A Pittsburgh couple’s two-year ordeal battling the criminal justice system.
Thomas Mowbray didn’t even know Eboni Sanders.
They both lived Downtown in the same 16-story, single-room-occupancy apartment building — Wood Street Commons.
In early February 2016, they ran into each other in the laundry room. Mr. Mowbray claims Ms. Sanders came on to him and that he declined.
A few days later, he saw her in a community room crying.
“I put my hand on her shoulder and told her everything would be all right,” he said.
Twelve days after that, Pittsburgh police charged Mr. Mowbray with indecent assault after Ms. Sanders claimed that he had groped her.
The charges marked the beginning of a nightmarish two years in the criminal justice system for Mr. Mowbray, 38, and his girlfriend, Patrese Thompson, 45. Over that time, Pittsburgh police filed six criminal cases against Mr. Mowbray and two against Ms. Thompson — all based on shocking allegations made by Ms. Sanders of gun-toting assailants, assaults, threatening letters and phone calls, stalking, contract killings and knife-wielding attacks.
Mr. Mowbray spent more than six months in jail.
But on Feb. 22, the last of the cases was withdrawn by Allegheny County prosecutors. Police had finally bought into what the couple had long insisted — that Ms. Sanders was lying. Now she is the one facing criminal charges.
“For two years of our lives, this woman has been using the criminal justice system to terrorize us,” Ms. Thompson said.
William Bickerton, Mr. Mowbray’s attorney, said there were significant problems with how Pittsburgh police and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office handled the incidents.
District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. agreed and took police to task for not pulling video evidence to corroborate Ms. Sanders’ story. A top police official, Cmdr. Cristyn Zett, also acknowledged problems but said Mr. Bickerton should have advocated more vigorously for his client.
No video evidence
Mr. Mowbray planned to contest the first charges at a June 1, 2016, preliminary hearing. He wasn’t worried. He knew he hadn’t assaulted Ms. Sanders, and there should have been video surveillance footage taken from the Wood Street Commons to prove it.
“The problem is, during those 30 days, she’s calling the cops every day with lies,” Mr. Mowbray said.
By the time of the hearing, the DA’s office had added counts of intimidation of a witness and stalking. Mr. Mowbray, who until then had only a single minor brush with the law in a low-level retail theft case, was taken into custody and held for a day at the Allegheny County Jail. Ms. Thompson bailed him out.
On June 23, 2016, Ms. Sanders told police that Mr. Mowbray assaulted and threatened her that afternoon at Wood Street and Fifth Avenue. Police wrote in a criminal complaint that she was “shaking, could hardly talk and crying.”
Ms. Sanders, 36, claimed that Mr. Mowbray threw his shoulder into her side and told her she was “dead.”
Citing previous reports Ms. Sanders had made against Mr. Mowbray, officers charged him with intimidation, terroristic threats, simple assault and harassment. The DA’s office reviewed the case and pre-approved the charges.
A warrant was issued, but Mr. Mowbray was not arrested until he appeared July 22, 2016, in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court in the initial groping case. He was arrested on the new charges, his bail was set at $250,000, and he was jailed.
In the meantime, Ms. Thompson, who works in the Wood Street Commons office, did her own detective work. She retrieved video from the building’s cameras to show Mr. Mowbray was not where Ms. Sanders claimed on June 23.
Mr. Bickerton got the video and said he tried to talk to the officers who charged his client and to the DA’s office. It took five months for the prosecution to acknowledge that the video backed Mr. Mowbray’s story.
The DA’s office withdrew the charges against Mr. Mowbray on the assault case and allowed him to plead no contest to summary counts of harassment and disorderly conduct in the groping case. Although Mr. Mowbray insisted that Ms. Sanders’ groping claims were false, his attorney recommended accepting the plea because of the minimal penalty and the concern that juries can be unpredictable. He was released from jail Dec. 22, 2016, and ordered to serve 90 days probation.
Mr. Mowbray and Ms. Thompson thought the saga with Ms. Sanders had ended.
They were wrong.
A knife and guns
On April 6, 2017, Ms. Sanders filed a petition against Mr. Mowbray in Family Court for protection of victims of sexual violence. She alleged that around midnight April 1 he saw her catching a bus Downtown, jumped on the next bus and followed her home. She claimed she found two threatening notes in her mailbox the next morning. However, she withdrew her petition May 25 after Mr. Bickerton told her he had video and bus pass records that disproved her story.
On Dec. 5, 2017, Ms. Sanders called Pittsburgh police alleging that Mr. Mowbray was leaving threatening messages on her apartment door. By then she had moved to the South Side. In arrest paperwork, officers from the Zone 3 station in Allentown referenced several other calls from Ms. Sanders to 911 over the previous several months, including what she claimed were threats made to her and her boyfriend on their cell phones.
