Appellate court affirms stalking conviction against woman who targeted former sheriff

  • Print
Listen to this story

Subscriber Benefit

As a subscriber you can listen to articles at work, in the car, or while you work out. Subscribe Now
This audio file is brought to you by
Loading audio file, please wait.
  • 0.25
  • 0.50
  • 0.75
  • 1.00
  • 1.25
  • 1.50
  • 1.75
  • 2.00

A woman holding more than a decadelong grudge against a former sheriff cannot shake her conviction for felony stalking after she berated the man and followed him around town for years.

When Darla Ellis was arrested in 2008 for causing a disturbance during a Sunday church service, then-law enforcement officer Terry Stoffel was called in to transfer Ellis to jail.

Stoffel later served as Huntington County sheriff from 2011 to 2017 before becoming a teacher at the local school corporation. Toward the end of Stoffel’s second term as sheriff, he noticed Ellis from her car “yelling and screaming out the window, “flipping him off” and yelling “obscenities” at him.

The issue escalated in 2020 when Ellis began making daily routes past Stoffel’s school building during the lunch hour, yelling and continuing to make obscene gestures toward him. The “relentless” behavior prompted Stoffel to change his lunch routine to minimize having to go outside during that time period, stating that Ellis would appear “sometimes every day … sometimes every two or three days.”

Ellis also appeared and verbally abused Stoffel in September 2020, when he was working on a local property renovation.

When Stoffel was elected as a Huntington County commissioner, Ellis sent hateful content direct toward Stoffel to a local detective, drove up next to his car at a shopping center parking lot to make gun hand gestures toward him, and followed him to the courthouse while he was inside with a sign in the back of her car saying “F— Terry Stoffel.”

Ellis was subsequently charged with Level 6 felony stalking and one count of Level 6 felony intimidation.

During the investigation, she said she was angry that Stoffel transported her to jail rather than to a doctor’s office in 2008. She also said she was also mad that Stoffel did not appear to take seriously a complaint she made to him in the 1990s about a tanning salon employee rubbing a dirty towel in her face.

The Huntington Circuit Court denied Ellis’ motion for a change of venue, instead bringing in more jurors than normal due to Stoffel’s public status. It also rejected Ellis’ proposed preliminary jury instruction regarding the state’s duty to prove that Ellis “was not merely engaged in activity protected by the First Amendment.”

Three prospective jurors have admitted to knowing or having some connection to Stoffel were excused and removed from the venire. The jury ultimately found Ellis guilty of stalking, but not intimidation, and the trial court imposed a two-year sentence suspended probation.

A panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed, finding no abuse of the trial court’s discretion in its denial of Ellis’s motion for change of venue because she accepted the jury without exhausting her peremptory challenges. It also noted that every juror who admitted to knowing Stoffel was removed.

The appellate court also found no error in the rejection of Ellis’ proposed preliminary instruction, finding it would have been confusing for the jury.

“We agree with the State that the instruction is incoherent, and the trial court was well within its discretion to refuse an instruction that serves to confuse matters more than provide guidance,” Judge Melissa May wrote.

As for her constitutional claims of protected speech, the COA concluded the First Amendment of the United States Constitution does not protect true threats made by Ellis.

“Ellis’s behavior went far beyond distasteful criticism of a public official. She engaged in a targeted campaign of harassment and threats against Stoffel,” May wrote. “While, in isolation, a post threatening to smack someone in the face with a can of Twisted Tea or mimicking a gun with one’s hand may not cause a reasonable person to fear for the person’s safety, when that behavior is combined with frequent, animated yelling, cursing, and honking directed at the victim at locations throughout town and combined with public insults targeting the victim by name, it constitutes an unprotected true threat.”

Neither, the court held, does the Indiana Constitution protect Ellis’ speech.

“Here, Ellis’s conduct meets the bar of exceeding all bounds of decency,” May wrote. “She tracked down Stoffel to yell and publicly heap abuse upon him on an almost daily basis, and this all occurred over a decade after a supposedly objectionable encounter when he transported her to jail, and after he retired from his career in law enforcement to pursue teaching.”

In finding sufficient evidence to support the conviction, the appellate court affirmed in Darla J. Ellis v. State of Indiana, 22A-CR-868.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets on
{{ count_down }}