ST PAUL, Minn. — A Minnesota man was sentenced to five years in prison after a jury convicted him of being a felon in possession of firearms.
Benjamin Hill, 42, now alleges in a federal lawsuit that he was framed by a sheriff’s deputy who planted DNA on a pair of guns.
“I got set up by the police,” said Hill.
The lawsuit claims that former deputy Thomas Rudenick and the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office’s “brazen, illegal acts” resulted in him being charged, illegally prosecuted, wrongfully convicted, and imprisoned.
It’s not the first time Rudenick has been accused of being a dirty cop and tampering with evidence.
The DNA lied
In 2010, Ben Hill was the owner of a successful business, a pizza shop on the East side of St Paul.
He had a criminal record which prohibited him from possessing firearms but says he had his life on track.
“I know that I’m not allowed to have any guns,” Hill said. “I know the consequences; I don’t play around with guns.”
Evidence would emerge that seemed to prove otherwise.
The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office was investigating a reported burglary in which Hill was their main suspect. A search warrant was served at his parent’s home looking for evidence.
In a filing cabinet in the basement, they located a handgun.
Another handgun was found in the basement of the pizza shop Hill owned.
Hill was arrested and booked into the Ramsey County jail.
Investigator Thomas Rudenick recorded the interview on June 11, 2010 when he showed up with a search warrant for Hill’s DNA and ordered him to swish a pair of Q-tips around the inside of his mouth.
“Am I being charged with something?” Hill asked.
“Yeah,” responded Deputy Rudenick. “You more than likely will be charged with felony theft, burglary, and possibly possession of a handgun by a felon.”
The burglary investigation ended with the County Attorney’s office declining to prosecute because there wasn’t enough evidence to show a crime had been committed.
However, those two handguns changed the course of Hill’s life.
Hill says initially he wasn’t worried because the gun found at his parent’s house belonged to his sister and the one at the pizza shop belonged to an employee. His sister and the employee would later testify to that at trial.
“I didn’t touch them guns, never even seen them before,” he said.
But when the BCA lab report came back, it showed that DNA on the grip and triggers of both guns matched Hill. A match the report states, “would not be expected to occur more than once among unrelated individuals in the world population.”
Despite being offered a plea deal that would have kept him out of prison, Hill went to trial maintaining the DNA was somehow mistaken because he’d never touched the guns.
“I knew I didn’t do nothing wrong,” Hill said. “I just figured there was no way I could be found guilty for something I know I didn’t do.”
Based on the DNA evidence, though, a jury found him guilty.
Ben Hill became DOC inmate #240626
"I saw that KARE 11 investigation"
In 2015, while Ben Hill sat in prison, KARE 11 began investigating allegations that a Ramsey County sheriff’s deputy had been mishandling evidence and bungling cases.
It was discovered that deputy Thomas Rudenick – the same investigator from Ben Hill’s case – was taking evidence he seized in theft cases and pawning it himself.
Instead of using stolen jewelry he recovered as evidence, store surveillance video showed Rudenick pawning it and pocketing the cash.
He was caught on camera lining his own pockets at the expense of crime victims and letting actual thieves walk free by failing to bring charges even when he had the case solved.
Rudenick was charged with felony theft and gross misdemeanor misconduct by a public officer but was offered a sweetheart plea deal.
Rudenick was sentenced to just one day in jail and received credit for time served. Records show that “time served” amounted to less than five hours, the time Rudenick spent behind bars the day he was arrested. He was placed on probation and the felony theft was converted to a misdemeanor once he completed the probationary period. The misconduct charge was dropped.
Ben Hill saw KARE 11’s report on the prison TV.
“Low and behold I seen the news, a KARE 11 investigative series on this cop, and I thought to myself, ‘Hey, that’s the guy that was on my case!’” Hill said.
He couldn’t help but wonder, had the evidence in his case been tampered with too?
Web of lies
After serving his time and getting out, Ben hired attorney Tom Hagler to try and clear his name.
Through the course of gathering evidence about Hill’s case, Hagler says they discovered doctored evidence and major chain of custody issues with both the guns and the DNA swabs.
Rudenick had kept both in his possession for days without properly turning them into the evidence room at the Sheriff’s Office. That evidence was withheld from Hill’s original defense attorney when he was on trial.
“His stories, his web of lies started to fall apart,” said Hagler.
Here’s an example: records and recordings show Rudenick collected Hill’s DNA on June 11th. Transcripts from the trial show he testified, “I brought ‘em (the DNA swabs) directly to the BCA after I collected ‘em.”
That’s not true, according to records Hill’s new attorney discovered.
The BCA chain of custody evidence log shows Ben Hill’s DNA collection kit wasn’t submitted to the BCA lab until four days later – on June 15th.
The BCA logs show Ramsey Deputy Julie Larson delivered Hill’s DNA swabs at the same time as the DNA swabs taken from the triggers of the firearms.
“The documents are clear that there was some hanky-panky going on,” said attorney Paul Applebaum who is also on Hill’s legal team.
By hanky-panky, Applebaum means they believe Rudenick planted Hill’s DNA on the guns.
“I want to be clear on this, you’re claiming he took the DNA he collected from Mr. Hill and then wiped it on the guns?” asked KARE 11’s A.J. Lagoe.
“Right,” Applebaum responded. “The means by which he did that is by using DNA that had been collected from our client Ben Hill, and then putting the DNA that he had collected on the two suspect guns and submitting them to the BCA for processing.”
KARE 11 attempted to speak with Rudenick about those claims.
The former deputy, who was allowed to keep his full taxpayer-funded pension despite his conviction, moved out of state to a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
He yelled, “No comment,” out the back door when KARE 11 knocked asking to discuss the Ben Hill case with him.
However, in a postconviction court hearing for Hill, Rudenick was asked if he planted DNA on the firearms.
He responded: “No, I did not.”
Judge Judith Tilsen didn’t buy Rudenick’s testimony and issued a bombshell ruling.
“This court believes that opportunity and means coupled with Deputy Rudenick’s dishonest behavior as an officer provide proof by a preponderance of the evidence that the DNA was planted in this case,” she wrote.
Ben Hill ended up completely exonerated.
“It cost me everything,” Hill said of being framed. “It basically cost me five years of my life which I’ll never get back.”
Because of the wrongful conviction, Hill is eligible for compensation from the state and in April a joint legislative committee voted to award him $423,000.
Hill’s federal lawsuit against Rudenick and Ramsey County seeks at least $55 million claiming Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office suffered from “systemic failure to properly train, supervise, and discipline its deputies.”
Since he was a county employee at the time, taxpayers are funding former deputy Rudenick’s legal defense in that federal lawsuit.
“You know what’s funny?” said Applebaum. “If Ben hadn’t seen that news story on TV, he (Rudenick) would have gotten away with it – he absolutely would have!”
Ramsey County Attorney review
After the federal lawsuit was filed, the Ramsey County Attorney’s office conducted an internal review of the Hill case.
Records show they seriously question whether Deputy Rudenick actually planted the DNA, despite Judge Tilsen’s ruling. However, they did agree he was “negligent” in the way he handled evidence in the case – and that “it appears highly likely that there are other cases in which evidence may have been mishandled as it was in the Hill case.”
Even so, the internal review concluded “the likelihood that his negligence caused an innocent person to be convicted … is slim to none.”
As a result, Michelle Monteiro, the Assistant Ramsey County Attorney who conducted the review, concluded: “Unless we receive another report or allegation of misconduct by Thomas Rudenick relating to a criminal case, I don’t believe any further action needs to be taken.”
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