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Michael Lowe’s plane touched down in Dallas on May 12, 2020, just in time for him to catch an American Airlines connecting flight to Reno, Nev. But it set off a chain of events that, a new lawsuit alleges, led to his wrongful arrest and 17 days in jail more than a year later.
While locked up on a burglary charge, he endured “life-changing … incomprehensible trauma,” according to the suit filed Monday in Tarrant County, Tex., where part of Dallas Fort Worth International Airport is located.
Now, Lowe is suing American Airlines, which he says provided law enforcement with the information that led to his arrest. Lowe, a resident of Coconino County, Ariz., is asking for a jury trial and seeks unspecified damages.
An American Airlines spokesman told The Washington Post in an email that the company is reviewing what happened to Lowe but didn’t comment further.
Lowe’s attorney, Scott Palmer, told The Post in an email that he believes the blame for his client’s arrest and incarceration lies with the airline. “Without American’s disclosure of Michael’s name and information as the sole suspect the detective never would have issued the warrants,” Palmer wrote. “It all starts with the disclosure of Michael’s name and his name only.”
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The chain of events that led to Lowe being jailed for 17 days started on May 12, 2020, when an unidentified man burglarized a duty-free store in the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Detectives would later use surveillance video to track the suspect until he boarded American Airlines Flight 2248, which took off for Reno around 7 p.m. — shortly after the burglary.
Lowe was also on that flight, having arrived after a connecting flight from his home in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Unbeknown to Lowe, DFW airport police got a search warrant on June 18 ordering American Airlines to fork over “any and all recorded travel data” for the passengers from Flight 2248. Instead of relaying information for everyone on the flight, however, the company allegedly gave police details about just one: Lowe.
The airline did so, the suit alleges, despite Lowe not matching the suspect description police laid out in the search warrant affidavit: a tall, thin, White or Hispanic man with a short, military-style haircut who was wearing a black polo shirt and blue jeans when he burglarized the shop and then boarded the plane.
The airline’s tip, the lawsuit alleges, led to two arrest warrants for Lowe being issued on June 30 — one for felony burglary of a building and another for misdemeanor criminal mischief. Authorities entered those warrants into the National Crime Information Center database, which connects law enforcement agencies around the country.
There, the warrants waited for more than a year without incident.
Then, on July 4, 2021, police in Tucumcari, N.M., responded to a disturbance at a holiday celebration that Lowe attended while vacationing there with friends. Police checked the identifications of attendees and, after discovering Lowe’s warrants, arrested him.
Lowe told them there had been a mistake; he couldn’t remember the last time he had been to Tarrant County and didn’t know where that was. Realizing he wasn’t going to talk his way out of the arrest, Lowe told his friends not to worry; he would get things cleared up quickly and be back soon.
“He was wrong,” the lawsuit says.
Instead of returning to the festivities, Lowe spent 17 days suffering an “unending nightmare” inside the Quay County Detention Center in Tucumcari, the lawsuit says. Upon arrival, he was ordered to strip naked and prove he wasn’t smuggling contraband into the jail.
Lowe claims he hardly slept while in jail, what he described in his lawsuit as “the most trying physical test of [his] life.” At “the bottom of the pecking order,” he was forced to sleep on the concrete floor for much of the time. Even when he secured a metal bunk, he couldn’t sleep. Inmates banged on the walls and yelled for hours. One inmate, denied medication for his psychiatric conditions, screamed “random and incoherent” church hymns throughout the night, the lawsuit states. Another vomited and moaned for three days straight, it adds.
A “palpable sense of menace” infected the jail, according to the suit. Violence erupted over trivial things — shared TVs, phone access or for no apparent reason. In the suit, Lowe said he “was forced to watch” an inmate punch a younger man three times in the face in rapid succession. A week later, a wall was still stained with the younger inmate’s blood.
“To have to sit in silence and not come to the aid of a fellow human being — particularly someone vulnerable like the younger inmate — was excruciating,” the lawsuit said.
Overcrowding resulted in “grossly unsanitary conditions,” it says. The smell of urine and feces reeked so badly that Lowe often breathed through his mouth and used jail clothing to cover his nose. When he could no longer bear the stench, he asked jail staff for cleaning supplies. They gave him a spray bottle of water spiked with “just a hint of disinfectant and a filthy mop with no bucket.”
Hyper-aware of his “intense physical vulnerability” in the jail shower facility, Lowe avoided washing himself for days until he could “no longer bear the physical discomfort from the filth of his own condition.” He estimated he showered four or five times during his 17 days in jail.
The Quay County Detention Center didn’t immediately respond to a request from The Post early Wednesday.
Officials put the wrong man in a mental facility for 2 years. When he objected, they called him ‘delusional.’
On the 17th day of his imprisonment, a guard called up Lowe and, without explanation, told him that he was being released. Lowe was given the clothes in which he had been arrested and walked out of the jail “to nothing.” He bought a Greyhound ticket and, after being marked as a homeless person and getting kicked out of a McDonald’s bathroom, boarded a bus for what was supposed to be a 12-hour ride home to Flagstaff. But the bus broke down, turning the trip into a two-day odyssey.
“Upon stepping through the threshold of his home, Mr. Lowe allowed himself to sob until he could no longer stand.”
According to the lawsuit, the charges against Lowe were ultimately dismissed. Nevertheless, his arrest and incarceration has “shaken his identity to the core and cast a pall over his view of the world,” the suit alleges. Logically, he knows a repeat experience is unlikely. But “his fear cannot be rationalized away … it infects virtually his every decision and action.”
While shopping, Lowe worries he might forget to pay for something. He gets anxious when he sees patrol cars, according to the suit. He rushes through conversations with National Park Service police, experiences he used to enjoy in the course of his work as an outdoor guide.
“As a result of this sustained severe emotional pain, anguish, anxiety, depression and loss of self-esteem, Mr. Lowe has become a man desperate to find himself,” the lawsuit states.
He blames American Airlines. The company should have provided airport police with information on every passenger on the flight’s manifest, or on those matching a general description of a suspect. Instead, the airline conducted its own negligent investigation and wrongfully identified Lowe as the only suspect of the airport police department’s investigation, the lawsuit alleges.
That, the suit claims, “foreseeably led” to Lowe’s arrest for a crime he says he never committed.