An embattled Indiana judge resigned this week in the midst of an ethics probe. Sabrina Bell agreed to forfeit her law license for 150 days and to not “seek or accept judicial office in Indiana state courts in the future,” according to a press release from the Indiana Judicial Branch.
Bell has been in trouble with ethics authorities multiple times. The most recent case involves allegations that she slapped her ex-husband in the face in front of two of the couple’s three children. A previous discipline case placed Bell among a group of judges who were involved in an overnight drunken parking lot brawl that happened after an attempted visit to a strip joint and ended with a shooting.
The Indiana Supreme Court suspended Bell in May after a special prosecutor filed felony charges against Bell in connection with the more recent alleged domestic dispute. That case, described in court documents as involving a charge of “domestic battery in the presence of a child,” is proceeding in Crawford County.
The underlying criminal case that finally clipped Bell’s professional trajectory short alleges that the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department was dispatched to Bell’s residence on April 12. Douglas A. Goerss, Bell’s ex-husband, said he was at Bell’s home to pick up the couple’s three children for what the authorities described as “his scheduled visit that evening.”
The narrative continues in a police affidavit as follows:
GOERSS went on to state to the deputies that BELL started a verbal argument with him in front of their children which ended with BELL striking GOERSS in the left side of the face specifically the neck/cheek area with her hand. Officers at the scene advised they observed marks on GOERSS left side that would substantiate his claim of being struck by BELL. Interviews conducted by Indiana Department of Child Services confirmed that the battery was witnessed by two of the children, ages 12 and 8. BELL declined to make any statements regarding the matter.
The felony charge filed against Bell alleges that she “did knowingly or intentionally touch Douglas Goerss in a rude, insolent, or angry manner” and “struck Douglas Goerss in the face.” Bell allegedly committed the act “knowing that the children were present and might be able to see or hear the offense.”
Bell entered a preliminary not guilty plea on May 12, according to the court docket. A “pretrial diversion agreement” was filed on July 28, and a pretrial hearing is scheduled for Aug. 1. The case remains outstanding.
Other court records say the couple’s divorce proceeding commenced on Sept. 28, 2021, and concluded with a dissolution of marriage on Dec. 1, 2021.
Ethics Probe Cut Short
The now-former judge’s resignation truncated an ongoing ethics probe by the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications. That probe was separate from the aforementioned criminal case. An Indiana Supreme Court document filed Monday heralded the conclusion of that investigation; it said merely that Bell “has resigned her judicial office as of July 15, 2022, prompting the Commission to close the pending investigation based on other agreed terms between the parties.”
“Respondent submitted her resignation to the Governor’s office making her resignation of her judicial office effective immediately, that being, July 15, 2022,” the state supreme court paperwork continued. “Further, Respondent’s law license status is now listed as inactive on the Indiana Roll of Attorneys.”
The criminal probe triggered an ethics probe under the presumption that judges are expected to “act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary,” according to Bell’s stipulation agreement.
If Bell seeks to reinstate her law license, she must “retake and pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination,” the stipulation explains.
Judicial Brawl Ended in Parking Lot Shooting
Bell was elected in November 2016 and took office on Jan. 1, 2017, according to the stipulation agreement.
Bell was previously suspended in November 2019. That suspension involved allegations that Bell “engaged in judicial misconduct by appearing in public in an intoxicated state and behaving in an injudicious manner and by becoming involved in a verbal altercation.”
A group of other judges were also named in the matter. Those judges were Andrew Adams and Bradley B. Jacobs, both of the Clark Circuit Court.
A 2019 Indiana Supreme Court document laid out the facts as follows. On April 30, 2019, the jurists traveled to Indianapolis to attend a judicial conference scheduled on May 1, the next day. After retreating to their hotel rooms, the three “spent the evening socializing with other judicial officers and drinking alcoholic beverages,” the court paperwork says. The group went to a bar at 12:30 a.m. with Clark Circuit Court Magistrate William Dawkins and continued to drink. The assemblage tried to enter a strip club at 3:00 a.m., but it was closed.
The evening did not deescalate, according to the court record:
The group then walked to a nearby White Castle. While Magistrate Dawkins went inside, Respondents stood outside the restaurant. At around 3:17 a.m., Alfredo Vazquez and Brandon Kaiser drove past the group and shouted something out the window. Judge Bell extended her middle finger to Vazquez and Kaiser, who pulled into the White Castle parking lot and exited the vehicle. Judge Bell, who was intoxicated, has no memory of the incident but concedes that the security camera video shows her making this gesture.
A heated verbal altercation ensued, with all participants yelling, using profanity, and making dismissive, mocking, or insolent gestures toward the other group. At no time did Respondents move to another location in the parking lot to avoid a confrontation or de-escalate the conflict.
After a verbal exchange between Judge Bell and Vazquez, a physical confrontation ensued. At one point, Judge Jacobs had Kaiser contained on the ground. With his fist raised back, Judge Jacobs said, “Okay, okay, we’re done, we’re done,” or “This is over. Tell me this is over,” or words to that effect. At another point during the confrontation, Judge Adams kicked Kaiser in the back. The confrontation ended when Kaiser pulled out a gun, shot Judge Adams once, and shot Judge Jacobs twice.
Judge Adams and Judge Jacobs were transported to local hospitals for treatment of their serious injuries. Judge Adams, who sustained a single gunshot wound to the abdomen, had two emergency surgeries, including a colon resectioning. Judge Jacobs, who sustained two gunshot wounds to the chest, also had two emergency surgeries and was hospitalized for 14 days. Upon admission to the hospital, Judge Adams’s serum blood alcohol level was 0.213 (or approximately 0.157 using whole blood) and Judge Jacobs’s serum blood alcohol level was 0.177 (or approximately 0.13 using whole blood). Judge Bell’s blood alcohol level was not tested, but she was intoxicated enough that she lacks any memory of the incident.
Judge Adams was indicted on one felony and five misdemeanors; Judge Jacobs was the target of a grand jury probe but was not charged, court records say. Adams pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor and “was sentenced to 365 days in jail, with 363 days suspended,” the state supreme court noted.
Professional discipline proceedings in 2019 resulted in Adams being suspended from the bench for 60 days, the state supreme court paperwork indicates. Jacobs and Bell were each suspended for 30 days.
Bell did not face criminal charges in the 2019 fiasco, WTHR-TV noted.
Vazquez reportedly pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery and was sentenced to 180 days of home detention and a year of probation. Kaiser, his uncle, reportedly filed court documents to assert self-defense on a long list of charges. Court records indicate that a jury trial in his case is scheduled to begin on Aug. 15, but it has been rescheduled eight times thus far.
Read the paperwork referenced in this report below:
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