would battle for the rest of her life.

Eventually the family moved back to Kentucky, and after undergoing counseling, Caldwell earned her GED and was accepted at Spalding University on a partial scholarship.

“I’ve never seen a happier person in my life,” Christy Caldwell testified about her daughter’s reaction to being accepted at Spalding. “It raised her self-esteem so much.”

Starting college in the spring semester of 1999, Caldwell was interested in pursuing social work as a career, and even worked part-time at an elder-care facility to help pay for school. But her passion was for writing, as evidenced by a note on her college application letter: “My dream is to become a writer.”

Her mother said she was adept at observing her surroundings, a gift that was reflected in her writing: “She had these big green beautiful eyes and she could look into your soul with those eyes.”

It was during a nonfiction creative writing class that Caldwell first met fellow student Erica Licourt. The pair became friends, taking many of the same classes — poetry, short fiction, grant writing — and also writing for the student newspaper and literary magazine.

Describing Caldwell as outspoken, eccentric and colorful, Licourt says her friend’s writing often reflected a tough childhood that seemed contrary to her personality. “I do believe that she wanted more out of life and could have had it,” Licourt said during an interview with LEO Weekly, a few days after she testified at the trial.

Much of Caldwell’s writing was dark, like an essay she wrote for Spalding’s student newspaper in April 2000 entitled “The Dark Side of the Moon.” In the piece, which details a young woman suffering from depression, Caldwell writes: “Depression is like an earthquake. It shakes up a person’s solid ground, and just when you’re sure that you are going to fall in a big crack and never be found, the earth is calm, and life goes on.”

Despite delving into grim topics in her writing, Caldwell never discussed depression with her handful of friends at Spalding. And after meeting Benjamin Mills, she never revealed she was the victim of domestic violence.

Looking back, Licourt said she now sees the signs were there — faint bruises on her wrists, arms and neck, withdrawing from friends, canceling plans: “She never missed a class until Ben came along. She immediately fell into this passionate love and just started to fall away.”

On the Tuesday before she died, Caldwell met Licourt at the Twig and Leaf diner on Bardstown Road. It had been a while since they had spent time together, and Caldwell was thin and gaunt, looking as though she’d lost maybe 20 pounds.

The two talked for about an hour. Caldwell chain-smoked Marlboro Lights as usual, but something about her was off — she was unusually quiet, noticeably serious. A week later, a Spalding professor called Licourt and told her Caldwell had been murdered. Upon learning Mills was the killer, she was in disbelief.

“You would never, ever have thought this could happen to her,” said Licourt, describing her friend as a strong, stubborn woman who would never back down when challenged. In fact, Licourt believes that’s probably what made Mills snap.

“I think the scariest thing is that you could love someone who could hurt you like that,” added Licourt. “Just when her head got above water, this guy kept pulling her down.”

It was St. Patrick’s Day of 2000 when Rebecca Caldwell first met the man who would end her life six months later. Caldwell was in Central Park walking her dog — one of many mutts she rescued over the years — as was Benjamin Mills.

The two struck up a conversation; Mills asked her out on a date and she accepted. Over the next few weeks they went to the movies, out to dinner and had drinks at the Mag Bar, a dive just a block from Caldwell’s apartment.

Not long after their first date they were inseparable. Mills moved in, and Caldwell told the few friends she had that she was in love.

The relationship quickly turned volatile, and on July 4, 2000, Caldwell filed a criminal complaint against her boyfriend for the first time. Earlier that day, Mills — who suffers from depression and paranoid schizophrenia — had threatened to commit suicide. When Caldwell tried to stop him, he hit her.

Louisville Police Detective Mary Lett left several messages on the victim’s answering machine in an attempt to follow up, but to no avail. A month later, Caldwell called police to report Mills had assaulted her again, was holding her captive in the apartment and had threatened that “no one was going to leave alive.” When Lett responded to the residence and knocked on the door, nobody answered. A few hours later, the domestic violence detective again visited the apartment and found Caldwell crying, her arms covered in purple bruises.

The detective accompanied Caldwell downtown to press charges. Halfway through the process, however, Caldwell changed her mind; she wrote “fuck you” on the paperwork and stormed outside.

