Courthouse cyber-crackers file suit against Sheriff Leonard

Gary Edward DeMercurio, 45, of Seattle, Washington, left, and Justin Lawson Wynn, 31, of Naples, Florida, are suing Dallas County and Sheriff Chad Leonard for their arrest Sept. 11, 2019.

The two cyber-security ninjas who were arrested Sept. 11, 2019, for breaking into the Dallas County Courthouse but later had the charges dropped are suing Dallas County Sheriff Chad Leonard.

In a petition filed Friday in Dallas County District Court, the security penetrators claimed they “suffered and will continue to suffer emotional distress” at the hands of Leonard and of Dallas County, and they are suing “for negligence, false arrest, abuse of process, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and malicious prosecution.”

The case first attracted attention when broke the story that Gary DeMercurio, 45, of Seattle, Washington, and Justin Wynn, 31, of Naples, Florida, were each arrested for third-degree burglary and possession of burglary tools after they tripped a burglar alarm in the courthouse about 12:30 a.m. and brought officers of the Adel Police Department and Dallas County Sheriff’s office to the scene.

The law enforcement officers confronted the lockpickers, who brandished what “is euphemistically called a ‘get out of jail free’ letter” and said “they were contracted to break into the building for Iowa courts to check the security of the building,” according to court records.

Leonard was not buying it, however. The sheriff was unaware of any such break-in plans with the courthouse security company and when DeMercurio and Wynn were found in possession of burglary tools, they were arrested and held in the Dallas County Jail until posting bond.

As it turned out, the white-hatted burglars were indeed contracted with the state, and the office of the state court administrator for the Iowa judicial branch issued an apology later that same day to Leonard and Dallas County officials. The Iowa Senate Government Oversight Committee promptly convened in special session for a hearing on the bungled affair.

At the Oct. 4, 2019, hearing, Chief Justice Mark Cady, then head of the Iowa Supreme Court, also apologized for the cyber-security snafu, while Iowa judicial branch IT director Mark Headlee hastened to throw DeMercurio and Wynn under the bus of contract-language quibbles.

Later in October, Dallas County Attorney Chuck Sinnard asked the court to reduce the third-degree burglary charges to criminal trespass. The charges were duly reduced and eventually dismissed in January 2020 on a motion from the lockpickers’ West Des Moines lawyer.

The cyber ninjas have now returned to Dallas County, seeking justice and monetary compensation for their sufferings. Following report, the men’s “mugshots were strewn across the internet,” according to a profile in Wired, and they allegedly “suffered the humiliation, mental anguish and emotional distress” of a wrongful arrest and 20 hours’ incarceration in the Dallas County Jail, according to their new lawyer, Martin A. Diaz of Swisher, Iowa.

According to the suit, “Because of the acts, omissions and constitutional violations alleged, Plaintiffs have suffered restrictions on their liberty, have been deprived of their constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizure and imprisonment of their person; have suffered the humiliation, mental anguish and emotional distress of being wrongfully accused of a crime; have suffered and will continue to suffer emotional distress, and the violation of their civil rights, all to their damage and detriment in amounts to be proven at trial. In addition, Plaintiffs have suffered economic loss in the form of loss of income.”

At the same time, DeMercurio and Wynn were lauded as “unsung heroes” by their Colorado employer, and they were lionized at cyber-security conferences and conventions following their Dallas County caper.

“It’s a strange case,” Leonard said the day of the arrest. A hearing has not yet been scheduled for the civil suit.


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