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Federal lawsuit targets cops after “shooter” drill

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By Lynn Burton

Sopris Sun Staff Report

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A lawsuit filed in federal court on July 29 names Carbondale Police Chief Gene Schilling and police officer Michael Zimmerman, and other co-defendants, after what the plaintiff calls an “active shooter drill” at Heritage Park Care Center on Oct. 16, 2013.

In her lawsuit, Carbondale resident Michelle Meeker alleges that Zimmerman took her “hostage” with a “gun” while she was on duty as a registered nurse at Heritage Park and as a result, she “has suffered and continues to suffer significant damages, including severe mental and emotional distress, as a result of Defendant’s actions, which constitute intentional, willful and wanton violation of her rights under the United States Constitution and the laws of the United States and the State of Colorado.”

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Attorney Tom Rice, who is representing Schilling and Zimmerman, said the “gun” in question was made of red plastic and was not a real gun.

The lawsuit, filed in Denver, also names as defendants Life Care Centers of America, Inc., (doing business as Heritage Park Care Center), Colorado Medical Investors, LLC (doing business as Heritage Park Care Center), Robert Baker (executive director of Heritage Park), Jessica Varley (human resources director of Heritage Park) and Melanie Holmes (director of nursing at Heritage Park).

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When contacted by The Sopris Sun, Heritage Park issued the following statement concerning the lawsuit: “Heritage Park Care Center associates are specially trained to care for residents and patients in need of nursing and rehabilitation care. We recognize that our facility is their home, and as part of our ongoing focus on safety, we conduct routine training drills to prepare for various scenarios such as fire and natural disasters.

“In October 2013, we conducted one of these emergency preparedness exercises in conjunction with the local police department. We have become aware of a former employee who has filed a complaint related to the exercise.

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“Due to a pending lawsuit, we cannot provide further information but are working to resolve the situation. In the meantime, Heritage Park Care Center remains focused on providing quality care to our patients and residents.”

Schilling and town manager Jay Harrington referred all questions to the Denver-based Rice, who represents the town through the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency.

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Rice told The Sopris Sun that Zimmerman was on duty at the time he took part in the drill at Heritage Park, that Schilling was aware of the drill, Heritage Park asked for the town’s assistance, and the town was not paid. “ … (the town) did it as a public service.”

Meeker’s lawsuit claims that “Defendants intentionally failed to disclose to LCCA employees … that the gunman … was actually a police officer and that the hostage situation was merely a drill.”

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Rice told the Sun that Heritage Park did post notices of the impending drill, but it was not the police department’s responsibility to post the notices.

Meeker, the plaintiff, was hired at Heritage Park on Sept. 10, 2013.

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In her detailed account of the incident, Meeker said her supervisor told her to see what a gentleman (Zimmerman) in the day room wanted, because he “looked suspicious.”

When Meeker approached Zimmerman, he told her to follow him down a hall to show her something. They came to a room, where Zimmerman pulled his jacket back, “revealing a gun tucked into the waistband of his jeans,” the lawsuit states.

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“As Ms. Meeker cried and begged for her life, the man said in a hushed tone that this was a ‘drill.’”

The drill continued, with two other Heritage Park employees being drawn into the room. When the drill concluded, Meeker was escorted into director Robert Baker’s office for de-briefing.

Meeker resigned on Oct. 20.