It’s not unusual for a victim of domestic violence to shun help and return to her abuser, according to Darlene Thomas, executive director of the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program. Calling the cycle “a dance between fear and hope,” Thomas said the average length of such relationships is between six and eight years. Domestic abuse also tends to get more severe with time, she said, adding that the situation becomes especially dangerous after law enforcement gets involved: “Even when the system takes control, the batterer takes it out on the victim.”

In Caldwell’s case, it seems that’s ultimately what happened.

Despite her refusal to cooperate, a judge had already issued a warrant, and Mills was arrested and charged with domestic assault, terroristic threatening and unlawful imprisonment.

Twelve days later, Mills still was in custody when Caldwell filed an internal affairs complaint against the domestic violence detectives handling the case, claiming they overstepped their bounds, and that she and her boyfriend were planning to get married.

But in Kentucky, police and prosecutors are permitted to pursue domestic violence cases without the victim’s consent, so it’s unlikely the LPD would have disciplined the detectives, who — at least prior to the internal affairs complaint — did everything right.

The next day, over the objection of the prosecutor handling the case, a district court judge allowed Mills to post bond and go free on the condition that he stay away from Caldwell. The prosecutor appealed the ruling to the circuit court, arguing that if Mills is “allowed to be released and freely roam … the commonwealth verily believes that he will further intimidate and harm the victim.”

The circuit court judge agreed, and ordered the district court to issue an arrest warrant for Mills, which was signed Sept. 12. The prosecutor immediately called Detective Lett, telling her a warrant had been reissued and that Mills needed to be arrested.

It’s at this point Christy Caldwell believes police first failed her daughter.

Because Rebecca Caldwell had previously filed a complaint, Lett was reluctant to personally serve the arrest warrant. According to the prosecutor, Lett said she would check with her superiors about how to proceed.

It is unclear exactly what happened to the warrant after that, other than it wasn’t served in time to save Rebecca Caldwell.

“The lack of supervision and control over an important facet of police work ultimately cost Rebecca Caldwell her life,” Joseph Stine, a longtime police supervisor, wrote in an affidavit before testifying last week as the plaintiff’s chief expert. The 37-year law enforcement veteran from Philadelphia has trained hundreds of officers nationwide on how to best serve warrants, as well as how to deal with victims of domestic violence.

In this case, he believes the Louisville Police Department failed in both respects.

“The LPD was aware of the tortured history of the relationship between Ms. Caldwell and Mr. Mills,” he wrote in a scathing rebuke in his affidavit. “Their relationship had all the signs of a tragedy unfolding. The LPD recognized that this danger existed and took every precaution to prevent it until Ms. Caldwell filed a complaint against one of its officers … The warrant that would have saved Rebecca Caldwell’s life was deliberately allowed to languish in the labyrinth of the non-system that existed at the time.”

It’s a system that even former Louisville Police Chief Gregory Smith knew was inadequate. Six months before Caldwell was murdered, the Louisville Crime Commission (of which Smith was a member) issued a report recommending the LPD develop a computerized warrant-tracking system.

At the time, when a judge signed an arrest warrant, a court clerk was on hand 24 hours a day to process the document. After assigning a case number and entering the information into a computer — a process that took a matter of minutes — the clerk would place the warrant in the appropriate wire basket to be picked up by various law enforcement agencies throughout the county.

Louisville police relied on a retired officer-turned-volunteer to pick up arrest warrants at the courthouse and deliver them to headquarters, where they were sorted by district. There was no system, manual or otherwise, to track when warrants came in or left, and there was no policy dictating how quickly warrants were to be served.

On the witness stand last week, Smith acknowledged there were about 70,000 unserved warrants when he was police chief. And although there was a recommendation to institute a centralized database, Smith said there was no funding available, and that because a merger of city and county government was looming, “We thought it might be better to wait.”

In January of this year, Louisville Metro Police launched a new system called eWarrants, an online database that allows an arrest warrant to travel from a judge to police in several minutes.

Jefferson County is the first jurisdiction in the state to implement the pilot program, which, according to Louisville Metro Police Lt. Charlie Edelen, has significantly expedited the warrant process.

“It definitely speeded things up,” Edelen said. “It was all done on paper before this. The clerk would type up a paper warrant and put it into a basket.”

In addition to using this system for newly issued warrants, the department imported the backlog of outstanding warrants into the database last month. And although Edelen is confident the backlog is decreasing, when asked how many unserved warrants there are currently, he said, “I can’t give you an exact number, but I would say thousands.” 

