Beaten and broken
Felony charges were dismissed this week against the men accused of brutally beating a Lanesboro man
December 13, 2013
Surgeons used metal plates to patch David Warnke’s face after he was beaten with his own shotgun in a September brawl in his Lanesboro house. He grew a beard to hide the scar that stretches across his upper lip, where the blows knocked out four teeth.
About this story
This article includes information from interviews with David, Sheila and Steve Warnke and other family members, Timothy Hull, Pollyann Sauter, Ricky and Andrea Blair, Sheriff Doug Bass and County Attorney John Werden, and from court documents from Carroll, Sac, Calhoun and Pocahontas counties.
Friends and family of David Warnke paced the district courtroom in Carroll this week, stewing in anger and disbelief, knowing that the felony charges against three men accused of severely beating him in his Lanesboro home were about to be dismissed.
"What should have happened is someone should have shot them when they went into the house," said Tabitha Schultz-Lawler, Warnke's aunt and neighbor.
The five others in the courtroom - Warnke's mother and father, his sister, a friend and another man who was with Warnke the night of the altercation - let the words linger.
Warnke wasn't there.
The 28-year-old had hidden himself from the world in the weeks and months that followed the September incident that resulted in his week-long treatment of surgeries and stitches in a Des Moines hospital.
Warnke is a tough-looking, muscular guy who wasn't known to shy away from a fight. But in a recent interview in his parents' Lake City home, he was timid as he talked with a scarred upper lip, four missing front teeth and two metal plates in his face. They tingle under his skin when it's cold outside.
"I don't look in mirrors anymore," he sobbed. "I want to die about every morning I wake up."
The story of what happened that night - and why it happened - changes depending on who is telling it.
It started because of a spat between one of the accused men and his ex-girlfriend who was at Warnke's house. It started because of a drug deal gone wrong. It started when the men sought retaliation for an altercation between Warnke and one of their wives.
The truth is elusive despite the fact that at least seven people were part of the fight or witnessed some of it. Warnke says he doesn't remember much of what happened.
"I don't care what David was doing," his mother, Sheila Warnke, said. "There's still no reason for this."
In the courtroom on Monday, a courts worker who is an advocate for victims of crimes talked to the family before the hearing, in which assistant Carroll County Attorney Jim Van Dyke asked a judge to dismiss all of the charges. The men had faced up to 50 years in prison if convicted.
"The judge doesn't want any disruptions," the advocate said as she explained that no one could protest the dismissals except David Warnke, because he was the only registered victim in the case.
His friend, Timothy Hull, who was also injured in the fight but not as badly, had failed to return the paperwork to register as a victim, and also couldn't talk during the hearing.
"This is bullshit," Warnke's father, Steve Warnke, said.
The three accused men - Ricky Blair, 55, of Lanesboro, Luke Clark, 41, of Yetter, and Mitchell Blair, 41, of Vail - strode into the courtroom, each with his lawyer.
Everyone stood as District Judge William Ostlund took his seat, and Van Dyke asked for the dismissals on behalf of his boss, County Attorney John Werden.
"With the additional investigation that has been done, the state cannot meet its burden of proof" to convict the men, Van Dyke said. "The investigation has been very thorough, your honor."
Then Sheila Warnke spoke up, frustrated that she had no idea why this was happening: "Nobody has given us any information about who to contact and ask questions."
After the hearing, the Warnkes and others surrounded Van Dyke and peppered him with questions. Louder and louder.
Van Dyke put up his hands.
"I have no comment at this time," he said. "Mr. Werden made this decision. Not me."
Werden declined to talk in-depth about the case with the Daily Times Herald but said evidence that sheriff's deputies gained as they investigated the case led to the dismissals.
"Law enforcement obtained more information after the initial report and continued to investigate the case," Werden wrote in an email. "We look for evidence of not being guilty and evidence of guilt. The county attorney's role is not just to obtain convictions, but it is to seek justice."
Ricky Blair, who had intended to argue at his trial that he attacked Warnke in self-defense, talked briefly with the Times Herald before Monday's court hearing and said he was upset by how he was portrayed in media reports after the Sept. 1 incident.
"You didn't get our side of the story," he said.
Blair initially agreed to talk further about what happened that night but later reneged because, he said, he was fearful it would incite further violence.
Mitchell Blair and Luke Clark declined to be interviewed for this article.
But Ricky Blair's wife, Andrea, said in a brief telephone interview that the men went to Warnke's house to confront him about an incident in which she says Warnke approached her while she was in her car and accused her of reporting him for drugs and spat on her.
Warnke said he doesn't remember doing that.
