The parents of Alexis Wartena, an autistic girl who died a year ago after leaving a hotel along Interstate 40 and drowning in a nearby lake, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against three members of the Amarillo Police Department.
The lawsuit — which was filed by family attorney Jesse Quackenbush on behalf of Michael Wartena and Michael Tiffany Stewart in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas-Amarillo Division — alleges three members of APD “violated their civil rights” and caused physical and mental injuries and damages under the United States Constitution when they detained and questioned the parents during the search for Alexis.
The three APD officers named in the lawsuit are Sgt. Thomas Callahan, Lt. Scott Chappell and Sgt. Chris Sheffield. APD’s legal team declined to comment on the suit.
A hearing date for the civil trial has not been scheduled.
Quackenbush said he and the family have not determined the amount they are seeking from the lawsuit and said the family will not be providing comment on the suit at this time.
In a Notice of Claim sent to APD and the City of Amarillo in October, the family and Quackenbush submitted a demand for $1.5 million and for “no less” than $425,000 for attorney fees, should litigation be necessary.
“What happened to the family was atrocious and amounted to nothing less than government sponsored torture,” Quackenbush said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. “This whole situation could have been avoided had Amarillo Police Department invested the time and effort into training its first responders about the realities of autistic children and their known behavior when they go missing, including being attracted to water.”
The lawsuit says the case “arises out of the wrongful custodial, illegal and prolonged detention and property seizures of Michael Wartena and Michael Tiffany Stewart in violation of 42 U.S.C 1983 and the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
According to documents received from Quackenbush, the Wartena family were traveling back to Beaumont, Calif., from a family vacation on July 18, when they stopped in Amarillo at the La Kiva Hotel at 2501 Interstate 40.
Court documents state all the locks on the hotel room they were given were broken. The family had asked for the locks to be fixed or to be moved to a different room, neither of which happened.
The next morning, July 19, while the mother was in the bathroom and the father was resting on the bed, Alexis left the room without her parents’ knowledge. The parents went to the front desk and asked the clerk to call 911, then began searching the interior of the hotel and the outside of the building near I-40.
According to the lawsuit, after APD arrived at the scene, they “began accusing Michael Wartena and Michael Tiffany Stewart of murdering their daughter, Alexis. Defendants told Plaintiffs that they needed to question instead of looking for Alexis, immediately separating Plaintiffs for questioning.”
The lawsuit claims the pair were taken into separate rooms at the hotel where they were “forcibly detained for six hours against their will.”
APD then allegedly called Child Protective Services and ordered that the remaining four children be taken away and interrogated. After the interrogation, CPS took the children, filed for and obtained custody of them. The children were returned to the Wartena family the next week. The lawsuit claims that the parents had called family members to travel to Amarillo to take care of the children during the search for Alexis.
After CPS was called in, the suit says APD took the parents to the downtown headquarters where they were interrogated for another five-and-a-half hours into the early morning of July 20.
The parents both invoked their right to counsel at the police station and were returned to the hotel where their belongings were seized, despite the lawsuit claiming that “no warrant and had no probable cause to arrest Plaintiffs, but nonetheless detain them by seizing all of their personal belongings” as well as items from the hotel.
Shortly after, police discovered Alexis’ body floating in T-Anchor Lake, which is managed by the City of Amarillo, less than 100 yards from the hotel room. According to court documents, Alexis’ gained access to the lake by crawling through a hole in a fence that surrounded the water.
“A year has passed and APD has done absolutely nothing,” Quackenbush said. “Perhaps this lawsuit will motivate the Mayor and City Council to take action to prevent future deaths of autistic children who go missing.”