When it came time for the city to present its case last week in the matter of Caldwell vs. Louisville, only three witnesses were called: a detective who testified that Rebecca Caldwell was uncooperative with police; a vocational expert who explained how the victim’s mental health and family history suggest she would not have earned much money in her lifetime, had she lived long enough to try; and the woman’s murderer.

Escorted by two armed guards, Benjamin Mills entered the courtroom wearing a bright orange prison jumpsuit, bulky orange zip-up sweatshirt and leg irons that clanked together, piercing the silence of the courtroom as he walked.

For security reasons, the guards brought the inmate in before the jury was seated, and he sat stone-faced on the witness stand, waiting. Stroking his beard as he scanned the courtroom, Mills suspended his gaze on his victim’s mother, who did not make eye contact.

After several tense minutes, the jury finally entered and Mills began his testimony, starting with the day he met Rebecca Caldwell in Central Park.

“We hit it off,” Mills mumbled in a deep voice. “We started going out to see movies, going to bars, staying up late talking.”

Then came the fighting, his arrest and subsequent release on the condition that he stay away from Caldwell. But their separation did not last long.

“We wanted to work everything out and move forward and get our own little place in the woods,” Mills said, repeatedly pushing his wire-rim glasses up on his nose with his index finger.

It was almost 4 a.m. on Sept. 18, 2000, when Mills said the couple got into a shouting match.

“I don’t blame anyone but myself for this and it eats at me,” he said, for a moment seeming to take responsibility for what happened next.

But then came a string of excuses and allegations: He tried to leave the apartment to avoid a fight, but Caldwell starting throwing furniture and breaking mirrors; neither had taken their medication for depression and both had been drinking; she loved him one minute, hated him the next, and it didn’t make sense; a month earlier she stabbed him in the arm with a pencil; he just does not remember what transpired that night.

Without giving an account of what happened, Mills said, “I take all the blame,” which clearly is what the city’s attorneys wanted the jury to hear. To reiterate that point, the assistant Jefferson County attorney asked if he blamed the police department or the detectives involved, to which he said, “I blame myself … I did something terrible. It ain’t never gonna go away.”

When Will Driscoll — another lawyer representing Christy Caldwell — questioned the killer, however, Mills quickly lost any semblance of composure and remorse. The lawyer pushed Mills to recount details of the murder, but the witness said he could not remember anything after Caldwell started screaming and throwing things. With that, the lawyer suggested Mills was trying to make himself look better by claiming the victim provoked him, and that he conveniently could not recall what happened next.

“I ain’t trying to look better in front of anybody,” Mills snapped, accusing the lawyer of putting words in his mouth. Refusing to answer questions, the witness angrily stood up from behind the witness stand and stormed out of the courtroom in shackles, accompanied by court security.

Although Mills refused to divulge details of the murder in the courtroom last week, according to his confession eight years ago, court documents and the medical examiner, the tragedy unfolded like this:

Mills put his hands around Rebecca Caldwell’s neck and strangled her, making her lose consciousness after about 40 seconds, and ultimately breaking her neck, causing her to die of asphyxiation.

Leaving her body on the bedroom floor, Mills remained in the apartment for the next day and a half, during which time he attempted to overdose on several prescription medications. Instead, he passed out for several hours, then awoke and vomited.

Claiming to have believed she was going to wake up, Mills told police he began to hallucinate, at one point thinking he saw her get up and begin to cook dinner.

The phone kept ringing and finally he answered — it was Christy Caldwell looking for her daughter. He lied and said she was asleep.

Mills called his father and told him what he had done; his father said, “May God have mercy on your soul,” and urged him to call the police.

It was before noon on Sept. 19, 2000, when Mills called 911; paramedics found Caldwell’s body at 11:27 a.m.

Mills confessed immediately, and later pleaded guilty to murder and agreed to a sentence of life in prison.

Christy Caldwell takes comfort in the fact that her daughter’s killer must live behind bars with what he’s done, but she believes justice has only been halfway served.

And although she is satisfied that Louisville police have now taken the appropriate action to fix a broken warrant system, it’s a change they should have made years ago.

Exiting the federal courthouse likely for the last time, Caldwell was plaintive.

“I would have never sued the city if they had shown an interest in making change from the beginning,” she said. “But instead, they had a flippant attitude, saying they didn’t do anything wrong. And never once did they say they were sorry for what happened to Rebecca.”