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Southwest Michigan woman sues police officer she accused of sexually abusing her

Michigan State Police
A year after an officer was sentenced to jail for unlawfully imprisoning her, Melissa McMillan is hoping a civil suit will urge police departments to better train and vet their staff.

Southwest Michigan resident Melissa McMillan is suing a former Covert Township policeman she says sexually assaulted her in a hotel room while she was intoxicated, as well as the city and the county sheriff’s department.

After pulling over her friend for drunk driving in July 2016, the officer, Erich Fritz, notified police dispatchers that he was taking a visibly intoxicated McMillan, a passenger in the car, to a hotel.

That wasn’t standard practice, but the dispatchers didn’t stop Fritz.

McMillan says it was in the hotel room that Fritz had sex with her without her consent.

Last July, a year after the incident, Fritz was sentenced to a year of jail for unlawfully imprisoning McMillan. Fritz pleaded no contest to the charge, and as a part of the plea deal, the sexual assault charges were dropped.

But McMillan says she still wants to hold Fritz, Covert Township, and the Van Buren County Sheriff’s Department, which was running the dispatch board that night, accountable. That’s why she decided to file a civil lawsuit against the three parties earlier this month.

At first, McMillan took the case to court to prevent something like this from happening to other women. This is something that could have happened to anybody, she says — even her 20-year-old daughter. Now, though, her purpose is two-fold.

“I wanted to make a stronger statement that police departments need to be a lot more regimented and thorough and careful,” she told Michigan Radio. “That's my ultimate goal.”

McMillan hopes the case will urge the city and the county to be more careful when hiring and training new officers. During the criminal lawsuit, it was discovered that Fritz had previously been removed from other small police stations for misconduct before being hired by Covert Township. McMillan says the criminal case ensured that he will never be a policeman again.

As it turns out, police misconduct isn’t exactly uncommon. A 2016 report from Bowling Green State University identified 6,724 criminal cases against police officers across the country between 2005 and 2011. 127 of those cases occurred in Michigan. But more specific data is not available, as the state does not track the occupation of criminal offenders.  

Antonio Romanucci, one of the lawyers representing McMillan, says sexual assault is one of the most common allegations brought against police officers — but he's never heard of a case like this.

“This highlights the breach of trust that some police officers abuse with their badge,” Romanucci says. He’s confident that the evidence is on McMillan’s side in this case, and he firmly believes she deserves all the damages she’s requesting.

Covert Township and the Van Buren County Sheriff’s Department could not be reached for comment. The lawyer representing Fritz in this case has not been identified yet, but Scott Grabel, who represented him in the criminal case, said he’s interested to see how the case plays out.

“I guess we’ll have to see what facts develop in this case … I’ll be following it like everyone else,” Grabel says.   

McMillan says it hasn’t been easy to continue to fight against Fritz and the other parties, but she feels like she’s doing the right thing by opening up a civil suit.

“On one hand I feel proud for standing up, and for letting other women know that if something like this happens, don’t bury your head in the sand — you can overcome it and put a stop to it. And on the other hand, it does open up a lot of emotions…. It is something you have to go through it you’re going to go through this process, but I do need to do it.”

Maya Goldman is a newsroom intern for Michigan Radio. She is currently a student at the University of Michigan, where she studies anthropology and writing. During the school year, Maya also works as a senior news editor and podcast producer for The Michigan Daily.
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