BY CRYSTAL A. PROXMIRE
A lawsuit brought by the family of Shelly Hilliard against Oakland County has ended with a $1.07 million settlement. Hilliard was murdered and dismembered at the age of 19 after a Madison Heights police officer revealed that she was the informant in a drug bust in October 2011.
The civil suit, filed in February 2013 and amended in October 2013, described how Hilliard had agreed to contact Qasim “Red” Raqib about purchasing drugs after she herself had been busted for marijuana. Madison Heights Police Officer Chad Wolowiec, who now works for Warren Police, “made these disclosures to Red (the killer) through Red’s associate and companion, despite knowing that doing so would significantly increase the risk, and indeed the likelihood of serious bodily injury and/or death to Shelly Hilliard,” according to the court filing.
Raquib was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 25 to life in prison. Hilliard’s family brought suit against Madison Heights and Oakland County. In January 2016 a Federal Appeals Court refused to dismiss the case against Oakland County, stating that a jury could find that there was “blatent exposure” of Hilliard as the source and that there was “deliberate indifference” to her safety. Oakland County agreed to pay $1.07 million. Madison Heights settled their portion of the suit for $20,000.
Attorney Katherine Bruner James of Goodman Hurwitz & James, P.C. represented Hilliard’s family. “Cases like this matter because it’s the best tool we have to effectuate change that could prevent another tragedy like this in the future. I would imagine that Oakland County does not want to face future lawsuits, and so they will hopefully revamp their training for how they use confidential informants – to avoid hastily planned operations when there is no reason to rush, to get more supervisor input, to put more distance between the informant and the eventual bust, and certainly never to reveal facts that would disclose the role of a confidential informant,” she said. “It also matters because it’s a check on governmental power. The government and police work for us. They cannot put private citizens in unnecessary danger without consequences.”
Bruner James, who specializes in Civil Rights law, added that “The state-created danger doctrine has been whittled away by the courts so that plaintiffs almost never overcome summary judgment, but these facts were so outrageous that the legal system had to take notice. It’s gratifying to know that the constitution still protects private citizens who are hurt, or in this case killed, when a police officer puts them in danger that could have easily been avoided.”
“I think Shelly’s family feels at least some sense of relief. Nothing can replace or bring back their daughter/sister – their Treasure, as they call her. But I think they gain some comfort and relief from the outcome,” she said.
In 2015 Hilliard’s life, and her death, were explored in a film called “Treasure: from Tragedy to Transjustice, Mapping a Detroit Story.”
The film, directed by Dream Hampton, was released in June 2015 with a showing at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Hampton showed how her story touched the lives of other transgender people in Detroit.
Much of the film involved the Ruth Ellis Center, a youth social services agency that provides short- and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless, and at-risk LGBTQ youth in Highland Park and Detroit. Like hundreds of other young people, Hilliard found support, friendship and basic needs met through programs at the Center.
When she was missing, and when parts of her body began popping up through the city, emotions spread through the community. People grieved. But there was also increased fear.
“Shelly was an active youth at Ruth Ellis Center. Her death had an incredible impact on young people there,” Jerry Peterson, executive director of the Center, said at the time. “It’s critical in the days with everyone talking about ‘Call me Caitlyn,’ that we see the whole other side of transgender lives, without the benefits and the privilege to be just accepted or seen as beautiful. This is an important story to fill in what’s happening in our country.”