Police charged Mr. Mowbray with terroristic threats, harassment and stalking.
Five days later, Ms. Sanders called 911 at 1:49 a.m. claiming that Mr. Mowbray had seen her walking on East Carson Street, grabbed her and held a knife against her, forcing himself into her home. She claimed that he charged at her, and they fought, before she struck him in his head with a chair, causing him to flee.
According to the complaint, a police officer exiting the apartment with a visibly upset Ms. Sanders saw a 4-inch silver knife sticking out of the door frame.
“Sanders stated that she does not know how the knife got to this location, but she believed that this was the object that Mowbray was pressing into her lower back,” a criminal complaint said.
The officer collected the knife as evidence, but it was not tested for fingerprints.
Then, on Dec. 17, Pittsburgh police were dispatched to UPMC’s resolve Crisis Services, a 24-hour crisis counseling center, in Point Breeze for a report that Mr. Mowbray was threatening to shoot and kill Ms. Sanders, who was there. A criminal complaint does not indicate who identified Mr. Mowbray as the person making the threats. But police apparently believed the male caller’s claims that he had two loaded handguns in a red Toyota Camry that he was driving around the property.
Police described Ms. Sanders as “distraught.” She detailed all the allegations she’d made about Mr. Mowbray and said he was known to drive a red Toyota Camry.
Officers checked Pennsylvania Department of Transportation records and found no such car in Mr. Mowbray’s name. But based on statements by Ms. Sanders, UPMC police officers and resolve employees, a warrant was issued for Mr. Mowbray on terroristic threats, stalking, harassment and disorderly conduct.
Ms. Thompson is arrested
The last case against Mr. Mowbray was filed Jan. 7. Ms. Sanders called 911 at 6:23 a.m. that day to report that Mr. Mowbray was on her front porch. New charges of terroristic threats, stalking and harassment were filed. Two days later, police arrested Mr. Mowbray at Ms. Thompson’s North Side home and took him to jail.
Then, on the evening of Jan. 20, police pounded on Ms. Thompson’s door. This time, they were there for her. She was charged with terroristic threats, stalking, conspiracy and intimidation. Ms. Sanders had claimed Ms. Thompson was calling both her and the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh and threatening her.
Ms. Thompson said she pleaded to no avail for police to pull her phone records.
“I’m freaking out,” Ms. Thompson said. “I’ve never been arrested before.”
Ms. Thompson was held until the next day when her brother posted her bond. But then on Jan. 24, police learned that over the previous three days, more than 30 phone calls were made to the women’s shelter threatening Ms. Sanders. A criminal complaint said the caller left a phone number in messages; it traced back to Ms. Thompson, and a warrant was issued.
She turned herself in on Jan. 29.
That was the first time, she said, that an officer listened to her. Sgt. Matthew Redpath relayed her story to Joseph Lippert, a detective in the sex assault/family crisis unit who was investigating the women’s shelter case.
While Ms. Thompson sat in jail for six days, Detective Lippert got to work. According to the criminal complaint he filed against Ms. Sanders, detectives were able to trace the threatening phone calls purportedly made by Ms. Thompson to Ms. Sanders’ cell phone. Police determined that a Facebook account in Ms. Thompson’s name that included a post putting out a hit on Ms. Sanders was actually created on Ms. Sanders’ cell phone, the complaint said.
Ms. Sanders eventually confessed to making the threatening calls to the shelter from her cell phone. She also admitted to creating the fake Facebook account and soliciting murder for hire, according to the complaint.
Ms. Sanders said “that she falsely implicated Thompson and had her arrested because Thompson … put herself into the situation when she began seeing Mowbray,” the complaint said.
On Feb. 3 Ms. Thompson left jail. Police charged Ms. Sanders with criminal solicitation, terroristic threats, access device fraud, criminal use of a communication facility, false reports and harassment. Ms. Sanders’ stories continued to unravel. On Feb. 15, the police officer who had filed the charges against Mr. Mowbray involving the UPMC resolve case got a confession from Ms. Sanders that she had made up those claims against him, too, Mr. Bickerton said.
On the form withdrawing those charges, it said, “The victim’s credibility needs further assessment.”
Mr. Mowbray left jail Feb. 17, and by Feb. 22, the DA’s office withdrew all of his remaining cases.
Ms. Sanders spent 18 days in jail before being released on $5,000 bond to alternative housing. Her charges have been held for trial, and her next stop will be in Common Pleas Court. Her attorney, Brandon Herring, did not want to comment.
What police and the DA say
Mr. Mowbray, Ms. Thompson and Mr. Bickerton all agree that Ms. Sanders sounded believable in her 911 calls. Most of the criminal complaints include notes from officers as to how distraught she seemed.