The only person who gave the Times Herald a full account of the Sept. 1 fight was Timothy Hull, Warnke's friend who said he answered the door about 8 p.m. when Ricky Blair knocked and asked to talk to Warnke.
Hull yelled for Warnke - who was using the bathroom - and in the meantime, Hull said, Blair walked across the street and fetched the other two men.
"Get ready to fight," Hull remembers yelling to Warnke.
Warnke confronted the men with a shotgun at the door. A brawl ensued.
Hull said he initially fought two of the men while Warnke and Mitchell Blair struggled over the shotgun, which was not loaded. He said Mitchell and Ricky Blair eventually took the weapon, and Hull remembers Mitchell Blair pummeling Warnke with the shotgun in his bathroom.
Court records show that Warnke was also beaten with a piece of countertop - which Warnke said was loose because he has been renovating his house - but Hull didn't see it.
As Warnke lay unconscious in a pool of blood, Hull said, the three men pinned him against a wall and struck him in the ribs with the shotgun.
Hull said the fight ceased when two women - Warnke's girlfriend Heather Niedowicz and Hull's girlfriend Pollyann Sauter, who had dated Luke Clark for two years - and a child entered the house.
"Mitch tried to intimidate me," Sauter recalled. "He got right in my face."
And then the men left.
Warnke was taken by car to St. Anthony Regional Hospital and later by medical helicopter to a Des Moines hospital, where he was treated for the multiple fractures in his face. He wasn't lucid enough to be interviewed by a sheriff's deputy for several days.
Hull was treated at Stewart Memorial Community Hospital in Lake City for his cuts and bruised ribs.
Andrea Blair said Luke Clark suffered a large cut on his head when Warnke struck him with the shotgun, Ricky Blair had a head injury from being tackled by Hull, and Mitchell Blair was struck by the gun in his abdomen, but that none was treated at a hospital.
The three men were charged with felony burglary, willful injury and assault later that week.
Blood tests at the Des Moines hospital revealed that Warnke had used methamphetamine, ecstasy and an anti-anxiety drug, according to court records. The sheriff's office launched an investigation that included weeks of surveillance of Warnke's house.
Deputies saw numerous people with past drug convictions or charges come and go from the house at all hours of the day after Warnke returned home on Sept. 11, court records show.
On Sept. 19, the Iowa Department of Human Services removed Niedowicz's two children from the house because she had failed to take a required drug test, according to court documents. Warnke said the children were taken because of the brawl.
A sheriff's deputy who was present when the children were removed reported that Warnke had a video-surveillance system in his home and several police scanners that he could use to monitor law enforcement.
Deputies went to the house on Oct. 20 with a search warrant, and while they detained Warnke - who said he had been asleep and awoke to shouts and flashlights - he suffered a grand maul seizure, he said.
"Everything started spinning really fast," he said. "Everything got echoey and far away."
Sheriff Doug Bass confirmed that Warnke went unconscious during the search but didn't know whether Warnke suffered a seizure or had a bad reaction to drugs or alcohol.
Warnke was again taken to St. Anthony Regional Hospital and flown to a metro hospital, and deputies seized four guns, marijuana, bongs and a smoking device with a white, rock substance from the house.
'THIS ISN'T OVER'
Warnke and his family admit that he has a troubled past. He has been convicted of assault, disorderly conduct, harassment and trespassing, but never a felony.
Two of his alleged attackers also have histories of violence.
Mitchell Blair was accused in 2010 of striking his girlfriend with his head in Wall Lake and pleaded guilty to assault, according to online court records.
Luke Clark was convicted of third-offense OWI - a felony - in 2010 and got a 15-year suspended prison sentence. He was initially charged with attempted murder for allegedly trying to run over two men with a vehicle while driving drunk, court records show.
Warnke's parents were dumbstruck by the decision to dismiss the charges this week against the three men.
"Assault is now legal in Carroll County, I guess," Steve Warnke said. "What kind of message does this send?"
David Warnke said the dismissals have further eroded his self-worth. He suffers from bipolar disorder and had attempted suicide several times before the brawl, he and his family said. Warnke tattooed his left forearm to cover the scars from the attempts.
The same day the charges against the men were dismissed, a sheriff's deputy charged Warnke with two felonies for possessing marijuana and methamphetamine with the intent to sell the drugs, based on what was seized during the October search of his house. Together, the charges are punishable by up to 15 years in prison if he is convicted.
"I don't understand how I'm supposed to have any meaning or worth now," Warnke said Thursday.
The Warnkes and their friends insist that the dispute with the Blairs and Clark doesn't end with the dismissed charges.
"All three of them are going to get what's coming to them," said Sauter, Clark's ex-girlfriend.
Steve Warnke added:
"I'm an eye-for-an-eye kind of guy."