Elkhart Police Saga: The Wolverines
When Keith Cooper accepted a settlement from the City of Elkhart for his wrongful conviction in a 1996 armed robbery and attempted murder, it was the largest wrongful conviction settlement in Indiana history according to the University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations.
It cost taxpayers $7.5 million.
The cost for Cooper?
More than seven years in prison, more than seven years away from his family, and more than seven years living as a wrongfully-convicted man.
Now Cooper’s attorneys believe he, and others, were targets of a rogue group of cops inside the Elkhart Police Department known as The Wolverines. Alleged members of the group have been directly connected to at least two known wrongful convictions.
Cooper’s attorneys believe the actions of The Wolverines now coming to light, may soon make Elkhart, per capita, the exoneration capital of the U.S.
“Members of The Wolverines have been implicated in violating the constitutional rights of citizens in the Elkhart community, and predominantly citizens of color,” Cooper’s attorney Elliot Slosar said.
Slosar, who’s part of the Notre Dame Exoneration Justice Clinic, has investigated wrongful conviction cases in Elkhart for nearly 15 years. In an ongoing legal fight to overturn the murder conviction of Iris Seabolt, Slosar questioned former Elkhart Police Chief James J Ivory during a sworn deposition.
In that deposition, Ivory provides the first known account of a former or current Elkhart city official publicly admitting to the existence of The Wolverines. Court filings in the Seabolt case describe The Wolverines as a “white supremacist group” targeting people of color in South central Elkhart in the 90’s.
“Some of the [Wolverines] used the ‘n-word’ when they didn’t know I was around,” Ivory, Elkhart’s first ever Black Chief of Police said. “Of course when I rounded the corner, the conversation ceased”
Keith Cooper was put in jail by Steve Rezutko. According to filings in the Seabolt case, at least one former Elkhart police officer has identified Rezutko as a Wolverine.
Cooper was sentenced to 40 years in prison for a 1996 robbery where a teenager was shot. Cooper’s attorneys accused Rezutko of manipulating witnesses with suggestive lineups, withholding evidence which could have kept Cooper out of prison, and deliberately creating false evidence and witness statements.
Rezutko later resigned from the Elkhart Police Department following an internal investigation finding Rezutko had paid informants for sexual acts. He died by suicide shortly after learning about the Cooper case being re-opened.
“Nobody was like, hey, let's go look into those cases [involving Rezutko] and see if the people who are still in prison every day should really have a shot of justice,” Slosar said.
Keith cooper spent more than seven years in prison before new DNA evidence and eyewitness testimony from the victim saying he didn’t commit the crime lead to his release.
Governor Eric Holcomb granted a pardon in 2017.
Then, last month, the City of Elkhart paid an historic $7.5 million settlement. The largest wrongful conviction settlement in Indiana history according to the University of Michigan Law School Exoneration Registry.
The second suspect in the Cooper case, Chris Parish, saw his attempted murder and robbery conviction overturned because of DNA evidence and new testimony, leading to a $4.9 million payout. Before the settlement, a jury had found Rezutko deprived Parish of his constitutional right to a fair trial.
At least nine former Elkhart police officers have been implicated as Wolverines, in recent court filings.
“The question shouldn't just be, who was a part of it and what did they do,” Slosar said. “Another question should be who knew about it and why didn't they stop it.”
During his deposition, former Elkhart Police Chief JJ Ivory identified three men he knew as Wolverines.
- Bruce Davidson, a former president of the Elkhart Fraternal Order of Police, who went on to rob 24 banks through 11 states after his law enforcement career, earning Davidson a spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
- Steve Ambrose, an officer involved in the 1995 killing of Derrick Conner, which lead to city-wide protests.
- Ed Windbigler, who went on to become the Elkhart Chief of Police.
“They would all stick together regardless of whatever the issue would be,” Ivory said. “It made me feel they would lie, cheat, defraud to uphold their cause.”
When Ivory took over as chief in 1990, he had a mission to change the culture inside the Elkhart Police Department.
“Issues as far of excessive force and brutality,” Ivory said. “It was a very volatile time and emotions were running rather rapid and rather high.”
Kris Seymore took over as Elkhart Chief of Police in 2020, under similar circumstances as Ivory; tasked with changing the department's culture.
“Over the years the Elkhart Police Department has taken it on the chin a few times,” Seymore said. “I looked at it as an opportunity to steer the boat through not so calm waters.”
Seymore became chief after EPD faced a 97-page report from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), commissioned as a response to video released of two officers beating a man handcuffed to a chair. The incident led to then-Elkhart Police Chief Ed Windbigler to resign. Windbigler, one of the alleged members of The Wolverines identified by JJ Ivory.
The department followed suggestions from the PERF report to update its use of force, every officer is now outfitted with body cameras and squad car cameras, and EPD has created an online reporting system for the public.
The stats suggest there’s been significant progress.
According to the Elkhart Police Department, criminal arrests in 2021 jumped 46% from the year prior while use of force dropped, and complaints on officers went down by nearly a third.
“There’s no finish line,” Seymore said. “It’s an ongoing process for us. We’re constantly evaluating and reevaluating what we do.”
“This new administration, with the mayor and Chief Seymore, is a bright light in an otherwise dark system of injustice,” Slosar said. “I hope that the chief and the mayor continue making efforts to fix things moving forward.”
Seymore says he never encountered The Wolverines in his more than two decade career with the Elkhart Police Department.
“I’d heard stories,” Seymore said.
But he didn’t appreciate the line of questioning regarding The Wolverines.
“Do we want to keep digging things up? Or do we want to acknowledge that maybe mistakes were made and procedures were not in place to effectively do things? And now we have them in place to do things we think is right,” Seymore said. “I don’t want to live in the past. I can’t answer for what people did 30-plus years ago.”
Elkhart mayor Rod Roberson admits changing the culture inside the department and building trust with the community is no small task. But when asked whether the city should review any cases involving officers that were implicated in potential misconduct, Roberson said “not my job.”
So what is being done today for people in prison now, put there by members of The Wolverines or other officers connected to known wrongful convictions?
The city, county, and Elkhart Police Department all said they will not reopen cases or review past convictions that involved officers responsible for any of Elkhart’s growing list of wrongful convictions, even if they have a proven record of misconduct.
“Everybody deserves justice,” Seymore said. “Nobody deserves to have their character assassinated because they made mistakes or whatever. I don’t have a time machine I can’t go back and fix all this.”
“My job is to move forward, my job is to make sure that the administration that I have and the police chief that I have is applying the law appropriately,” Roberson said.
Elliot Slosar wants to see an independent prosecutor appointed to review potential cases of past misconduct – specifically involving members of the wolverines.
“We will be there to assist whatever we are asked to assist it. But it's not our job and not nor my administration to investigate past administrations, or past police chiefs or any of those things. It's not my job,” Roberson said.
There are two pending federal civil rights lawsuits from overturned convictions that could lead to more settlements. There are three pending post-conviction cases that could lead to more exonerations.
While the city and county both said they won’t proactively review cases involving officers who were members of The Wolverines, or have a history of misconduct on the job. Officials from the city and county said they would comply with any court orders or legal action that comes their way.
Elliot Slosar tells ABC57 News, in all, there may be as many as a dozen cases filed to overturn potential wrongful convictions.