But, they said, one person’s word should not be enough to land someone in jail — especially when there is evidence available that could either corroborate or disprove the allegations.
“I was willing to buy it the first time,” Ms. Thompson said. “But for it to happen a year-and-a-half later — after we’ve proven she was a liar — how does that happen?”
Mr. Bickerton went through a raft of evidence that he said the police could have obtained. There would have been video surveillance from nearly every scene. There were threatening notes — officers said they were often written in different handwriting — that could have been fingerprinted. There were phone records that could have been pulled and compared. There was the knife left at the scene that could have been fingerprinted.
“They’re filing charges before the investigation,” Mr. Mowbray said. “That’s what they do: They charge you, put you in jail and investigate after.”
Pittsburgh police spokeswoman Alicia George did not respond to requests for comment.
In reviewing the charges filed against Mr. Mowbray by Zone 2 officers, Cmdr. Zett — who did not take over the station until April 2017 — noted that no officer ever responded to Ms. Sanders more than once.
“They were spread just far enough apart that we didn’t see a pattern,” the commander said.
Cases like these, she continued, are also difficult because Ms. Sanders presented herself as a victim of domestic violence.
“You’re trying not to revictimize the victim,” she said. “Our officers will always err on the side of caution with what a person is telling them and file a report and then send it over to detectives for further investigation.”
Cmdr. Zett could not say what follow-up investigation happened in Mr. Mowbray’s cases. If there were none, she said, it would have been because Ms. Sanders provided all the relevant information that was necessary for the charges to be filed. She noted that most of the counts against Mr. Mowbray were low level and charged by summons. Still, she said she would have expected officers to follow up.
Cmdr. Zett said the entire incident exposed ways victims can exploit the system.
“It made me think, ‘How do we not have something in here that shows she’s filed as a victim nine times in 18 months?’” she said. “This is a good question for our entire criminal justice system. So much rides on the credibility of the victim, suspect and witnesses.
“I’m not saying [the whole system] didn’t fail this guy somewhere along the way,” she said. “Nobody should spend six months in jail for something they absolutely did not do.”
But Cmdr. Zett also questioned why Mr. Bickerton did not seek to lower Mr. Mowbray’s $250,000 bond in the 2016 cases.
“That defense attorney seriously failed him,” she said.
Mr. Bickerton said Mr. Mowbray resigned himself to staying in jail and pointed out that he had to gather the evidence himself, including pulling phone records and video surveillance. In January he asked the DA’s office to help provide video from the South Side and the area around the resolve crisis center.
Mr. Bickerton expressed his frustration to Assistant District Attorney Michael Ahwesh during an email exchange.
“Trust me, I’m not pleased that I have to look for needles in haystacks to prove my client’s innocence, again. The police find Eboni to be very convincing, but so is Meryl Streep,” Mr. Bickerton wrote.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” the lawyer continued. “I’m tired of dealing with Eboni, and I’m frustrated. Unfortunately, I have to make broad requests because Eboni changes her story and blatantly lies…If you can think of way [sic] that your office or the police can assist in proving the guilt or innocence of my client based on objective evidence and not solely on the credibility of a known liar, I’m all ears. Otherwise, it is what it is.”
Mr. Bickerton’s frustration continues even after his client was cleared.
“The police should be held accountable if they take a complaint, wait weeks to file it, and fail to preserve short-lived evidence — like video,” Mr. Bickerton said. “But the DA’s office should be held accountable for failing to instruct an officer in the investigation of a case when the charges have been approved by a prosecutor.”
Mr. Zappala, the DA, whose office has a policy of approving dozens of types of charges before police can file charges, said it would be impossible to sign off on all charges in every case. But if his office finds questionable charges, the prosecutors usually take action, he said.
“When we catch it, I think we do the right thing,” Mr. Zappala said. “The question is: Can we catch it more quickly? … Arresting someone changes their life.”
Mr. Zappala, who has advocated for the use of cameras on the street and even provided dozens of them for the South Side, said it is unacceptable the city police would not have pulled the footage in Mr. Mowbray’s cases.
“You can only ask the city so many times to do the right thing,” Mr. Zappala said.
When Mr. Bickerton approached prosecutors on Mr. Mowbray’s cases, he said he was told, “Basically, they have to believe their victims.”
“The system is flawed, and Eboni exploited it,” Mr. Bickerton said.
Mr. Mowbray and Ms. Thompson are trying to get on with their lives, but they can’t shake their anger.
“They’re supposed to do justice for everyone,” Mr. Mowbray said, “which is not just the victims, but the defendants, too.”
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter: @PaulaReedWard.