Former public defender Leah Fink was arrested more than three years ago after police in southern Indiana found the makings of a meth lab that they connected to her and a boyfriend with a lengthy criminal record.
While her Class B felony dealing methamphetamine charge and four other felonies were pending in Harrison County, Fink, 49, was arrested again in June with co-defendant Jeremy Ripperdan. She was charged in Clark County with dealing meth and two other felonies.
Fink’s first charges, as well as similar counts for Ripperdan, have been pending since August 2011.
“I’d say that’s unusual,” Clark County Prosecutor Steven D. Stewart said. “It’s unusual, but it’s not unheard of. Sometimes things happen in a case.”
What’s happened in Fink’s case caught the notice of the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission. Last month, by a required vote of at least two-thirds, the commission asked justices to order an emergency suspension of Fink’s law license. Allowing Fink to continue to practice would pose a threat of harm to clients, potential clients, and the administration of justice, the commission says.
“The commission has monitored (Fink’s) case in Harrison County both in conversations with the prosecuting attorney of Harrison County and by regular review of the (chronological case summary),” the petition says. “The case has a lengthy history,” including numerous continuances by Fink and an interlocutory appeal to the Court of Appeals, the commission noted.
“Everything that could drag a case out has happened here,” said Harrison County Prosecutor Otto Schalk. “There certainly has been some chatter among the community – what’s going to happen and when is it going to happen. It’s a fair conversation.”
Schalk said Fink’s case “certainly garnered some interest due to her profession. … We treated it like any other defendant, thinking that’s what justice requires and people expect.”
At IL deadline, Fink had not responded to the disciplinary petition. Barnes & Thornburg LLP partner Donald Lundberg is representing Fink in the disciplinary proceeding and said he could not discuss a client’s pending matter. Contacted by phone, Fink declined to comment.
Salem attorney Mark D. Clark represents Fink as a public defender in her Harrison County case. He acknowledged the case has lingered longer than normal, and he noted Fink had prior counsel before he entered an appearance.
“It’s my understanding the resolution of this case was very close to being finalized, then the charges in Clark County arose and the prosecutor had difficulty completing the plea agreement that had been negotiated,” Clark said.
After Fink’s first arrest, she served at least 185 days in jail and admitted in December 2011 she had a substance abuse addiction, according to disciplinary commission records. The commission said she has not practiced since her first arrest but has performed paralegal work for a Louisville attorney.
“The commission reasonably believes that … (Fink’s) substance abuse addiction, the resulting criminal arrests, the pending criminal prosecutions, her continued relationship with Ripperdan, her continued association with the practice of law as a paralegal, and the monumental poor judgment shown by her presence in the recent events in Clark County, combine so as to prevent her from practicing law effectively,” the petition states.
Ripperdan has at least two prior felony convictions and two prior felonies pleaded down to misdemeanors in four separate cases. He currently has at least four separate pending felony cases of dealing or manufacturing meth in Clark and Harrison counties.
Clark said Fink’s addiction could be an issue for the jury to consider and that Fink disputes some charges against her.
“I know she has been very active in Narcotics Anonymous and I know while she was on bond for an extended period of time in this case she was reporting to the Harrison County Probation Department,” he said. “She was subject to drug screens which she successfully passed.
“I know she has addressed substance abuse issues within her life and is holding those under control at this time.”
In June, Fink was arrested after Jeffersonville police discovered an active meth lab in the garage of a house where Ripperdan was staying, according to probable cause information. Fink was there, as was her car, police said. However, she “denied knowledge of being affiliated with anyone at this address but would not give a reason for being in the area.”
Police said that in addition to the meth they found cooking in a garage filing cabinet, they discovered in a backyard dog kennel a smoldering cooler containing another active lab that had exploded. When police searched the trunk of Fink’s car, they found pseudoephedrine blister packs, lithium batteries, coffee filters and other items associated with making meth, affidavits said. Police also detected “a strong distinct odor of burnt materials and chemicals” in the trunk.
Both of Fink’s criminal cases have been continued until February. Her defender in the Clark County case was James B. Hancock, who in November was elected judge of Floyd Superior Court 2 and will withdraw from the case.
Schalk said an ideal resolution might have been a universal plea to resolve both cases.
“I don’t see that happening from our end. At this point we’re preparing like a trial will begin Feb. 3,” he said. “I don’t anticipate any further discussion of a plea agreement at this point.”
Along with the Class B felony dealing meth charge, Fink also faces Class D felony counts of possession of meth, maintaining a common nuisance, unlawful possession of a syringe, and possession of meth precursors in the Harrison County matter.
In Clark County, Fink is charged with Class B felony dealing meth and Class D felony counts of possession of meth precursors and maintaining a common nuisance.
The most serious charge in each case carries a sentencing range of six to 20 years in prison with an advisory sentence of 10 years.•