Disabled Iraq war vet arrested and then exonerated in case of wrong identity

Nov 1 2010 - 12:19pm

STILLWATER, Okla. -- Deputies had the wrong Shawn Dunbar.

The disabled Iraq war veteran was not in Kansas in May 2009 when a Shawn Dunbar allegedly beat a man so bad the victim needed a titanium eye socket and plastic surgery.

In fact, when the assault victim, Jason Gromlovits, saw the 25-year-old Army veteran sitting outside a Kansas courtroom, he knew right away deputies had arrested the wrong Shawn Dunbar.

"They showed him to us, and I was like that's not even close to the guy," Gromlovits said. "I'm not sure for what reason they went all the way to Oklahoma to get that guy."

Although he's been exonerated by the courts, the wrong Shawn Dunbar said he's still paying a hefty price for a crime he did not commit.

He's paying with the memories of being arrested at his Stillwater home and hauled to jail, the strain the mistaken identity has put on his relationships with family and friends, and the stress created after the federal government cut off his veteran disability benefit to pay for a debt created when the Department of Veterans Affairs found out about the arrest warrant.

And he's paying because he said without the disability compensation, he likely won't be able to pay rent or afford treatment he needs for combat injuries.

Dunbar loved his job serving his country and was not happy when traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder forced him out in February 2009.

Dunbar said he joined the Army in March 2006 and was in Iraq by October of that year. He did route clearance, which meant looking for and disarming improvised explosive devices.

"I'm proud of what I did in the military and I wouldn't do anything to take that back," he said. "I wanted to stay in the Army."

But, Dunbar said, vehicles he rode in took six direct hits from the explosive devices. He was ordered to get medical help when his commander noticed "I'd start talking and I couldn't finish my thoughts."

Dunbar said he ended up receiving treatment at the hospital at Fort Riley in Kansas for about a year. Dunbar was medically retired from the Army on Feb. 27, 2009.

"That was the last day I set foot in Kansas," he said, "until I got arrested."

On May 9, 2009, in Junction City, Kan., a playful wrestling match grew into something more serious, according to an affidavit filed by Detective Sgt. Sam Niemczyk, of the Geary County, Kan., Sheriff's Department.

Witnesses said Gromlovits fell down an incline and smacked his head on a rock, according to the affidavit. A person witnesses identified as a Shawn Dunbar then repeatedly hit an unconscious Gromlovits in the face.

Niemczyk told The Oklahoman Gromlovits identified the Shawn Dunbar living in Stillwater from a photo lineup.

Gromlovits said he never picked the Stillwater Shawn Dunbar out of a lineup, never saw his photo and never offered a description matching his.

"You think they would have at least shown me a photo of the guy," Gromlovits said. "The Shawn Dunbar I had an altercation with was only about 5-foot, 4-inches tall. The Shawn Dunbar guy down there is a pretty big guy."

Stillwater police arrested Dunbar on April 27 at his home, according to an incident report.

"I was marched through my neighbors' yards," he said. "I'd just moved in. They probably didn't know what to think."

Dunbar hired a Kansas attorney. He provided deputies with his bank card statement showing purchases in Stillwater on May 9, 2009, and statements from others saying Dunbar was in Stillwater that night.

It wasn't until Gromlovits saw Dunbar outside the courtroom on Aug. 12 that a judge dismissed the charges.

Niemczyk said the assault investigation is now focusing on a Shawn Dunbar who last lived in Manhattan, Kan., about a 15-minute drive from Junction City.

No new arrests have been made.

Dunbar said his solitude, anger and stress have put a strain on relationships with family and friends.

"He's definitely changed a lot," said his girlfriend, Shawna Cross. "He's going in his own shell now."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)


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